Last week Interim President Irwin-Knott announced that Valparaiso University is retiring the Crusader mascot. This decision has caused some in our community to fear that we are turning away from our Lutheran Christian identity in order to better fit in with a changing society.
However, we believe this change is a step towards greater faithfulness to our Lutheran traditions and our duty to make the Gospel known.
As Lutheran pastors we’re always interested in what Luther wrote on any given topic. To be sure, just because Luther had an opinion on a subject does not automatically make it correct. But his best writing was deeply informed by his careful interpretation of the Christian scriptures. For this reason, his approach on a topic and his categories of thought are worthy of our review for possible guidance in our time. Such is the case on the topic of the Crusades and, by extension, “Crusaders.”
In 1529 Luther published a short book entitled “On War Against the Turk” (Luther’s Works, vol. p.156). The Turkish Ottoman empire had long been a source of concern for Europe. The Ottoman Turks had taken Constantinople in 1453. By the time of Luther’s writing they had defeated the King of Hungary and they had set their sights on Vienna. Many were urging a renewal of church-sanctioned crusades to counteract this threat and protect what they thought of as Christendom from Turkish incursion.
Luther was not a pacifist. He believed that defensive war against the Ottoman Turks was the duty of Emperor Charles whose vocation was to protect his subjects. As such, some subjects in the Empire, whose vocations were military, had a duty to serve under the Emperor in order to serve their neighbor.
It is on this question of vocation, not on the question of war itself, that Luther’s criticism of the Crusades as a model for Christian conduct is founded. Simply, he regarded a religious war, promulgated by the Church or any of its agents, to be antithetical to the work of the Church, the duty of which was to proclaim the gospel and forgive sins. He wrote, “...it is not right for the pope who wants to be a Christian, and the highest and best Christian preacher at that, to lead a church army, or army of Christians, for the church ought not to strive or fight with the sword. It has other enemies than flesh and blood…” What was more, the Church had taught that fighting in the Crusades earned one indulgences or merit before God in the afterlife. Luther opposed this teaching categorically.
We continue to hold tightly to Luther’s core teaching, rooted in the scriptures: we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. The Church’s call is to preach this gospel and forgive sins. As religious wars, the Crusades diverted the Church from this mission. We believe that retiring the Crusader mascot will help Valpo to focus on our true mission as well.
Rev. James A. Wetzstein, University Pastor
Katherine Museus Dabay, University Pastor
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of The Torch.