Christians marching off to holy war—how can we understand that? And did any good come of it? To answer these questions, Christian History editors Kevin Miller and Mark Galli talked with Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of history at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London. Professor Riley-Smith is author of The Crusades: A Short History (Yale, 1987) and numerous other books on the crusading era.

Christian History: In the first three centuries, Christians were pacifists. By 1096, they embarked on a holy war. What caused such a huge change?

Jonathan Riley-Smith: First, the early church was not entirely pacifist. In Romans 13, for example, Paul justifies the violence of the pagan emperor, for the emperor is yet a minister of God. And Christians served in the Roman army from the second century on.

Following the conversion of the emperors, in the fourth century, the church became more open to using violence. Church leaders, after an initial shock, began supporting the use of force against heretics.

Then Augustine formulated his theory of “just war,” but his terms effectively mean “holy war.” Augustine and the medieval world concluded that violence is not evil. Instead, violence is morally neutral. That makes a crusade possible.

How did medieval Christians support their idea that violence was morally neutral?

Augustine gave this example: Suppose a man has gangrene in the leg and is going to die. The surgeon believes the only way to save him is by amputating the leg. Against the man’s will, the surgeon straps him to a table and saws off the leg. That is an act of extreme violence.

But was that violence evil? Augustine said no. And if you find one exception to the idea that violence is evil, he concluded, then violence ...

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