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The Controversy Of Crusades: Fight For God By Self-Motivated Desire

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In every generation, the struggle for power has been a controversial issue. Our generation has no escape to this. International territorial claims between Philippines and the super power China have been a concern for decades. Even in the realm Christian church faces such struggle. All of these, if we will connect the dots, will lead us to one thing: The sin of self-motivated desire. This desire crawls into the hearts and mind of every believer including Pastors. Many Christians are claiming to be serving the Lord wholeheartedly. But unnoticeably, they might be serving for their own interest using the name of the Lord. As one professor quoted, we must be cautious as we might claim that we are serving the Lord but we are actually serving ourselves in the name of the Lord.

History has its part in this self-motivated desire in the Crusader era of the Medieval Age. As history portrays, this is one of the darkest past in the story of Christianity. Countless of innocent lives have been slaughtered during many ruthless battles for the sake of religious piety. For some, Crusades seems to be a victorious battle cry especially during the mid-point of 20th century when Christians took the name of ‘Crusade’ in their evangelistic gatherings. But if we will look closer, behind the curtains, there are self interests that motivated the instigation of this so called Holy War. Due to this, the researcher argues that The Crusades, held by many as a victory, considered by some as controversial was not a fight for God but a battle for power and self-motivated desire.

In order to prove the above mentioned claim, the researcher will gather historical evidences to prove his argument. The scope of this research will be from the progression of the Church and Empires up to the formation of the first crusade. This research will also highlights major historical figures that shaped the beginning of the Crusades. Certain historical events will be quoted in order to prove the above mentioned argument.


The foundation of the Christian church can be traced during the early apostolic age. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his followers were persecuted and killed for centuries until the reign of Constantine I in 313 A.D. After this, Christians were no longer hunted instead they were favored by the empire. In 330 Constantine I moved east in the Ancient Greek colony of Byzantium where he built his empire in the city he called Constantinople. In 395, the empire was divided into two – Western Roman Empire and Eastern Byzantine Empire. In 410 the Western empire was attacked by Alaric and fell into the hands Visigoths. Later the Visigoths left Rome losing its Imperial glory. After the fall, the West was divided into smaller kingdoms of Feudal and lords. On the other side, The Eastern Byzantine empire continued to flourish and remain strong. The empire has expanded from Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Levant, Asia Minor, and North Africa and has become the richest and most important Christian City in the world.

While the Byzantine Empire flourished, the Muslim nation began to emerge. According to the Muslim tradition, Islam was born in 610 CE when Muhammad – an illiterate, forty-year-old Arab native of Mecca (in modern Saudi Arabia) – experienced a series of revelations from Allah through Archangel Gabriel. In 662, Mohammed moved to the nearby city of Medina, made it as his capital city and then waged war against other Arab towns and his hometown Mecca. Later this war-waging means of expansion became popular for Islam in which they call it as Jihad or “struggle” (or Holy War). After Mohammad’s death, the Arabian Peninsula was conquered by Islam under the leadership of Caliphs and became almost unstoppable. By 650 CE, they have conquered Palestine and in 638, Jerusalem was taken from the hands of Byzantine Empire. They continued their invasion conquering the whole Palestine, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. Even the borders of China in the east, North Africa to Spain and Southern France in the west were invaded and became part of the Muslim world.

The Byzantine Empire and its Islamic neighbors had been rivals for centuries from 7th to 10th century though their attempt to conquer The Byzantines had ended at an early date. During this period, there were relative peace between Christians and Muslims. They believed that Christians were worshippers of God but were misguided, so they were allowed to retain religious practices in the lands conquered that were under their control. Many Christians safely traveled from the west and were allowed to visit Jerusalem for prayer and Pilgrimage. In return, great sums of money poured into the city from Christians who were praying at the Holy Shrines. But in the late 10th Century, a new rival has arrived. In 985, The Seljuk Turks from the tribe of Oghuz were converted to Islam. They swept and conquered Syria and Palestine, disrupting the peace that was previously established between Christians and Arabs. These Barbaric Turks destroyed Christian Churches, murdered clergies and seized pilgrims. Because of this, Pilgrimage to the Holy Land became dangerous and often deadly. Further Jihads were pursued by the Sejuks against Asia Minor. In August, 1070, Alp Arslan managed to conquer Armenia and made a crushing defeat to the Byzantine in the great Battle of Manzikert. Because of this, he acquired the lordship of Anatolia and even after his death; the Seljuks continued its power through his son Malek Shah.

