Obama Tackles Our Crusader Past

President Obama delivered remarks that caused some reaction. Here are his opening paragraphs:

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe,?so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

I am so glad the President felt able to speak his mind about these realities. After that opening, he urges faith leaders to exercise the virtue of humility. Then he reminds us of the importance of the separation of faith and government (church/state) and finally, calls all of us to the Golden Rule. Solid, forthright remarks.?(The full text of his remarks is available here.)

Crusader crosses in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Crusader crosses in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Christians are too quick to forget the ugliness of our own past. The truth is that right belief can drive people to do the wrong things.

One of the realities I wrestled with during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the evidence of the Crusaders, which lingers in many places. The Crusaders left fingerprints on that land, quite literally, by carving crosses in stone, perhaps using the same blades that had ?murdered “infidels,” Muslims and Jews. Those stone crosses are the mark of Christianity, a mark that should sober us all. I know it made me reflect on my own faith tradition.

In my book, Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land, I speak about this in a number of places, but let me share a section:

Perhaps the act of tracing my finger over the nameless Crusader crosses helped me work out this religious impulse toward high-mindedness, this passion for righteousness. But why lay that passion at the feet of the Crusaders a thousand years ago? This passion isn?t dead. Look at my own Calvinism. Our Pilgrim and Puritan forebears believed that they were a chosen people decreed to establish a shining city on a hill, and that belief shut out other beliefs, not from malice but from the desire for purity. If you?ve got something shining and pure that belongs to God, you need to safeguard it.

No wonder I was worried about coming to this Holy Land. It was an absolutely reasonable fear. Religious zeal leads to a passion for purity which leads to violence in some organic way. And that fact should terrify people of faith. ?(p. 151)


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