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Was St. Francis a peacenik?

Today at The Immanent Frame, I’ve got a report on last night’s event at Fordham University on St. Francis’ mysterious encounter with the sultan of Egypt. More and more, it is being remembered as an antidote to the “clash of civilizations” and a model for Christian-Muslim peacebuilding. But is the history really what we want it to be? And what do we need from history to take on the work of making peace today?

It’s tough to imagine a better run-up for today’s interfaith—or inter-civilizational, or whatever you want to call it—dialogue: at the height of the Fifth Crusade in the summer of 1219, St. Francis of Assisi traveled to the battlefield at Damietta, Egypt, went behind enemy lines, met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, and then returned to Europe to continue his career as one of the greatest of medieval saints. There may even have been a miraculous gauntlet of fire involved, depending on which of the various contrasting reports from the period you read. Really, beside a few basic facts, the reports agree on very little, least of all what we might now want from the story most.

When I first learned about the story—it was the subject of a college paper I wrote in 2005—I could find few modern sources to draw from. As I gathered every early account I could, it amazed me that, in the proverbially post-9/11 world, a bigger deal wasn’t being made of Francis’ adventure. Now that has changed. On February 17th, with half the foreheads in the packed room marked by Ash Wednesday smears, Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture sponsored a forum with four authors who have recently written about it: two historians, a Franciscan sister, and a journalist.

Read the rest at The Immanent Frame.