By ED VITAGLIANO | AFA Journal News Editor

The Crusades. Muslims almost universally see those hundreds of years of warfare with the West as nothing more than Christian religious fanaticism and Christendom’s economic imperialism.

Ironically, that is also a view shared by many in the West, based on a simplistic understanding of history and rooted in much of Western academia’s obligatory and feverish sense of self-hatred.

Although in modern usage the word "Crusades" can have a variety of meanings — and even refer to non-religious endeavors — it derives from the Latin word for "cross." Originally, then, the word represented these various Christian military campaigns as "wars of the cross."

The First Crusade was ignited in 1095 by the preaching of Pope Urban II, who stirred to war the Catholic kingdoms in Western Europe against the Muslim world. By that time, much of what had been Christian lands in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor (modern Turkey) had been conquered by Muslims. The Eastern Orthodox half of Christianity, centered in Constantinople, was also threatened with total subjugation.

It was the obligation of all Christians, said Pope Urban II, to rescue their Christian brethren in the East and to wrest control of the Holy Land out of the hands of Muslim infidels (unbelievers).

A kingdom on earth
How far can Christians go in using earthly means to extend the kingdom of God? How should believers treat their enemies? Can there be peace on earth without Christ?

A new movie about the Crusades explores some of these themes. Kingdom of Heaven, the latest film from popular director Ridley Scott, is less emotionally gripping than his Academy Award-winning Gladiator, but it is simultaneously more thought-provoking.

Kingdom of Heaven is loosely based on actual events that took place in the year 1187, between the Second and Third Crusades. The city of Jerusalem, recaptured by Christian armies in the First Crusade, fell to the great Saracen leader Saladin.

AFA neither condones nor recommends the movie’s realistic presentation of 12th-century combat or the film’s brief sex scene between two of the main characters. Other Christian reviews recommend the movie, saying it will challenge Christians to understand the postmodern mindset about religion and spirituality, as well as understand the temptation to earthly power.

It is this latter issue which stands out so profoundly in the film, which focuses on the events leading up to Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem. Prior to the city’s fall, Kingdom of Heaven presents Jerusalem’s King Baldwin IV as maintaining a fragile peace among the faithful of the world’s three major monotheistic religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism. That peace, the movie makes clear, was possible only through Baldwin’s enlightened tolerance and the benevolence of Saladin.

The production notes given to the press for Kingdom of Heaven state that that harmonious coexistence is Baldwin’s "vision of peace," his belief that "a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth."

And that vision is shared by a handful of knights, including the main character, Balian of Ibelin, played by popular actor Orlando Bloom. These knights "swear to uphold [the vision of peace] with their lives and honor."

But Baldwin, dying of leprosy, understands that there are forces within Jerusalem’s walls — led by a malevolent knight named Guy de Lusignan — that want war with Saladin. These men believe, as Guy says, that no army that bears the cross of Jesus Christ can be beaten in battle with Muslim infidels.

In preliminary clashes with Muslims, it is startling to see images in the film in which Christians are riding into battle with the cross on their tunics and shields, unabashedly killing in the name of Jesus.

They do so because they firmly believe that they are doing God’s will. In one scene, when Baldwin is forced by political intrigue to go to battle with Saladin, knights are heard shouting, "God wills it!" This echoes the words which answered the fervent preaching of Pope Urban II, when he began the First Crusade with the same charge.

After Baldwin’s death, Guy, newly-crowned king of Jerusalem, leads the Christian army out of the city into the desert in pursuit of Saladin, and soon the viewer sees them parched and weary in the barren wastes. The army is annihilated, and Guy is captured and humiliated.

Guy’s pride, arrogance and hatred of Muslims have driven him to a tragic decision. Not only has the main body of the army of Jerusalem been destroyed, but now Saladin, pushed by warmongers in his own camp, decides to assault the city.

The entire sequence is a potent symbol of the futility of Christian efforts to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth. The Crusades were basically a failure militarily and politically, even though they had profound economic ramifications for the development of Western Europe. But it was the religious failure that was most apparent.

