What a difference a decade can make. Had Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven — which portrays the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 12th century between the second and third crusade — come out ten years ago, the film and its message would have looked very different and far less plausible than it looks now.
The Scott film leaves you with a sense that the Crusades were a moral disaster, an example of how religion can be abused. Ten years ago, this might have seemed like a stretch. The secular elite ruled the White House and therefore the world. The Christians seemed like an embattled bunch, fighting only for their right to worship, or so they said. And so the criticism of this film ten years ago, in my mind and that of many like-minded people at the time, might have run this way:
Here is a director with no true ear for faith presenting a rather predictable thesis about the hundreds of years of crusades to capture and control Jerusalem and to extend the viability of Christendom in a time of political turmoil. There are good guys and bad guys on all sides, the movie tells us, in battles that pit political forces against each other in bloody battles undertaken in the name of God. If they really cared about God, navely says the film, they would put down their weapons and try to get along. The director even seem blind to the very meaning of the Holy Land, and asks: What’s all this fuss about real estate?
Oh how tedious this is, we might have said ten years ago, at the height of the Clinton era when wars were "humanitarian" and not religious — in fact no one would have imagined a US war conducted for religious reasons. And haven’t we had enough of Hollywood smears of the Christian religion? Must we once again slog through the history of these wars which killed far fewer than modern wars undertaken in the name of secular causes? And must we forever endure ever more elaborate sermons from the film industry about the merits of tolerance and the need to push aside doctrinal differences? Also, this movie surely whitewashes the brutality of the Muslims and exaggerates the mendacity of Christians, particularly Christian clerics.
And so, predictably, right-wing religious bloggers (1, 2, 3, 4) are taking that precise position on this film: that it is nothing but clever anti-Bush propaganda masquerading as history. But even the history is false, they say. The armor was wrong. The military tactics were wrong. And the caricatures of Christianity were unbearable. At one point, a monk yells out: "If you kill an infidel you go to heaven." Absurd! Surely no Christian ever believed that! Nor is it the case that a Christian cleric would have prohibited burning bodies on theological grounds!
Many of these bloggers are resting their cases against the film on the condemnation issued by Jonathan Riley-Smith of Cambridge, whose criticisms read just as you might expect from any academic expert writing on a popular film in his subject area. He thinks the movie oversimplifies. No doubt. Others say that the film adopts a silly, 19th century view of the Muslim military leader Saladin as a romantic hero, when in fact he was quite the brute. Probably so.
In any case, this film has the emotions running very high. The Christian critic says: "Christian Crusaders are crass, violent murderers. They lie, sleep around with multiple women, and father multiple illegitimate, abandoned children. They are stupid, foolish, power-hungry, and vengeful. They are boors warring for land, not principles, and kill fellow Christians — even priests — over nothing."
And yet the Muslim critic is just as passionate. ”I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims,” he said. ”There is a stereotype of the Muslim as constantly stupid, retarded, backward, unable to think in complex forms. It’s really annoying at an intellectual level, and it really misrepresents history on many levels.”
And so who is right? Well, it seems to me that the film shows good and bad motives on all sides. There were scenes of both Muslim and Christian evil and Muslim and Christian good — just as real life shows the same. As for the thematic core that says that wars between peoples result from extremists on both sides, there is nothing implausible about that. Christianity never taught that killing the infidel is a holy act, but some of its finest theologians said that it was permissible until that position was definitively rejected. As for the picture of bishops and priests pursuing selfish interests above the common good, the doctrine of clerical impeccability has never been a Christian teaching.
Indeed, the entire outlook of the film takes on new plausibility in light of what we have learned since 2001, when the US undertook the closest modern parallel to a holy war against Muslims. Of course the White House doesn’t put it that way. Or rather, it stopped putting it that way after Bush was hammered by the world press for calling for a "crusade" exactly one week after 9-11.
However much the White House has distanced itself from the crusade language, it is a view encouraged among the Republican faithful. You don’t need to spend more than a few hours with any religious conservative who supports Bush to find him muttering darkly about the new battle of our time, which is all about the war to the death between Christianity and Islam. What they once said about communism — an inherently terroristic ideology that cannot be placated but rather must be fought until it is destroyed, lest it destroy us — is precisely what conservatives today say about Islam. It’s the same model, reapplied, and they don’t even know it.
Whereas the evangelicals of the Bush variety were out of power ten years ago, they are in power today, and the results have not been a Kingdom of Heaven but the predictable results of untrammeled power.
Of course the people who believe that the real basis of the war on terror is religious are merely dupes. They are looking at a religious gloss painted over what is really a matter of power politics. The doctrinal basis of the war on Iraq is (changing metaphors) nothing more than a potion whipped up for consumption by the warmongering citizenry, but it serves the power elite very well. At the same time, it is difficult to speculate on the motives of Bush himself. He is a religious man. But he is also not naïve. His own theological outlook seems to tempt him to believe that his own "salvation" gives him a pipeline to the mind of God, such that all his actions are blessed by Heaven. God and oil are probably about as mixed up in his mind as his syntax is mixed up in his mouth.
