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Is it the same?

February 7, 2015

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” 

Those are the words of Barack Obama that he shared this week at the National Prayer Breakfast commenting the horrifying actions of ISIS.  To say that this set off a firestorm of protest is to understate the reaction.  I suspect that his intent was to remind Christians that, at times, the church has advocated violence and even encouraged the faithful to engage in war.  This is certainly true.

If, however, he intended to portray the crusades as a distortion of Christianity that is comparable to the ISIS distortion of Islam he is on much shakier ground.  This is particularly true in that, with his comments, our president revealed that he probably doesn’t know much more about the crusades than I do.  Historian Thomas Madden of the University of St. Louis says it plainly. “I don’t think the president knows very much about the crusades.”   It is probably fair to say that most of the president’s outraged critics don’t know any more about the crusades than he does.

There are a number of inherent problems in trying to compare events from 900 years apart.  The first, and most obvious, is that we actually don’t have precise information about what happened back then.  Accounts of the battles from both sides survive but, as with all such things, they tend to be self-serving.  Both Christian and Islamic accounts tend to portray their side as virtuous and the other side as the incarnation of evil.

The second problem is that, by today’s standards, while these battles were barbarous enough to make us shiver they were not that unusual for the times.  Thomas Asbrige, an historian from the University of London says “It is true…that by modern standards, atrocities were committed by crusaders, as they were by their Muslim opponents, it is however, far less certain that, by medieval standards, crusading violence could be categorized as distinctly extreme in all instances.”

We don’t excuse historical atrocities as a nothing more than sign of the times but neither can we project back modern standards, particularly when we do it only to one side as the president did.  All actions need to be compared to the accepted norms of their time, even as we are free to find those norms repugnant today.

But the real problem is that when we make “this is just like that” comments we are always exposing our own biases more than we are the facts.  My Jewish friends are rightfully weary of always hearing things being called “just like the holocaust.”  All “just like” statements are given to make an apologetic point.  I am convinced that 90% of them are pretty much useless and a good portion are downright stupid.

So here are my self-imposed rules for making such comparisons.

  1. Don’t make comparative statements when I really don’t know both situations well.
  2. If I am comparing things across cultures or times be cautious and err on the side of grace.
  3. Remember that my own biases can cause me to blunder into some serious offense.

As I said, these are just for me.  But, Mr. President, if you are reading this you are free to borrow them.

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