It would be interesting to know how many participants in the social media firestorm over President Obama’s comment on the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast actually read the whole speech. You can read the entire text right here–it doesn’t take long. I heard a lot about how the President was guilty of moral equivalence and how he threw Christians “under the bus.” What I didn’t hear from the President’s detractors is that he also mentioned the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, celebrated the release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae from North Korea, recounted meeting the family of imprisoned Iranian Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, and decried anti-Semitism in Europe. Did you?
What I did see on social media were both full-throated defenses and confident condemnations of the Crusades themselves. The Crusades–not a singular event but a complex set of realities involving Islamic, Byzantine, and Western civilizations over centuries–do not translate easily to present-day realities or 140-character tweets. Historians like Thomas Asbridge and Thomas Madden offer diverging interpretations on the motives and origins of the Crusades, but both believe that modern European imperialism and colonialism have colored our perceptions of decidedly medieval realities. The result has been anachronistic analysis, inaccurate renderings, and unfortunate applications…not to mention Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of a modern agnostic dressed up like a medieval knight. One can acknowledge these challenges without being an apologist for the Crusades. One can still affirm that lamentable and tragic things happened in Jerusalem, the Rhineland, Constantinople, Antioch, and elsewhere. The point I would like to stress here is that the Crusades remind us of the tension with which we live between historical context and historical judgment. How do we reckon with historical actors operating within the beliefs, standards, and assumptions of their time? How do we offer moral reflection that respects but transcends that context without abusing the historical record? Tribal politics in the age of social media doesn’t have much time for that discussion.
Nor are many willing to look past a single comment or political disagreements to hear the larger themes of the National Prayer Breakfast address. If we did, we might learn something more about the Niebuhrian framework and Lincolnian echoes that inform Obama’s theology of history. We might consider our own historical susceptibilities and sins–individually and collectively. We might wrestle with Reinhold Niebuhr’s call to ponder “the pretensions of human cultures and civilizations” and his suggestion that “true religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values” (from Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History). Perhaps we could pause from debating whether President Obama has adequately responded to ISIS, or whether we agree with him on key issues, and ask if he has a point in describing one’s faith journey as such: “we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him.” Humility involves acknowledging our own limitations and reckoning with our mistakes. To use an example from the speech: Christians participated in institutionalizing the grievous injustices of slavery and segregation (offering biblical rationalizations in doing so), just as Christians participated in their abolition. This is irrefutably true even if your political opponent states it. Confession that takes us on the path to redemption and reconciliation seems a more apt response than defensiveness.
I want to end with the closing words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, brought to mind by John Fea’s post. Speaking in the final weeks of a devastating civil war and of his life, Lincoln captures the scale of judgment, the need for humility, and the necessity of walking forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” A fallen world, a fractured country, and the brokenness that characterizes us individually and institutionally require it:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Photo: Abraham Lincoln Delivering the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 (Library of Congress, Public Domain).