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Donald Trump, St Francis And The Crusades

20/02/2016 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign stop Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

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The much-awaited New Hampshire primaries served up hope and apprehension in equal portions. Those who are cheering liberal socialist Bernie Sanders's victory over the more Wall Street-friendly Hillary Clinton are also watching Donald Trump's ascendancy with growing dread. A Trump presidency, which seemed unthinkable a year ago, is now a distinct possibility.

If there is one thing more appalling than Trump's megalomania, it is his xenophobia. His views on Muslim immigrants and his proposed solutions to the vexing problems of the Middle East have left not just wide swathes of American society appalled but many in the international community clearly worried. Unlike former US Presidents who veiled their expansionist designs in the Middle East with rhetoric such as "liberating Kuwait" (official excuse for Gulf War 1) or "finding weapons of mass destruction" (official excuse for Gulf War 2) Trump is blatantly candid about his plans for the Middle East. He endorses torture and suggests waterboarding is too gentle.

Trump is blatantly candid about his plans for the Middle East. He endorses torture and suggests waterboarding is too gentle.

His basic plan for ISIS is to bomb them, cut off their oil funds, and then send in American oil companies to rebuild the infrastructure. "They'll rebuild that sucker, brand new. And then I'll take the (Syrian and Iraqi) oil."

Trump's popularity is difficult to digest but hardly surprising when viewed in light of the recent resurgence of right-wing nationalism across the world. Countries known for their liberal pluralism are increasingly voting in presidents, prime ministers and governments known for their intolerance of ethnic minorities. Why is this?

Perhaps the answer lies in Satan's cynical observation in the Book of Job: "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life." Extrapolate the thought to a nation and you get an electorate who, tired of ongoing economic problems and scared of the 'enemy at the gates' (both real and imagined) ends up believing a demagogue's promises of prosperity, security and supremacy. Those who want quick and easy solutions often mistake rhetoric for policy and arrogance for strength and end up paying a heavy price -- usually a curtailing of personal freedoms, an increase in national unrest and escalated tensions with other countries.

Those who want quick and easy solutions often mistake rhetoric for policy and arrogance for strength and end up paying a heavy price...

It would not be an overstatement that if elected, Trump could well undo decades of already fragile, unravelling international diplomacy and take the United States and the world back in time, some fear, all the way back to the darkness of the Crusades!

Speaking of the Crusades ...

Besides being one of the most ignominious examples of religious, economic and territorial expansionism in history, the Crusades, a series of intermittent military campaigns between 1095 and 1487 AD, also laid the groundwork for Christian-Muslim animosity that has lasted nearly a millennium. In addition to demonstrating "devotion to God", participation in the Crusades satisfied feudal obligations and provided opportunities for much economic and political gain. Crusaders often pillaged the countries through which they travelled, and contrary to their promises, the leaders retained much of this territory rather than returning it to the Byzantines. (Sound familiar?)

A little known fact about the Crusades, however, is that one of its soldiers went on to become one of its greatest critics and, believe it or not, one of the first international peacemakers the world has ever known -- Francis of Assisi, also known as St Francis by later generations! The son of Pietro di Bernardone, a prosperous silk merchant, Francis of Assisi went from being a soldier in the Crusades and a wealthy young socialite to a monk who embraced the vows of simplicity and poverty. What many do not know about Francis is that he made several attempts to visit the troops fighting in the Holy Land, and actually met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, in September 1219 in Damietta, Egypt.

The mistrust and hatred between the East and West in the 13th century, and between Christianity and Islam, matches if not exceeds what we are facing today.

It is important to realize that the mistrust and hatred between the East and West in the 13th century, and between Christianity and Islam, matches if not exceeds what we are facing today. There was almost no actual knowledge of Islamic culture or religion in Europe at that time, even among the educated and the popes, but rather only scary stereotypes of "the enemy."

The vast majority of voices in the Western Church had been swept up in the fervour of the anti-Islamist Crusades which began in 1095. There were nine Crusades; Francis intervened in the fifth. Popes repeatedly used promises of eternal life and offered indulgences and total forgiveness of sin for those who would fight these "holy wars" that were then backed up by kings and official Crusade preachers.

In stark contrast, Francis did the unthinkable and entered the world of another-- of one who was considered a public enemy of his world and religion! He tried three times, but only succeeded in getting fully to his goal on the third try. This third time, he went to Egypt primarily to tell his own Christian troops that they were wrong in what they were doing (that is, in fighting the Fifth Crusade preached by Pope Innocent III and other Catholic leaders). Francis warned that the battle, and the war itself, would fail.

Francis managed to distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. He still felt compassion for the individual soldiers...

It is notable that he preached to the Christians (not the Muslims) and, "with salutary warnings, forbade the war, and the reasons for it, but truth was turned to ridicule and they hardened their hearts and refused to be guided."

His humility and respect for the other, and thus for Islam, gained him what seems to have been an extended time, maybe as much as three weeks, with the Sultan. The Sultan sent him away with protection and a gift (a horn that was the Islamic call to prayer, and is still preserved in Assisi), which says that they had given and received mutual regard and respect. There is no precedent that we know of for this kind of behaviour in the medieval period.

Francis managed to distinguish between institutional evil and the individual who is victimized by it. He still felt compassion for the individual soldiers, although he objected to the war itself. He "deeply grieved" over the impending battle, and "mourned" the soldiers, especially the Spaniards because of what he called their "greater impetuosity."

In fact, Francis made it clear that his objective in being among "the Saracens" was "not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to honour imago Dei (the image of God) in every human creature."

Nearly 500 years later, a tribute to Francis came from an unlikely source -- Vladimir Lenin! The leader of the Bolsheviks is supposed to have said shortly before his death, "If I would have just had ten Francises of Assisi, my revolution could have worked!"

He might have been right.

Social psychologists and philosophers trace the origins of war back to 'Two Alternative' or binary thinking'. The my way vs. your way paradigm where I am good, virtuous, wise and patriotic and Youare evil, irrational, unreasonable and vicious. The challenge has always been to find the Third Alternative or the Higher Way, and only those with the ability to rise above their own prejudices and to see a common humanity (or the 'image of God' if you will) in others -- including their enemies - are able to do so.

Let us fervently hope that the next President of the United States is one of those.

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