Crusaders no more?

Last year they were voted the most successful sporting team in New Zealand and Australia during the past 25 years. The Super Rugby team could be the most colourful and romantic as well, with their medieval knightly trappings, but in the wake of the terrorist attack on Muslims in Christchurch last month, the Canterbury Crusaders “brand” stuck out like a sore thumb.

Suddenly, imagery innocently borrowed from Christian holy wars against Islamic conquerors appeared, at the very least, insensitive to the Muslim community, their dead and their injured.

Fans have loved the sword-brandishing knights with white crosses on their chests thundering around the ground before kick-off, their team songs “Search For The Holy Grail” and “Conquest Of Paradise”, the sword stuck in the ground after title victories – but the world has changed and real history has come into sharp focus. An Aussie terrorist – who identifies with the original crusaders – has ruined it for them.

The vibe from the Prime Minister’s office, and explicit messages from academics and media pundits that it’s time to drop the crusader identity all point to the end of an era. NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew has said the Crusaders branding, at least, is "no longer tenable". Mind you, many have not given up on the name: a petition opposing change has nearly 25,000 signatures. With its alliteration and (intended) connotations of fearless manhood, "Canterbury Crusaders" is certainly a hard act to follow.

Can their image consultants come up with anything half as evocative that would not bring protests about cultural appropriation or “bad history”?

So, although I am not a fan, I feel for the Canterbury team and supporters. I also wonder about the wider implications of expunging “Crusader” from their title. Are we to purge crusader imagery from our public culture and stop talking about crusades altogether?

The Crusades have retained a place in Western culture for nearly a millennium, often glorified but sometimes demonised, as during the Enlightenment and in the 2005 film "Kingdom of Heaven". There must be hundreds of books, and there are at least a couple of dozen movies about these wars and warriors, or referencing them, including the Robin Hood genre. Are they to be banned – unless they portray the historical Crusaders as merely brutal Christian fanatics?

The Crusades have long provided us with a very handy metaphor for the quasi-religious fervour of champions of all sorts of causes.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Thomas Jefferson used the word this way in a letter of 1786, urging the jurist George Wythe to preach “a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people.” It has been used in contexts as different as the Spanish Civil War and Billy Graham evangelism. Dwight D. Eisenhower called his 1948 memoir of World War II Crusade in Europe.

It’s true, no mainstream figure would do that today. But may we no longer speak of crusading reformers, politicians and journalists? Or of particular movements (against poverty, inequality, climate change, abortion…) as crusades? As with the Canterbury rugby team, it is hard to think straight off of a word that does the same job – except for “jihad”, and that, of course, would not be acceptable either.

Times change; we must let go of some things and let other cultural reference points emerge. Metaphors are disposable. Historical events, however, remain, and the Crusades will always have their lessons for the present. The lesson for the Canterbury Crusaders seems to be that their team ultimately lost – but lived to fight another day.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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