The Horns of Hattin
On a July 4 almost a thousand years ago, in the year of our Lord 1187, a multitude of men clad in the Cross died in despair on a hill in Palestine. Their death began a long night for the Christians of Jerusalem, for the battle fought on this hill broke the power of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, and returned the Holy City to Muslim control. Another round of warfare, known to history as the Third Crusade, would be fought soon enough, with resultant gains for the Christians of the Levant, but Jerusalem was not regained for Christendom. The place where the Crusaders wept and died in 1187 is called “the Horns of Hattin”, and it abides in history as a symbol of Crusader defeat.
Mention of the Crusades has become something of a political embarrassment to Christians these days, especially among the Politically Correct. People of all stripes are happy to lump it in with The Inquisition as one of the great evils of Christendom, often comparing it to Islam, hailed as the religion of peace. Certainly evil enough was done in the Crusades, both by the Christian forces of Europe and by the Muslim forces of the Middle East. Mankind is, after all, a fallen race, and everything we put our hand to is touched and tainted by our fallenness—especially when we put our hand to war. But it is important to see that the Crusades were a response to something prior, and that the acts of the Crusaders cannot be understood apart from knowing what this prior thing was, any more than the acts of the Protestant Reformers can be understood apart from knowing something about the western Middle Ages.
This thing which formed the context and cause of the Crusades was, in a word, jihad—the aggressive, total, and apparently unstoppable military expansion on the part of the Islamic Empire. One can dispute whether or not military jihad is an essential part of Islam (though I would suggest reading the Qur’an before arguing that it is not); what is beyond dispute is that the Muslims in the century after the death of Muhammad thought it was. Muhammad died in 632, and by 732 his armed followers had spread their faith at the sword’s edge as far as north-central France. They were only turned back from there by the heroism of Charles Martel, at the Battle of Tours. Had Charles lost that battle, Europe would now be Muslim, and you would probably not being be reading this post. Muhammad’s movement had gone from strength to strength, and by the seventh century had conquered the world from the Caucasus to Spain. After losing battle after battle to seemingly invincible Muslim armies, the West decided decisively to push back. The slogan promoting the Crusading pushback was, Deus Vult—“God wills it”. It was under this banner that the Crusades were first fought.
Not being a prophet, I am in no position to authoritatively declare what God does or does not will when it comes to political situations, and the quarrels among nations. I am not, therefore, writing a political post; I am not prescribing what politicians should do about the political situation in the Middle East. Politics has been described as “the art of the possible”, and I for one confess myself entirely stumped as to what is or is not possible in that troubled part of the world. The situation that has baffled competent and experienced diplomats is not likely to be solved by a lone priest sitting far from the conflict in the comfort of Canada. I repeat: I am not writing about present politics. But I am wistfully wondering whether or not the Crusaders might have been on to something.
It is clear enough that the present situation is not satisfactory to anyone. Anyway two options seem not to work: turning Palestine into an Islamic state under sharia law (a situation to which some states in the Middle East seem to be heading) is not the answer, and the present status quo whereby Israelis oppress their Palestinian population doesn’t seem to be the answer either—as even some thoughtful Israelis admit. (The separating wall there, built on Palestinian land, was not built simply to irritate the Palestinians, but out of Israeli desperation, and is itself an acknowledgment that the status quo is unsatisfactory.) That is, neither Islamic nor Israeli supremacy seems to be working. Perhaps one might try returning the land to European or western stewardship and care? Or at least have all parties there embrace their western values? Jews and Christians under Sharia law are not happy. Muslims under Israeli control are not happy. So, one might ask, where in the world are Jews and Christians and Muslims living somewhat happily, with a measure of peace? In the West. In America and Canada, the two western places I know best, people of all religions live together without being oppressed, with a large measure of mutual tolerance, and enjoying the full protection of law. I believe that this western vision is the only one which will work in the land of Palestine. Not necessarily (I stress) that the West owns and rules the land, but that the vision of the West be adopted by all in the Middle East who value peace.
As I said, I have no idea how to turn this vision into reality, or even if it can be done at all. But I believe this vision is the only one which provides hope. People of my generation will remember that Bob Dylan said that the answer to questions of peace, my friend, was blowing in the wind. I have sometimes thought that I could hear that wind blowing soundlessly across the Horns of Hattin.