Of saints and crusaders

Dec 11, 2017 by

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Some time around 1190 AD, a handful of barefoot Christian monks in plain, ragged robes had an audience with a powerful Muslim sultan in his grand and glorious palace in Egypt. The leader of these monks was Francis of Assisi; the sultan was the cousin of Saladin, the general leading the Muslim armies that were soon to defeat the Christian knights in their Third Crusade to retake the Holy Land. Before the sultan, Francis witnessed to two things that, for him, were joined at the hip: the gospel of Jesus Christ and his desire for peace between Muslims and Christians.

After failing to convince the sultan either to convert or to negotiate for peace, Francis went to the crusaders’ camp to repeat the process, to remind them of the gospel of peace and to convince them to stop the fighting and go home. He did no better among his fellow Christians. But of the pointlessness of the crusades, Francis soon made his point: Saladin permitted Francis and his poor, powerless and barefoot Brothers Minor to visit all the Christian holy sites, unarmed and unharmed, which the Crusaders were unable to reach by force of arms.

The contrast between the armed and homicidal crusaders and the poor, barefoot and vulnerable saints, the Brothers Minor of St. Francis, helps me think about events transpiring today involving the church of Jesus Christ. The distinction, however, between saints and crusaders is not always clear, nor automatic. How much I am one or the other at any given moment might depend on the issue, on how much sleep I have had, what other stresses are happening in my life, or how well I am attending to my relationship with God.

I use the word “sainthood” not in the most Biblical sense, which simply means being believer in Christ. Here I use it in the more common and conventional sense, often meant by believer and non-believer alike, in which sainthood describes a remarkably gentle, humble, sacrificial and morally consistent love of God and humanity after the mold of Francis and the Brothers Minor. It is the constellation of character traits that God would cultivate in all believers in Christ, depending on their trust and cooperation. Such sainthood typically combines warm spiritual devotion and practical, costly service. More recent examples of such sainthood would include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day. However, true to the nature of such sainthood, the saint herself is the last one to recognize her own saintliness, or to believe in it.

By contrast, crusading among Jesus’ disciples goes back at least as far as when his first disciples asked him, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire upon the Samaritans?” (Luke 9:54) for failing to welcome them. Jesus rebuked that desire for revenge, and its source in a zeal that was ostensibly about God, but that was more about the self, from the self and for the self, even while camouflaged in religious language and activity.

The disciples’ foibles and failures, such as when Judas betrayed their Lord, Peter denied him and everyone abandoned him in the garden of Gethsemane, revealed the fatal weakness behind their crusader mentality. They thus learned the hard way how false and faithless is the power of the sin-shackled self to love God and to do God’s will. They learned how fruitless, pointless, subtle and stubborn is our drive to justify ourselves to a God who justifies us. They learned how stubborn and subtle are our denial and ignorance, willful or not, of our motives for self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, so often at the expense of others.

Religious and moralizing language only serve to strengthen the darker and more dangerous aspects of crusading by giving them cover and permission. It was against such a crusading mentality that Jesus warned his disciples to check for the log in their own eyes before trying to remove the speck from anyone else’s eye. For we are most apt to project onto others those things we want least to see about ourselves. Or we may accuse others of the very things we are doing, so as to distract attention from the ways in which we are doing those very same things.

Only after Jesus’ resurrection triumph would the disciples, in their emptiness and brokenness, be able to receive — in place of their carnal crusading zeal — the gift, the guidance and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and so display “sainthood” in the manner described above. They were broken and freed of prideful confidence in their own power to accomplish God’s will, and of any sense of entitlement to honors, status, worldly power and the right to punish their enemies and opponents. They became instead soft clay which God, the Master Potter, could reshape into “saints” who could love, live and eat with gentiles, bless their enemies and face martyrdom, preferring to die for their enemies rather than killing them.

Crusading did not end with the crusades. There are ever and always both crusaders and saints among us and within each of us. We can all easily fall under the sway of militant and manipulative crusaders. For what they peddle provides such a rush: the fears, resentments and the sense of entitlement, the certainty of one’s victimhood, righteousness and superiority in comparison to others, the promise of power and of “winning,” and the false promise of self-justification by vanquishing the right enemies, or by suffering martyrdom at their hands. But as with any illicit and addictive drug, crusading provides a false high which comes at great cost to one’s own health, sanity and relationships.

