piety

Reverent devotion to God. I can respect that. I met lots of pious people in my recent trip and conference. Please don’t confuse piety with being sanctimonious or pretentious. Piety connotes humility while these other more common traits suggest self-absorption rather than God-absorption.

In my last installment of this series, I told a story of a peaceful transaction between an Israeli and a Palestinian, to show that peace is possible where humility is allowed to work. Today I have another true story to make the same point, only further. This story does not take place in a time of peace, as did the last one, but in a time of unrest, and even war in much of the then-known world. The four main characters are Francis, Honorius, Pelagius, and Al-Kamil. Ever heard of these guys? Well Francis is now better known as Saint Francis, and well, it stands to reason that you haven’t heard of the rest, even though they were all more “important” in their day. This is a story of Piety, and the lack thereof.

Honorius III succeeded Pope Innocent III. Innocent started the 5th Crusade and Honorius continued it. In admittedly simplistic terms, while other crusades were matters of violence to gain control of church factions or nonbelievers, this one was an effort of the Latin Church to regain control of the Holy Land, by way of Damietta, Egypt. Damietta was key because control of Damietta meant control of the Nile and if it was gained it could then be used as a staging area to take Jerusalem. Pope Honorius was safely in the Vatican. His job was to give general directives and incentives. For example, he could absolve crusaders for the atrocities they were committing, making them at least a little more willing to be soldiers in unknown lands. But Pelagius. He was the Pope’s man on the ground – not to the point of getting his hands dirty, but at least in a position to see the blood, gore, and human loss of the battles. I have no doubt that his heart was hardened as was Pharoah’s, or Custer’s, or Himmler’s. Al-Kamil was the leader of the other side of the fight. A Muslim Sultan, he fought hard and viciously, as did the soldiers on both sides. Both sides were fighting not for oil or gas, but for their gods. Those gods were Allah, or Jehovah, or Political Power. Throughout history people have mis-equated Political Power and God, and Pelagius and Al-Kamil were neither the beginning nor the end of this practice. But these two holy-war makers experienced something they probably did not expect: a visit from an actual man of God.

Francis was from a little town called Assisi in Italy. He was an upper middle class party-boy in his youth, but at a certain point he “saw the Light,” so to speak, and devoted his life to things holy. He actually believed that God could affect people’s lives for better. He actually believed that God could bring peace, if man would cooperate. He believed this so fervently that in Late August of 1219 he traveled to Damietta during the Crusade and pleaded with Pelagius to allow him to cross the front line and speak to Al-Kamil. Not for the Crusaders, or the Pope, but for God. Christ. Pelagius finally agreed. Likely, in his cold little Grinch heart, he believed that Francis would become a martyr, prompting his soldiers to a more vengeful state of mind for battle. But regardless of the motive, Pelagius approved Francis’ travel into Muslim territory. To my surprise when I first heard this story, Al Kamil received Francis graciously. He was as unarmed as Andy Griffith, as respectful as June Cleaver, and as pious as the ancestors claimed by both Muslims and Christians. He came in peace and he was received in peace. He was allowed to explain the Christian Gospel to the Muslim Court. He listened when they explained their beliefs. They prayed together, Francis to Christ and Al-Kamil to Allah. They became friends in spite of the circumstances. (Pilgrimage VIII)

Before this visit, Al-Kamil had offered to release Jerusalem in exchange for a release of Damietta but Pelagius declined. (what an opportunity missed for greed!) After Francis’ visit with Al-Kamil he traveled north to Acre, and the battle resumed. Here is where history depends on who is telling the story. The Muslim version is that the Nile flooded the Crusaders and Al Kamil, having humanized his enemies because of Francis, helped them survive the flood and then worked out peace. The Christian version says that Al Kamil took advantage of the flood and attacked.

Regardless, I respect the piety and the faith of Francis above the rest. I wonder how many souls might have been saved if more of the church acted with the faith of Francis. I wonder how many souls could be saved in the 21st Century if there were more Francises.

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