Attempts to purify the church and society also led to efforts to rid the Christian world of all non-Christians, who were considered "infidels." This included Jews, Muslims, and people labelled pagans or gypsies--anyone who practiced pre-Christian or non-Christian traditions. In a non-scientific world where many bishops, scholars, and warriors routinely believed in magic, astrology, and alchemy--the ancient attempt to turn ordinary metal into gold--the lines defining who was Christian, and who was not, could shift rapidly according to the fears and desires of those in power.
The power of Islam was perceived as a particular threat to Christianity. By 1095 Islamic Turks had conquered Jerusalem, and Pope Urban II [left] proclaimed a "holy war" or Crusade to rout the Muslims and to reclaim Palestine for the Christian faith. Popes and great preachers throughout Europe, like Bernard of Clairvaux, elaborated on the images of the Holy City in Revelation--the New Jerusalem with jeweled gates and streets paved with gold--to incite peasants to go fight the infidel and reclaim the Holy Land for Christ. The church further guaranteed that anyone who went crusading would be forgiven their sins past, present and future, and that anyone who died in the attempt would go straight to heaven.
"Taking of Constantinople, 1204"
by Domenico Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Many crusaders were shocked and disappointed by the reality of ordinary towns whose people often disdained the crude European invaders, and they took it out in violence. In their ignorance of Eastern customs and dress, the European crusaders did not distinguish between Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and often killed anyone indiscriminately. They slaughtered thousands of people, including prisoners of war. They burned mosques and synagogues, sometimes with Muslims or Jews inside. In 1204, the Fourth Crusade was diverted from fighting the Turks to sack Constantinople--the principal Christian city in the world. The last crusade saw the complete defeat of the Europeans in 1291.
From the time of the Crusades, the the bubonic plague (named on account of the purplish-black glandular swellings or buboes that marked it) haunted the land. The greatest outbreak in the late 1340s killed an estimated one-third of the population from northern Europe to India. Sometimes priests were afraid to give dying people the last rites lest they catch the plague and die, too. Anyone who seemed immune to the disease was suspected of witchcraft and blamed for the disease.
Jews were particularly vulnerable, since they were forced to live in enclosed, overcrowded ghettoes. They strictly observed the Levitical codes of purity and cleanliness, which tended to limit the populations of rats that abounded in medieval towns and castles--rats that harbored the fleas that carried bubonic plague. If the ghetto didnt get the plague, it was taken as proof that the Jews were in league with the devil, a reason to attack them.
Similarly, anyone who kept a cat, which kept rats at bay, might be accused of being in league with the devil, and put to death. A cat was often considered a witchs familiar. Increasingly, women living alone, without the protection of a father or husband, were also vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, for which the penalty was hanging. In times of crisis like plague, mobs often took the law into their own hands, while church and state authorities looked the other way.
Throughout the Middle Ages, and not only during times of plague, Christians showed hostility toward Jews. Biblical texts blaming the crucifixion on the Jews were used to fan anti-Semitic hatred and violence, particularly the traditional readings from the Gospel of John on Good Friday. In many areas Jews were forced to wear distinctive dress and permitted to live only in certain cities, in a designated section, the ghetto or Judenstrasse (Street of the Jews). Many ghettoes became overcrowded because they were not allowed to buy more property, no matter how much the population grew.
Ghettoes were often locked at night, a confinement that made it easy to rape and kill Jews during riots. So many Jewish women were raped during anti-Jewish riots that Jewish communities had to decide whether the half-Jewish children born as a result were to be considered Jewish or not. This was a factor in deciding that Jewishness was inherited from the mother, not the father.
Jews had been specifically invited into countries in Europe to handle interest-bearing loans, which were considered usury, a practice prohibited to Christians by the churchs interpretation of Deuteronomy 23: 19-20. Besides being available for banking, many Jews were skilled goldsmiths and jewelry makers who found plenty of appreciative customers. Yet England banished its Jews in 1290, and France in 1306, 1322, and again in 1394. Although they kept returning, Jews were increasingly given the choice of accepting Christianity or banishment. In Spain, massacres in 1391 forced many Jews to accept Christianity, at least in name. After many violent attacks, all Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Some found a quick exit by sailing with Columbus. Others went to Poland or to Palestine.
War and violence in the name of Christ may appall us today, but the frequency of both through history invites us to think about how the Bible has been used to justify horrors. Selective reading of the Bible finds many texts describing war and violence, unambiguously showing them to be means of carrying out God's will. Essential texts include the "holy war" narrative from Joshua, and stories of Samson, David, and other Old Testament heroes (see the books of Samuel, Kings, and Psalms). One interpretive trend shows God favoring the underdog, even insisting that the fighting force be small. That way the people will know it is God fighting for them, not their own prowess, that wins the battle (see the story of Gideon, Judges 6-8). The predominant interpretation, however, is that God supports his people and will eventually vindicate them, even if they are temporarily defeated. Many Psalms call on God to lead his chosen people in battle and grant victory and vengeance over enemies and their gods (see especially Psalms 18: 17-48; 58; 94; 137: 7-9; 149: 6-9). The essential Covenant story is interpreted through language of driving out and killing the inhabitants of the promised land, at the command of the Lord. Apocalyptic language uses violent images in a more cosmic vision in which "wars and rumors of wars" (Matthew 24: 6) indicate the final cataclysm and the end, when God will come in power to vindicate the faithful and punish the wicked. In Revelation 6, the four allegorical horses of war, slaughter, famine, and pestilence mark the day of God's wrath.
Jesus offers a deeply different ethic when he teaches people to love and pray for enemies, and by challenging the aggressor non-violently by turning the other cheek. God vindicates Jesus's death not by military defeat of evil, or by turning it away, but by raising Jesus from the dead. Christians interpreted Christ crucified as their model, but differed on how to follow his example. Some insisted on pacifism, the refusal to use violence for any reason, even to save ones own life. In the earliest years, the belief that Jesus was coming back right away led to interpreting wars and persecution as signs of the end, as we see in apocalyptic writing like the book of Revelation. Early Christians did not resist the Roman destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, and suffered persecution and martyrdom rather than take up arms and fight for their lives, families, or property.
The gospel accounts themselves, however, mention soldiers who became followers of Christ, like the centurion in Matthew 8: 5-13, or the statement of Jesus for soldiers to be content with their pay (Luke 3: 14), indicating that military service was not itself counter to the new religion. The persecution under Diocletian purged the army of Christian soldiers. A century later when Christianity became the Roman Empire's sole legal religion, all non-Christian troops were purged from the Roman army and replaced by Christian soldiers. Clearly pacificism was not a required response to the Gospel at this time.
Many Christians were willing to take on violent challenges and eager to fight for Gods cause. Interpreting the will of God correctly was vital. Interpreting fighting on Gods side as holy and praiseworthy varied from carefully thought-out theories like Saint Augustines [left] concept of a "just war," ... to spontaneous rioting incited by fear of plague or disaster, to campaigns preached by the church to get rid of its non-Christian enemies. The motives and persuasive skills of these interpreters were sometimes employed effectively toward ends that were far from holy or praiseworthy.
Through the ages, Christians have struggled between the extremes of pacifism and war, with enormous consequences to themselves and to others. All Christian interpreters used biblical foundations to justify their points of view. Texts exist to support all of them.
*An excerpt from The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach Copyright © 1998 Maxine Clarke Beach.
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The picture of St. Augustine is a detail from "St. Augustine and His Mother St. Monica" by A. Scheffer in An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 139. Pope Urban II is a detail of art in op. cit, p. 347. The art by Tintoretto op. cit., p. 370.