Such a "war of the cross" should strike Christians as a contradiction in terms. A literal war in the name of Jesus — a "Christian war" — is an oxymoron, like "hateful Christian." Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world, otherwise His followers would draw swords to defend Him — and presumably the kingdom itself (John 18:36).

In Scripture, the Christian is certainly called to war, but it is a spiritual war, fought primarily with spiritual weapons. Believers honor Christ, not by hating their enemies, but by loving them.

A kingdom of fallen men
Ironically, while the Crusades may have been an example of Christians trying to build the kingdom of heaven on earth, Kingdom of Heaven clearly recommends its own version of utopia. In a sense, the creators of this film also fail to learn from the Crusaders’ mistakes.

In interviews with the press, it is clear that Scott and the other principals involved in Kingdom of Heaven believe they have a message for Christians and anyone else who will listen.

Bloom told a press gathering that Jerusalem under Baldwin’s reign was a symbol for what can happen if people will simply learn to coexist peacefully. "The kingdom of heaven is not what you might expect," he says. "It’s not in some afterlife. It’s a place where you can be who you were born to be, where you can be true to yourself. It’s a kingdom of conscience. It’s a kingdom of hope and unity. It’s an ideal of a world we all should strive for, a world of peace."

This utopia, however, was brought to ruin in Kingdom of Heaven by the worst flaws of men. William Monahan, who wrote the screenplay, says Jerusalem at the time was only brought down by human "greed, ambition, [and] fanaticism."

If only we could learn from this tragedy, Scott says. "Unfortunately, we don’t seem to learn from history, do we? That’s one of the lessons in the story. That, here we go again, and we don’t seem to actually learn anything from history. You’d think that we would," he complains.

But if Scott doesn’t think mankind has learned any lessons from history, what makes him think they will learn anything from a movie?

The truth is that they won’t, because human nature is irretrievably fallen. There is a corrosive sinfulness in the human heart, as well as a blindness that keeps the heart from seeing this flaw — a flaw that will forever be fatal to all utopian endeavors.

In fact, this truth about human nature is even laid out in Kingdom of Heaven. Everywhere the viewer looks in the film, he can see sin infecting the characters like a nasty virus: Balian discovers he was conceived because his father, a knight, had raped his mother; Balian murders a priest who’d stolen a necklace off the body of Balian’s deceased wife; greed and a lust for power drive the political intrigues within Jerusalem; knights butcher Muslim caravans; a bishop advises that Christians convert to Islam to save their own lives.

Midway through Kingdom of Heaven, Balian has an adulterous affair with Guy’s wife, the princess Sibylla, played by actress Eva Green. She says of her character: "She hates her husband; she doesn’t respect his values or his pursuit of power. Sibylla and Balian are helplessly drawn to one another, despite political complications."

"Helplessly" drawn to adultery? Such a statement is a pitiful excuse for sin — and a chilling explanation of its power.

This is precisely the point missed by Kingdom of Heaven. These flaws within the human heart cannot be conquered. The fault lies not in the capacity of men to conceive of utopian societies — just in their ability to create and sustain them. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, something always seems to destroy the drive for the consummate culture.

"Terrific energy is expended — civilizations are built up — excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top, and it all slides back into misery and ruin," Lewis says.

A true kingdom of heaven
This is not to suggest that Christians who have a Biblical view of man’s fallen nature should cling to pessimism and, in the resulting passivity, refuse to work for peace, justice and freedom. On the contrary, Christians above all should strive to create a society with such attributes.

But Christians must take their stand on Scripture at all times and warn errant humanity that apart from the grace of God that is poured out through Christ, none of these attributes can last for long. Yes, God can bless a nation with freedom, but it is like the blessing of the earth’s fruitfulness. A peach, to be enjoyed, must be plucked from the tree. But it will not last long, cut off from the branch. It will shrivel and rot, spoiled by the power of a universe under the curse of corruption.

There is only one way for human nature to be conquered, and that is through the salvation and Lordship of Jesus Christ. Yes, men long for a blessed kingdom, but God in His wisdom has kept it in heaven, that men may know that utopia exists only in the shadow of His presence.