Ironically, and so commonly, the leaders and rabble-rousers of these crusades eventually prove guilty of the very things against which they militate, perhaps because the willful denial of our own distressing tendencies and temptations leads us to project them on to enemies and “inferiors,” so called. Then we can ignore or excuse our own culpability and complicity. If worthy and willing enemies and “inferiors” of the moral, political or religious stripe fail to show up and play the part of our foils, we’ll go looking for them, find them, and press them into service. At what point denial and self-delusion slide into willful hypocrisy, lying, cynicism and manipulation may be hard to tell; it may happen so gradually. For some, the crusading mask will be false from the start. Whatever the case, without the genuine repentance and humility that characterizes true sainthood, such mendacity will become conscious and intentional.

At first blush, crusaders and saints may appear to believe the same things and fight on the same side, for God, faith, morality, country, justice, politics, party and progress. They are both warriors and strivers on missions of ultimate and transcendent importance. But sainthood and crusading differ in some very significant ways. The fight for sainthood takes place on an internal battlefield, at least as much within the self, as outside oneself.

A common proverb says, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” Crusading requires a selective amnesia to one’s own past and present sins. Sainthood starts with remembering and repenting, honestly and thoroughly. Therefore, the saint sees herself essentially in solidarity with everyone, even with opponents, enemies and the indifferent, rather than in a crusading distinction, superiority or combat against them. This sense of essential solidarity not only has to do with remembering the sordid moments of one’s past. Sainthood also requires a vision of our common potential, of being blessed, beloved and beautiful before God, for reasons having more to do with God than with us. Thus, there is much less “us and them” language in sainthood than in crusading.

Sainthood also involves caring about the well-being of one’s opponents, as much as for oneself. It is, after all, more about vanquishing enmity, than about vanquishing enemies. Crusading, by contrast, seeks power above and over the opponent, to crush him or her. If not with weapons, then at the ballot box, by the media or with other tools and means of social and political power.

I write these words at a time when many of my fellow Christians of orthodox and evangelical stripe have become even more enthralled to the siren song of crusaders of the political right. Today’s newsmakers include a Senate candidate in Alabama whom multiple women have credibly accused of doing the very things against which he has made a lifelong career of crusading. His defenders claim that these accusations are false, the machinations of immoral and godless enemies crusading against him by immoral means. Why we should only believe instead the women who have levied similar charges against a Hollywood producer, a sitting U.S. senator, and a senior U.S. congressman of liberal political bent has never been explained in any logical way.

But crusading is no respecter of religion, ideology or politics, and can also make use of liberal and leftist theology, politics and ideology. Hence the irony — and sometimes the truth — of all the charges and counter-charges of judgmentalism and intolerance, and the growing sense of victimhood by being judged and not tolerated, in increasingly intolerant and judgmental ways, on all sides of any issue or argument. One can almost predict the stages and timing of the cycle of such accusations and counter-charges in the readers’ comments after any online article.

The answer to this escalating vicious cycle of crusading is not to suspend nor dispose of all the values and beliefs we hold dear. That in itself would amount to a crusade. People can be as absolutist about their relativism, as positive about their nihilism and as evangelistic about their atheism as others may be for their political, religious and moral absolutes.

Still, the way we advance our causes cannot help but reveal the true nature of our causes, whatever label we put on them. Whenever a politician or a pastor crusades for morality by immoral uses of power (such as lying, fear-mongering or character assassination), his or her real cause is then more about power than morality. Morality is but the means, not really the end, of their crusade.

If, by contrast, our “cause” is Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, we will know the truth of that only if the means match the end. Ends and means can only match when we are growing in sainthood, for sainthood can make no distinction between means and ends. In fact, sainthood is all about entrusting the ends of our labors to God and revering God with every one of our means. Even if that means “losing” in any of the world’s contests and crusades, the saint looks only to the one who carried a cross not to frighten, defeat nor destroy his enemies, but to love them and forgive them.

Mathew Swora is lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore. He blogs at zionmennoniteoregon.org, where this post first appeared.


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