While the Byzantine Empire is at its brink of Annihilation, the West has their trouble to deal with. During eleventh Century, Europe was partitioned into smaller polities ruled over by warrior-lords who bore titles such as Dukes and Counts. Military aristocracy was drawn from such and formed a class of well equipped semi-professional fighting men who came to be known as knights. Violence because of feuds was common and lawlessness was prevalent during this period. The Church of God tried to reduce violence by threatening divine sanctions but to no avail; as they, like the kings of Europe had little control over petty knights and landed barons. For the West, the Byzantium’s trouble was well known. Pope Gregory VII had plans to provide support, because of the current condition of the west plus the power struggle with Papacy; the matters of the east were somehow forgotten. In 1095, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus of Byzantine Empire sent an envoy to Pope Urban II requesting aid against the Turks. The Pope took this golden opportunity and utilized Moral and Political Authority to fulfill Pope Gregory’s plan. So in November 27 at the council of Clermont, Pope Urban II delivered a message that instigated the First Crusade.

In his message, Pope Urban II called the Knights of Christ to take up a war of liberation, in order for the Christians of the east to be saved from the brutality of Muslims. He knew that this call in not enough to inspire, so he moved their attention further. The goal of the expedition is to liberate the very land of Christ. According to Robert the Monk, Pope Urban’s speech include words pertaining to Turks destroying God’s churches, ruining the altars, killing Christians by cutting their bellies and other defiling acts. For those knights, these words make their blood boil. In addition, the pope stirred up the people with religious zeal. Christians had held the Holy land with high regard as pilgrimages has become one of the highest acts of devotion. Pilgrimage to these holy sites provides Christians with a means of penance. So Pope’s speech rang these words, “I say it to those who are present. I command that it be said to those who are absent. Christ commands it. All who go thither and lose their lives, be it on the road or on the sea, or in the fight against the pagans, will be granted immediate forgiveness for their sins. This I grant to all who will march, by virtue of the great gift which God has given me.” Those who were present in that council responded with cries of Deus Vult – “God wills it!”

Months after that monumental speech at Clermont, this religious fervor had spread across Western Europe. Bishops and preachers were sent out to spread the word quoting the words of Christ in Matthew 16:24 and Matthew 19:29. These preachers proclaimed that it was Christ himself who called his warriors to help Jerusalem. This idea of moving to a foreign land was favorably accepted both by the lower classes and nobility, for it was a difficult moment in Europe where diseases were widespread and some of their crops had failed. One of those who responded was Peter the Hermit in which he formed the People’s Crusades. The Formal Crusade was formed by some prominent western leaders such as Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, Bohemond, and Tancred and was lead by Adhemar, bishop of Puy, whom Urban had named as his personal representative. This group of great enterprise had moved from Constantinople to Nicea, Antioch, and Jerusalem carrying their religious fervor, liberating the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. This was later known to be the First Crusade.

The desire to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the Seljuk’s, might be something to consider as a provoking move but it was considerably a desperate move to pursue Holy war and carrying the cross. For Emperor Alexius, it was a natural drive to protect his territory from the hands of the conquerors. But for Pope Urban II, it was a golden opportunity to unite the west and to gain power and authority. And for those who heard his speech – both the peasants and the lords – it was an opportunity to gain penance and a lot more. As the author argues, the people’s desire to fight in the name of God wasn’t really for God but for their self gain.

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First, let us consider Pope Urban II. At the time when he became pope in 1088, there was a repeated power struggle between the Emperor of Germany in which Papal position is threatened. It was an uneasy task of cautious diplomacy; the new pope was able to manage his office. Still the pope has to do some gradual effort in order to maintain his position. It was due to this issue of partial recovery that the idea of the First Crusade was born. So in this case, it is safe to say that it was the Pope’s desire to maintain his position that brought him to the possibility of instigating the Crusades.

Realizing such idea was uneasy and initiating it was far more difficult. That monumental speech he delivered happened in November 1095, but the envoy from Byzantium arrived March1095. That took him around eight months to prepare and strategize in order to bring about the plan that Pope Gregory VII once thought. He then planned to bring about the Latin West into arms in pursuit of two linking goals. First, he proclaimed the need to protect the East, emphasizing the bond of Christian alliance that is being threatened by Muslim invasion. I was an urgent call to bring aid. Second, he expanded his appeal for arms by instilling warfare and religious pilgrimage. Urban had stirred up the people of the supreme sacredness of this city as the fountain of all Christian teaching and the place in which Christ lived and suffered. In addition, the Pope had to fuel up such urgency with a vengeful tide of enthusiasm. In reality, Jerusalem has been under the Muslims since the seventh century. So in order to pursue such enthusiasm, Urban described how the Turks slaughtered and captured many Greeks, destroying churches and laying waste to the kingdom of God. Such propaganda of dehumanizing the Muslim world served as a catalyst to the cause of the Crusades. Furthermore, his call for arms in return for penance made a great impact both for peasants and lords. All these strategies Pope Urban had prepared were somehow effective in bringing about the call for Crusades. But as we can see, these propagandas doesn’t reflect Service for God, instead it was a strategy based on his self-driven desire. His call for arms for Christian alliance was lead by his desire to maintain his power and authority. His propaganda of vengeful enthusiasm and dehumanizing Muslims were not in line with Christian virtues and His call for arms in return for immediate forgiveness of sins was obviously disconnected from the teachings of Salvation by grace through faith in Ephesians 2:8-9. All of these strategies he designed were basically not connected to Service for God although he was claiming to call the people to Serve God through armed pilgrimage.

