Winning souls for Christ with fire and sword was the strangest concept I wrestled with during my Road Scholar trip to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (Except for some of the unmarked, two-handled shower controls. Inscrutable.) A book they told us to read, The Northern Crusades, had me hollering down the corridors of time at the founder of the Cistercian order of monks, “Bernard, what were you thinking?”
Bernard of Clairvaux. You picture him like this, right? Humble. Saintly. Give him points for writing about loving God because of Who He is, and for reforming the monastic movement, but he also wrote the book on how soldier monks can knock the (literal) demons out of pagans so as to prepare them to hear the Gospel. Wherever crusaders might go, he said, they should fight the unbelievers “until such a time as, by God’s help, they shall be either converted or deleted.” Um.
Bernard wrote the rule book for the Knights Templar, of Holy Land crusade fame, and the Teutonic Knights adopted pretty much the same constitution. The Teutonics started out as a small group in Palestine. Then some German nobles decided they needed their own version of the Templars and started enriching the humble hospitalers with cash, castles and property. Just in time, they had a trained and disciplined army ready to subdue the pagans, and, oh, by the way, take over some new territory to the east. A bishop or two spoke up: “If they had come to strengthen the Christian faith… they should do so by preaching, not by arms.” Well, yeah, the Bible says a thing or two about that. But the Pope said go, you’re official crusaders, and your sins will be absolved.
The conquests are a long story. Some of the “missionaries” went full Old Testament on temples of scary four-headed idols, tearing down the statues, chopping and burning what were by all accounts beautiful buildings. But they brought the Good News: join our church, or we chop your head off. On occasion, the pagans chopped and burned them right back.
Now Latvia and Lithuania are mostly Roman Catholic, and there are churches all over. The tour guides who show them to you still say, “Christianity came to us with fire and sword.” And Estonians say, “We are the least religious people in the world.” I couldn’t decide whether that was a boast, a joke, a neutral fact, all of the above? The country is nominally Lutheran. I’d go for the coffee and lutefisk over the death threats too. Well, maybe not the lutefisk. But I vote for doing things the way God says in His Book. More potlucks. Less mess. And maybe a faith that’s more than nominal.