A History of Justified Violence

The Crusades rank among the most controversial wars in the history of mankind, and they go up against some pretty stiff competitors (WWI, the Boer War, and every time the English have fought their Celtic neighbours to name but a few). Spanning two hundred years, the historical view of the Crusades has changed slowly at the time; at the time they were thought a holy mission from God, at a later date a noble but ultimately flawed idea, and now many historians take the view that crusaders were little more than a bunch of murdering rapists plundering their way across the holy land. In fact, throughout history only one thing has been agreed on; that they were an abject failure.

The story of how the crusades came to be is a rather twisted one. During the early years of the second millennia AD, Christianity and Islam were spoiling for a fight that has, in some respects, yet to end. Christianity had a head start and had taken firm root in Europe, but over the last few centuries Islam had been founded and spread across the world like wildfire. Zealots, often with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other had spread the word of Allah and Muhammed across the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and pretty much all of Spain & Portugal south of Barcelona. Indeed, they probably would have gone further (given their immense technological, financial and military clout), had Islam as a religion not descended into infighting with the creation of the Sunni and Shia denominations and the collapse of the unified caliphate. Nevertheless, many Islamic empires were vast and incredibly powerful, and a serious force to be reckoned with.

The rise of Islam was an interesting phenomenon, unique to the world at the time, because of the way it is backed by the principle of jihad. Nowadays, the word tends to be taken to mean ‘holy war’, which is misleading- jihad refers to a Muslim’s attempts to struggle (‘struggle’ being the literal meaning of the word) against non-Muslims, both in a spiritual and worldly capacity. This can be taken to refer to a literal physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, and it was under this guidance that Muslim armies swept across the world under the banner of their religion. This was a strange concept to Christian nations, for whilst they had certainly fought before they had never done so for religious reasons. The Bible’s main messages are, after all, of peace and love for thy neighbour, and the Ten Commandments even state explicitly that ‘You shall not kill’. War was many things, but Christian was not, up until this point, among them.

However, the success of the Islamic approach, demonstrating just how powerful war and faith could be when they went hand-in-hand, lead the Church to reconsider, and added fuel to the fire of an already heated debate regarding whether the use of violence was ever justifiable to a Christian. There was already enough material to provoke argument; particularly in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen dispensing his wrath upon sinners (including one apparent count of genocide and a systematic cleansing of pretty much the entire world, among other things) in direct contravention of his son’s teachings. Then there were the questions of how one was otherwise meant to fight back against an invading force; ‘turn the other cheek’ is all very well, but loses its attractiveness when one is faced with someone attempting to kill you. Other schools of thought held that sin could be justified if it prevented a greater evil from occurring; but others stuck to the old view, claiming that violence could never be justified and only begat, or was begotten by, other violent acts.

It should also be remembered that the medieval Church was a distinctly political entity, and knew perfectly well that to attempt to tell, say, the vastly powerful Holy Roman Empire that it couldn’t declare war was just asking for trouble. Indeed, in later years the HRE even set up its own puppet papacy of ‘antipopes’, allowing them to excommunicate whoever they wanted and thus claim their wars were righteous.

However, the real trump card for the ‘just war camp’ was Jerusalem. The city of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the capital of Israel under the rule of King David (it is worth remembering that Mary’s spouse Joseph was of the House of David, hence why he returned to Bethlehem, the city of David when the Roman census was called), thought by many to be the place of Christ’s hidden tomb, it was the holiest city in the Christian (and Jewish) world, as even the Vatican would admit. However, it was also where, according to Islamic scripture, Muhammed undertook ‘the Night Journey’, in which he travelled to Jerusalem on a winged mule, and met with several prophets before ascending to speak directly with God (apparently the main source of discussion was an argument between God and the prophet Musa concerning how many prayers per day were required, with poor Muhammed acting as a messenger between the two. I would stress, however, that I am not especially knowledgeable with regards to Muslim scripture; if anyone wants to correct me on this, feel free to do so in the comments). This made it one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, and Islamic forces had captured it (and the rest of Palestine to boot) in 636. The city had changed hands several times since then, but it had remained Muslim. For a long time this hadn’t been too much of a problem, but come the 11th century the Muslim rulers started acting against the Christian population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, the Byzantine Empire (which, although Orthodox, was still technically on Catholic Europe’s side) was getting worn down by near-constant war against its Muslim neighbours, and Christian pilgrims started being harassed on their way to Jerusalem.

It was this that really tipped the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ debate over the edge, and the Church eventually adopted the stance that war could be justified in the eyes of God if it was pursued in His name (a concept similar in nature to the jihad principle of justified warfare in fighting against the enemies of one’s religion). This was a decision made with one thing in mind; to win back the Holy Land from the Saracen infidels (Saracen being the coverall name given by Catholics to the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem). To do that, the church needed an army. To get an army, they called a crusade…

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The Cross

Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.

We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.

This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.

The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.

That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.