Heroes of the Christian Faith: St. Francis of Assisi

by Scott Bessenecker

(Editor’s note: This is the 3rd post in a series on Heroes of the Christian Faith.)

heroes of the Christian faith, Scott Bessenecker, Intervarsity, evangelismEight hundred years ago, in Spring of 1216, Christian forces were preparing an attack on the Muslim stronghold in Damietta, Egypt.

Not only had Christians lost the Holy Land, but Muslims populations were proliferating across North Africa and into Spain. Nobody living in Christian Europe could have escaped the hostility toward Islam, and the hatred seemed to rally two populations into the crusader’s ranks—mercenaries and missionaries. Saint Francis of Assisi belonged to the latter.

Ever since his youth Francis had dreamt about the glories of knighthood. But now that he was head of a religious reform movement—by this time 5,000 members had flocked to his order—he was ready to trade the temporal glories of knighthood for the eternal glories of martyrdom. Francis wanted to lay down his life for the faith and so he joined the fifth crusade.

Nothing had prepared Francis for the savagery he witnessed among his countrymen and fellow Christians. One hundred thousand men, languishing on the banks of the Nile, had been demoralized by a year-long siege which had gained them nothing. Francis found the Crusaders “drunk, dissolute, greedy and availing themselves of the Sicilian harlots who wandered from tent to tent.”[i]

Shortly after his arrival, a group of Saraceans approached camp, probably to offer terms of peace. The Crusaders cut off their noses and lips and gouged out one eye on each man sending them back to their fortress in disgrace.

Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil was a devout man who hated war and bloodshed. In exchange for calling off the siege, he offered the Christian invaders the city of Jerusalem, finances to repair Jerusalem’s walls, the return of all Christian hostages, the surrender of Christian relics, and a 30-year truce. But despite the fact that the Crusaders were dying of tropical diseases, lack of clean water, and disastrous attempts to breach the fortress, all negotiations were rejected. Hatred of Muslims and desire for their complete annihilation drove them on.

Francis convinced the Cardinal to allow him to go into the enemy camp and speak to the Sultan. Perhaps the man would convert to Christianity if reasoned with. Francis was given express orders not to negotiate terms on behalf of the Crusaders and the Christian leaders washed their hands of him, convinced they would see his head on a spike before the day was out.

What Francis found in al-Kamil was an intelligent and judicious man who considered Francis a holy man, much like the Muslim Sufis. Francis spent a week in the city as the guest of the Sultan, and while al-Kamil listened to his explanation of the gospel, he refused the invitation to convert. Thankfully, he also rejected his men’s desire to decapitate Francis for the attempt to proselytize the Sultan, saying, “I will never condemn you to death—for that would indeed be an evil reward to bestow on you, who conscientiously risked death in order to save my life before God, as you believe.”[2]

After that visit, something shifted in Francis. His attitude toward martyrdom and Muslims changed. Not that Francis was any less convinced of the universal truth of the gospel, but he wanted to live out a prophetic alternative to the popular opinion of conversion by military conquest. And while intelligent conversation and appeal are important in evangelism, Francis declared, “I wish only to show reverence to all and to convert everyone more by example than by word.”[3]

Hostilities between Muslims and Christians have changed little in 800 years. True, we no longer conduct evangelism through military conquest, but our understanding of Islam and engagement with the Muslim community does not rise out of relationship.

More often than not, Christians who are serious about their faith do not have friendships with Muslims who are serious about theirs. We allow Christian-Muslim relations to be dictated by those at the fringe—either the extremists in our traditions, or those in our communities who don’t believe in any universal truths. Where are serious Muslims and serious Christians building serious friendships? Muslims without a single Christian friend and Christians without a single Muslim friend have the microphone way too often in our mosques and in our churches, and they are feigning to teach the rest of us what the “other” believes.

It’s time to write a new evangelistic script. Instead of letting our Christian friends define Muslim faith, let’s allow our Muslim friends to define their faith for themselves. And maybe in the process of growing true, sacrificial friendships, our Muslim friends will begin to see and hear a gospel unencumbered by hundreds of years of hostility.

[i] Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi,2002, New York: NY, Penguin Group

[2] Ibid, 161

[3] Ibid, 160

Scott-Bessenecker-2Scott Bessenecker (@Bessenecker) is associate director of mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year, he helps to mobilize thousands of students to high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. and to dozens of nations around the world. He is author or editor of five books, including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Scott also blogs at www.OverturningTabels.net.

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