I’m not sure it’s possible to answer this question in a general or universal way that would apply to all Christians during all the time periods when Crusades were launched. (Don’t forget the Church in Rome also launched Crusades against European Christians who were deemed “heretical,” not to mention the horrific Fourth Crusade, which saw European Christians sacking the Christian city of Constantinople, starting in 1204 CE.)
But, as in any major world event involving political goals, military goals, economic goals, religious goals, and scientific goals, it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about the “inner experience” of individual men, women, and children during these events. And it’s the inner experience that’s of interest to God.
So during an event such as a Crusade, there will always be some people who have no interest at all in their relationship with God; they’re interested in the status and the money and the power and so on. That’s their motive for going on a Crusade. They may say they’re fighting for the glory of God, but, as recent events in the Syria have shown us, I think it’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference between a person who has a loving relationship with God and a psychopath who’s flying a religious banner to justify horrific abuse against others.
Then there will be people who are forced into participating in a Crusade against their will and against the voice of their own conscience. This is often the largest group during a major political-military-economic event. There are people on both sides of the conflict who don’t want to fight but see no other way to protect their families and communities.
And, of course, there will always be a group of people who, for various personal reasons, find ways to distance themselves from a Crusade, perhaps by fleeing or refusing to fight or being conscientious objectors or some other means of protesting the event.
At the end of the fighting and major turmoil, when the long process of rebuilding begins, some people will have learned nothing at all from the Crusade about healing or forgiveness or faith or relationship with God; some people will have learned about the futility of violence, though not necessarily much about forgiveness; and a few people will have learned the most powerful lessons a human being can learn about the journey of redemption as Jesus taught it. (One of the greatest 20th century teachers from the latter group was Dr. Viktor Frankl.)
The evolution of Christian thinking, and the evolution of Christian morality, has been – and, I suspect, will continue to be – a long, slow, non-linear process where some people learn nothing from the Christian experience during their human lifetimes and other people learn vast amounts, with most people lying somewhere in the middle. But in each generation there are always some Christian thinkers and doers who manage to seize hold of Jesus’ core teachings and pull others along with them as they expand on what Jesus taught us about our relationship with God.
The evolution of Christian morality is not often thought of as something that grows and changes and strengths over time. We’ve long had an unfortunate tendency to assume that Christian morality is a simple black and white set of laws that any idiot can and should follow.
The pages of history, however, prove that Christian morality has never been a simple part of the human experience. In fact, its evolution over the centuries has been in lockstep with the evolution of our scientific understanding. The two have been mutually intertwined. Scientific theories have evolved, changed, and strengthened over time (with many false starts and fresh beginnings as we uncover previous errors in our scientific theories). The scientific theories have brought new questions to our moral understanding, which in turn undergoes further changes as previous errors in our moral understanding are uncovered (for example, the Crusades). And then our moral evolution helps us ask new questions in the expanding fields of pedagogical and scientific inquiry.
There’s nothing so complex as understanding all the colours and musical notes and healing layers and scientific questions and languages and stories that are part of our relationship with God. No one person can grasp it all, and God knows this. But each person has the capacity to grasp part of it. It’s our Christian morality – our foundation of cognitive and emotional and spiritual beliefs – that demands we ask certain kinds of questions about our relationships with ourselves, each other, God, and all Creation (questions involving empathy, forgiveness, learning, and transformation).
As Jesus tried to teach us, it’s the journey that counts. As Christians, we all make mistakes along the way. We all misunderstand parts of the message. We all misapply some of the teachings in our daily lives. But as long as we’re willing to keep trying to recognize our mistakes and learn from our mistakes, we’re still on the path and still trying to deepen our relationship with God. This is where Divine Forgiveness helps keep us strong and helps us find the courage to keep trying to turn our lemons into lemonade.
This is all anybody can do.
And it’s fair to say, from an historical perspective, that many, many Christian thinkers and doers have brought some pretty amazing lemonade into the world, one scientific and moral lemon at a time.