Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Bounds of Christendom

I wonder if I'll ever get to the point where writing about these kinds of things doesn't stir the emotions. If you're upset by something I say, take heart, I'm probably upset about it too haha.  I think Joni Mitchell might see that as a good thing though, turbulent indigo she called it, in reference to van Gogh. Maybe it's the turbulent indigo that gets you writing and thinking about things, and maybe that's good, if it inspires reflection or communication. I just ask anyone who might be reading my blog to think of my posts more in the way of questions or reflections rather than necessarily statements or assertions, although occasionally an opinion might slip in here or there, being human and all, but reflective is generally truer to my personality than assertive.

But things do get me going sometimes too, and this might be one of them. When you just feel like saying humph, as my husband would say. Humph! I had a bit of a humph moment earlier today when I read a response to an article about the crusades where a Muslim responder basically said that we in the west should be thankful to Muslims, because they were such a wonderful sophisticated people and we were a backward filthy people, yes she said that we were a dirty backward filthy people. I know, I know, it was in the comment section. Sometimes I find comment sections helpful for added perspective, and sometimes...well sometimes...but the funny thing is that her view, is not all that far off the standard academic or mainstream view of the crusades. Like she said, that we in the west were a backward over zealous band of brigands attacking this wonderful sophisticated dove-inspired culture, mostly unprovoked. Isn't that the common view from the tower? 

Well, down here on the ground, and knowing as I do, a bit about the early development of Christianity before the time of Muhammad, I'd like to take a closer look at that, through a dirty Christian lens you might say. As for the backward part, I'll mostly save that discussion for another time, but I will say in passing that even when I was in university, I remember my history professor saying that medieval historians question the idea of the dark ages. Yes, Europe was plagued by plague after plague, of plagues and barbarians, which was worse, the Vikings or the plagues? Yes, these were dark times, but there were also great strides and contributions, the high middle ages, being of great note. Isn't it interesting, if you stop to think about it, modern cliches about the crusades, how we were both conniving imperialists and backward at the same time.  Makes you wonder how the depraved and the debauched found time for Imperialist contrivances, you'd think either would be a full-time occupation.

But anyway, if you start with this outdated assumption that Europe was a backwater of backward religious (though ambitious) fanatics, and you begin the story at the beginning of the crusades and ignore the greater context or centuries of militant Islamic conquest and atrocities  that lead up to 1096, are you really seeing the whole picture?  In other words, if you were to begin the story of the second world war, with the allied invasions and ignore the rise of Hitler, would you be getting a accurate view of modern history?  That's why I'd like to go back a bit, to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and trace the historic bounds of "Christendom."

 The apostle Paul did a lot of walking, and presumably a lot of talking, and with the help of Roman roads, Christianity...

Before the Muslim conquest, Christians could look back confidently on six hundred years of steady growth and expansion. By the year 300, churches were found in all the cities of the Roman Empire, from Spain and North Africa in the west to Egypt and Syria in the east, as well as in Asia Minor and the Balkans. In the fourth century the Armenians embraced the new religion, and on the eastern shore of the Black Sea the preaching of St. Nino led to the conversion of the Iberian royal house and the adoption of the Christian faith by the Georgians. To the south, Christianity reached Ethiopia in the fourth century and Nubia a century later. And there were Christian communities in Roman Gaul already in the second century and in Britain by the third century.

No less impressive was the spread of Christianity eastward. Accustomed to the colorful maps of Paul's missionary journeys printed in study Bibles, we are inclined to think that the initial expansion took place in the Mediterranean world. But in the vast region east of Jerusalem—Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, where Aramaic was the lingua franca—the majority of people had become Christian by the seventh century. The Christian gospel was carried even farther east to ancient Persia, and from there it traveled along the Silk Road into Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan. At some point during the first six centuries it reached the western shore of India and even China. In the seventh century, the global center of Christianity lay not in Europe but to the east of Jerusalem.

Wow, did they say Afghanistan?  That's the one that hit me, along with the thought that countries such as Iraq or Syria, were once Christian majority populated regions, can you believe that? I find that very surprising, especially in light of modern geography and politics. So what happened? (Here's a map that shows in part what happened, but  Islam happened, in short. Beginning in Arabia in the seventh century, and for the next four hundred years, Islam would be banging on Christianity's door, and entering oft without an invitation.

