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 Christendoms 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
academias 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).
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 movies realistic
presentation of 12th-century combat or the films 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 Saladins conquest
of Jerusalem. Prior to the citys fall, Kingdom of Heaven
presents Jerusalems King Baldwin IV as maintaining a fragile
peace among the faithful of the worlds three major monotheistic
religions Christianity, Islam and Judaism. That peace, the
movie makes clear, was possible only through Baldwins enlightened
tolerance and the benevolence of Saladin.
The production notes given to the press for Kingdom of Heaven
state that that harmonious coexistence is Baldwins "vision
of peace," his belief that "a kingdom of heaven can flourish on
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 Jerusalems 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
They do so because they firmly believe that they are doing Gods
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
After Baldwins 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
Guys 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.
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 Baldwins
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. "Its not in some afterlife. Its a
place where you can be who you were born to be, where you can be
true to yourself. Its a kingdom of conscience. Its a
kingdom of hope and unity. Its 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 dont seem to learn from history, do we? Thats one
of the lessons in the story. That, here we go again, and we dont
seem to actually learn anything from history. Youd think that
we would," he complains.
But if Scott doesnt think mankind has learned any lessons
from history, what makes him think they will learn anything from
The truth is that they wont, 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
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 whod stolen a necklace off the body
of Balians 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 Guys wife, the princess Sibylla, played by actress
Eva Green. She says of her character: "She hates her husband; she
doesnt respect his values or his pursuit of power. Sibylla
and Balian are helplessly drawn to one another, despite political
"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
true kingdom of heaven
This is not to suggest that Christians
who have a Biblical view of mans 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 earths 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.