Now, let us consider those who have heard the Pope’s Sermon at Clermont, and all of those who have heard the call for Crusades. During these times, violence because of feuds was common. Because of this, terrors of divine damnation were upon them. Fulk Nerra is one example. This warlord from West Central France was a devout Christian, but had shed blood because of his brutal life. Because of his fear of eternal damnation, he made pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times. Later, many of his descendants were those who stood in the frontlines during the times of Crusades.

After the Sermon at Claremont, Peter the Hermit was moved by the message and preached about it. Soon enough, his preaching became crusade itself and was later know as the Peoples Crusades. Although there were knights and lords who joined, many of his followers were relatively poor. The group marched on across Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece. Emperor Alexius I didn’t expect for Crusaders to arrive soon and was not prepared feed such large crowd. The Crusaders was camped in Constantinople’s suburbs where food was readily available in the markets but the poor were unable to purchase. So the mob began pillaging the suburbs for what they wanted. Alexius then sent the unorganized crusaders to the Turks were they experience crushing defeat.

In addition to this, there was some smaller group of crusade armies who were distracted from their original purpose. These groups lead by Count Emicho of Leiningen marched down the Rhine, plundering and massacring Jews in the city of Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Trier and Cologne. As Albert of Aix described the terror, these Crusaders killed woman, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex. The Crusaders were obviously misleading themselves by attacking the Jews instead of Muslims. Count Emicho journeyed on to Hungary, where he continued his violence in which they were defeated.

So then, what can we say to the recipients of the Pope’s sermon? Because of their desire for penance, they were easily misled into embarking on an armed pilgrimage. Their lack of understanding about true salvation has leaded them to superstitious belief and the Pope’s false promise. The call for them was to fight for God, but they were fighting for themselves. Furthermore, as they marched on, some of them were distracted from their desire to fight for God because their desire wasn’t really to fight for God but for themselves. Just like what happened to the small group of Crusaders that Count Emicho has lead. Instead of marching on towards the east, they turned their eyes on the Jews killing innocent people including women and children. Finally, the Crusaders that Peter the Hermit lead. Because of poverty and lack of supplies, they sacked the Constantinople’s suburbs, abusing those whom they should considered as allies. Their hungry bellies were at roar and their religious fervor was forgotten. These actions reflect that although at first, they were in pursuit of fighting for God; they were not really fighting for God but for their self-motivated desires.


The Pope’s call for Crusade were a strategic and engaging for many. For Pope Urban II, it was a desperate response to retain his power. For those who responded to his call, it was a desperate response to gain penance for their sins through armed pilgrimage. But one thing is certain; it was not a call to fight for God. It was not a response of service for God.

The bishops who were promoting the Crusades quoted Jesus words in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.“ Their interpretation of this passage was misleading. This passage doesn’t call people to literally fight. Denying one’s self means making Jesus the Lord of his life. This means that our way of thinking and living must be for Christ. Those who deny themselves obey Jesus and his teachings because Jesus is their Lord and not themselves. Denying themselves means dying and not fighting and killing.

Let us remember the early fathers who gave themselves as sacrifice through martyrdom during the age of persecution. One of them was Polycarp. He was persuaded to worship the emperor but he never seeks for his own safety. Instead he responded, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?” His words and response explains the true meaning of serving God, giving up one’s life for the sake of following Jesus.

Through the events happened during the formation of Crusades, we can see that self-motivated desires can possibly be hidden in the surface of the call to serve God and fight for God. For Christians our generation let us consider reflecting on the journey we are currently embarking upon. For Pastors, it is understandable that we make plans, because planning is part of systematically organizing the ministry that the Lord has entrusted upon us. But as we make plans, let us consider: Is this the Lord wants us to do? Are we aligned to his plans? If not, we might end up serving ourselves in the name of the Lord.

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The Controversy Of Crusades: Fight For God By Self-Motivated Desire. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 10, 2023, from
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