The charge often lobbied against Christians by the rest of us is that so many of them are nothing like Jesus. Not that Jesus was perfect (to my mind, anyway), but it’s hard to totally hate a guy who preached love and tolerance. And it’s pretty hard to get any farther away from love and tolerance than during the Crusades, a series of wars between the Christians and Muslims, fought from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. The tension between these religions that believe very similar things was quite high, much as it is today, but back then you didn’t need to make an excuse involving weapons of mass destruction to go to war. Instead, the excuse was that Christians should have control of the Holy Land because it’s where Jesus was from. The Muslims claimed the same land because Muhammad rode a flying horse to Jerusalem and ascended to Heaven on the Temple Mount (see here for more information). You would think the Jews would have even more claim, seeing as how they lived there for centuries before the Romans took punitive measures for their attempted rebellion (and the people the Jews are said to have taken it from, the Jebusites, presumably weren’t around anymore), but I don’t think the Church really cared. In fact, it was pretty common for Christians who couldn’t make it to the Middle East to kill Jews in their own countries. As odd as it might sound in the light of the Middle East today, the Jews still living in Palestine tended to side with the Muslims. Not that the Muslims were totally blameless here either. In 1009, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by Christians to mark the place where Jesus was buried before coming back to give life another shot, destroyed, and a bunch of Christian pilgrims killed.
The church was later rebuilt due to its profitability, but the Christians still weren’t too happy about the Caliph’s actions. So the Pope, in conjunction with the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople, called for a military expedition to conquer the Holy Land, promising anyone who died in the war would have their sins absolved. Real Christ-like behavior, that. The First Crusade was actually successful, although it took the knights a few years. They captured Jerusalem in 1099, after killing a lot of civilians and destroying their buildings. It remained in the hands of the Crusaders until 1187 when Saladin, Sultan of Egypt, conquered it again.
Control of Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern cities changed hands quite a bit after this, but eventually ended up under the rule of the Turkish Mamluks. Oh, and there was also a Children’s Crusade in 1212, in which European children set out to the Middle East to try to convert the Muslims to Christianity, only to all either die of disease or be sold into slavery. There’s apparently some doubt as to the historical truth of this bizarrely disturbing campaign, but it’s believed to be based at least partially on true events.
Ultimately, the Crusades were a senseless waste of human life all around, so why do some people today still speak of them as if they were a good thing? Supporters of the recent war in Iraq used the language of the Crusades, and what about the college organization called Campus Crusade for Christ? Do you think a group called Campus Jihad for Islam would be regarded just as casually? I doubt it. The term “Crusades” just comes from “cross,” but I would think all those centuries of warfare would have given it more of a negative connotation. I get the impression that a fair number of modern Americans think the Crusades are still going on, only the United States has somehow taken the place of the Vatican.