Looking at this example, is it so hard to believe that Christianity could be used by ambitious politicians, power-chasing clerics, and avaricious merchants to dupe the public into backing a bloody war that only appears to be undertaken in the name of noble causes but which is in reality nothing but a cover for a political crime? Is it utterly out of the question that the Crusades might have collapsed into just such an undertaking? Must we rule out without examination the possibility that Crusading for Christ might introduce certain moral hazards? Can we not see the dangers lurking behind any use of arms to defend and spread the faith?
It wasn’t Ridley Scott who first observed that religious wars weren’t always and genuinely about religion, at least not true religion. Such is the substance of many historians’ judgments since the 16th century, particular since the Conquistadors saw themselves as fulfilling the original promise of the 12th century visions. It does not require an agnostic to see how power can corrupt anything, and how power can use any stick at hand — including religion — to advance its aims.
I believe it was Jörg Guido Hülsmann who first pointed out to me that the state always reaches first for the most compelling cultural symbols in its own defense. If the cultural theme is secularism, the state will use it. If it is religion, the state will use it. So too for socialism, freedom, individualism, civil rights, equality — any and every ideological theme is a ripe target for cooption by the state.
Lord Acton — historian of liberty and devout Catholic — provides a summary judgment on the Crusades that actually supports the film version but goes even further. The conquest of Jerusalem was not the goal, in fact, but merely the prize. The real purpose was to establish a clerical hierarchy in the East to counterbalance the rise of states that were injuring trade and commerce and therefore the wellbeing of the West. Once the religious fervor to take back holy sites had been unleashed, it couldn’t be stopped, not even by the Popes. The Crusades, in Acton’s view, had the tragic effect of bolstering the temporal power of the papacy, and, paradoxically, assuring the loss of the Holy Lands and finally harming the faith itself.
In Acton’s words: "no idea can be popular without some alloy of error to recommend it to the vulgar mind, and this sacrifice was fatal…. The Church could not either guide or restrain the enthusiasm she had awakened. St Bernard discouraged at first the project of the second Crusade. It is better, he told the king of France, to combat our own vices than to fight the Turks…. But as there was at first more enthusiasm than policy in the Crusaders, so afterwards there was more selfishness than religion; and the Popes who had been unable to control the first impulse were helpless before the reaction."
The worst effects of the Crusades, wrote Acton, were "the decay of the great families by impoverishment" and "the prolonged absence and the loss of life which the Crusades involved." This "developed the power of the kings." (Lord Acton, Essays on Church and State, New York: Viking Press, 1953, pp. 459—461).
In short, the wars were the health of the state, not the faith. Somehow it is difficult for conservative Christian Bush supporters to come to terms with this, but war for Christ is not a great idea. It corrupts both the Church and the world. Christians are themselves not immune from temptation toward the evil that war unleashes. Christians can be crass. They can be violent murderers. They can lie. They can be stupid, foolish, power-hungry, and vengeful. They can kill people for no good reason. Most of the time, they do not do this with impunity. But when the state encourages them to do so, and tells them that they are acting in a godly manner, Christians, just like Muslims, can convince themselves that all their behavior is in a good cause. And they can get away with it for long periods of time. Christians have done this in the past. They are doing it in the present.
The romance of a great religious war survives in our time, mainly among those who cannot imagine that possibility that people of different faiths and different cultures can get along even though they do not fully agree. Defenders of the Crusades say that they were essential for paving the way for the trade between East and West that finally brought peace. Far better to just skip the war part and go through trade to find the most direct path to peace. It is through commercial exchange that people discover that their interests in getting along rather than fighting are mutual interests.
There is a moment in the film when Balian, the son of Godfrey of Ibelin, surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin, in exchange for which all the people and soldiers are given a safe passage out. When Balian announces the deal he is cheered by all. One can only imagine the soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, all around the world, cheering in the same way. Balian himself was inspired by the vision of the enlightened King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV, who uses the phrase Kingdom of Heaven to refer to peace among all peoples.
And yet, somehow, I can’t imagine that if Bush made such a truce and adopted a diplomatic course, that his evangelical supporters would praise the peace. No, they have been acculturated to the idea that doing right means waging war and killing people. At worse, they believe this for religious reasons. They believe that peace is for another place. This is and should be the Kingdom of something else entirely. Let’s call it Hell.
Lord Acton understood the role that religion has played in covering crimes. Many draw attention to the religious gloss as a way of condemning religion. Lord Acton saw it differently: he kept the focus on the evil of power, and refused to give in to the distracting temptation to believe that political criminality is rooted in the evil of faith. But, he said, to understand a religious motivation is not to justify anything. "Religion cannot excuse them, unless the end justifies the means. Instead of excusing, it aggravates the fault."
Maybe it is just me or maybe it is the time in which we live, but it strikes me that it is a far better use of one’s hands to make things that people want to buy rather than to kill people. If you don’t like the way people pray, or you think their faith or lack of faith is going to send them to Hell, it’s better just to put up with it rather than wreck the social peace, which is the precondition for all good in this world. There is a reason why the Crusades are not listed among the accomplishments of the Popes in Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Regnery, 2005). Negotiation, diplomacy, exchange, human rights, religious freedom, tolerance — these are the watchwords of the Kingdom of Heaven as it can exist on Earth.
It’s too bad that it takes Ridley Scott — how they hate him for condemning their love of violence — to drive the point home. The Crusades were a horrific mistake and a crime against person and property. But if you can’t count on the Christians to condemn bloodshed in God’s name, someone has to do it.