So Islam would replace Christianity in much of what is today North Africa and the middle east, but it wasn't always so, and without being an expert on anything, I have no trouble believing that not everything that the crusaders did was good or glorious or right. But when people drop, like plates at a rousing Greek dinner party, you know those nasty crusaders and the nasty things they did, as if that was the whole story... I almost feel like asking them, would you rather be speaking Arabic today? How about women's rights, you like those, or equal treatment of minorities?  How do you feel about that?  Because that's the way it was going folks, we were all on our way to a choice, between speaking Arabic and praying five times a day, or living as second class citizens, slowly asphyxiated, as Christian communities continue to be in Muslim dominated countries to this day. Sorry for the reality check. Now you might say, well it's fine and dandy what Charles Martel did, that was defensive, but the crusades, well that was offensive. They were traveling to distant lands to possess -formerly Christian territories? Exactly. Let me remind everyone that the Christian Byzantine empire had been fighting off the Muslims for centuries and the crusades were a response to a cry for help from the once glorious Constantinople. It's a modern western assumption that Christianity is western. It's roots are proudly eastern.

So, it was the empire strikes back, and that's all I'm asking for here, that the crusades and Christian resistance more generally be seen for what it was, a two sided long standing conflict that Islam started.  Thanks, and while I'm at it, I think it's also fair to ask, would the crusades have even happened, if Islam or Muhammad in his early days had had the same interest in discussion or teaching or debate, as Jesus or the apostle Paul? For instance if Mohammad had taken the time to understand what the Trinity actually was before condemning it and building an army...makes you wonder doesn't it, how history could have been very different. And it grieves me, to think of the scars that are there between Christians and Muslims to this day, or between us and Jews, or between western and eastern Christians, treacherous as that turning was, or the killing of innocents of any religion.
I'll leave it at that, because I really don't want to be inflammatory here, I really don't, but it just frustrates me, even in researching this, how easy it is to find material that defames the west, and how difficult it is to find even the most basic information supporting what seems to me, should be common knowledge, like a decent map showing the loss of Christian territories, or the specific locations of battles where Muslims were meeting Christians, etc. 

So in summary, did the crusaders do nasty nasty things?  Probably.  Were they disorganized, undisciplined, desperate often untrained people? Probably, many of them were simple pilgrims after all.  Did they eat people to keep from starving to death in a desert -wouldn't surprise me. Did they order the deaths of Muslims soldiers to keep from being outwitted and entrenched? Let's just say that I'm sure my little blog will leave many unanswered questions. (sigh). I don't know, but I have no trouble meeting people half way here. I have no interest in defending war crimes or genocide, if that is in fact what happened. I might just suggest that people pay attention to details as well though, such as that the Pope himself condemned the killing of civilian Jews on the first crusade. That's just an example.

But the thing that is so interesting to me in all this, is the peculiar phenomenon of western guilt. May I just ask, in closing, why is it that Muslims (generally speaking) seem to recall the vastness of their early empire with nostalgia, with pride, with remembrances of the good ol' days, while we in the west recall our advances and grand expeditions with shame, with dejection and self-flagellation (not that the crusades amounted to much, we being the underdog and all)? But it's interesting, isn't it? Why such a  marked difference, especially from a culture that talks about guilt being a bad thing, and quaint notions of  Sunday school sin confining? Why would it even matter from a naturalistic perspective if we feel shame or not, if the strong survive and everyone gets stronger, while trodding through the muck and mire of human misery?

It reminds me of something Ravi Zacharias said, that he was surprised to find, in visiting Gandhi's home, presumably now a museum, in the front veranda a banner on which was written a quote from Bertrand Russell: "It is doubtful that the efforts of the Mahatma would have succeeded except that he was appealing to the conscience of a Christianized people." Dr. Zacharias was amused that the home of Gandhi, the pantheist, displayed a banner quoting Russell, the atheist, who said the former's efforts would not have succeeded save for the theists. Hmmn, and I remember the question that Murphy Brown asked Gandhi in the movie, would pacifism have stopped Hitler? The question rings in the ears doesn't it, because that might be the question that the crusades brings us to as Christians, the question of pacifism, to act or not to act, in the face of brutality. Could Gandhi have stopped Mohammad? And could it be that there is a connection between the historic bounds of  "Christendom," ebbing, flowing, reaching, retreating, with the bounds of Christian conscience?

Thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Here's a few starting points for anyone who may be interested:


No comments:

Post a Comment