As someone who was raised as an evangelical Protestant, I understand that anti-Semitism is rife and that its power is its seeming invisibility. As with our faith, those of us who are Christians aren’t expected to question the roots and reach of our dominance. It’s just normal.
So how do we reconcile our cultural upbringing and faith – our inherited views on the world – with what’s true; and not just that, but also take responsibility for the consequences when disingenuous hands pull the cords of government in Christianity’s name?
When I saw Oren Jacoby’s documentary film Constantine’s Sword, a discerning exploration of Christian-influenced political power, violence, and war, I grasped for the first time how Christian hegemony institutionally feeds militarism. The film explores the life and work of James Carroll, a journalist, author, and former Roman Catholic priest who became politicized during the US war against Vietnam and who wields his continued faith to interrogate the “things people do in the name of God.”
Adapted from Carroll’s 2001 book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History , in the space of 95 engaging minutes the film focuses on the roots of Christian zealotry in US political affairs – and the consequences for Jews.
Carroll grew up Irish-Catholic. His father, a devout Catholic, was an FBI agent who became an Air Force general and headed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. Speaking very personally, Carroll insists that “we have some clear reckoning with history to do.”
As a current sign of the relationship between Christianity and the military, the film details the growing conservative Christian evangelical movement headquartered in Colorado Springs – which is also home to the United States Air Force Academy – and exposes attempts within the school to convert non-believing cadets, including Jewish ones.
But more importantly, the film reviews how contemporary Christian militarism in the US fits into the long centuries of violent Christian anti-Semitism. As one scholar in the film says, “If you want to understand anti-Semitism, don’t study Jews, study non-Jews.” Carroll takes us back in time to do that, journeying to the Vatican; the Rhine River valley in Germany, a site where, in the 11th century, European crusaders wiped out entire Jewish settlements; and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
The film revisits Constantine I, who in the fourth century CE took over Rome after supposedly having a vision of his sword in the form of the cross. As the newly crowned emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine established Christianity as the state religion. The film claims that Constantine (who killed his eldest son and wife) used Christianity to “strengthen his hold on power” by uniting Rome under the cross.
Carroll says that before Constantine invoked the cross as a symbol of execution and the celebration of military might, Christians had tended to favor religious images of life – the fish, lamb, and shepherd.
Carroll asks, “How did Jews get cast as the villain?” The film confronts the supposed role of Jews in Jesus’ death on the cross, and the blame placed on the heads of all Jews by Catholic and Protestant leaders down through the centuries. ???? ????? ??????? ????
He traces the murderous use of this anti-semitic slander. Carroll reflects deeply on how “people paid with their lives for the way that story was told.” Jews were blamed for sickness throughout Europe, and persecuted through forced Christian conversions, ghettoization, pogroms, expulsions, and killings. Religious attacks on Jews were supplemented with persecutions based on “blood,” through racial laws upheld by the Roman papacy.
The film charts the complicity and influence of popes who supported governments from Constantine’s to those of our current time. In one example, the future Pope Pius XII (then a Cardinal) forged a bilateral concordat with Hitler in 1932, which Carroll sees as a “symbol of the alliance between church and state.” As Pope, he later refused to speak out publicly and explicitly against the Nazi persecution of the Jews. He even ignored a letter of warning from Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who had converted and become a Catholic nun, and who later was killed in Auschwitz.
For Carroll, this trajectory details the immorality of using “religion as a possible sponsor of war,” and he laments that Protestantism has come to adopt that same program.
Carroll’s exposé of the crimes of the first Crusades is relevant to understanding George Bush’s “crusade” against terrorism. The institutional treatment of a religious-ethnic group with “intolerance, suspicion, and hatred” is not new. In a political climate in which it is increasingly acceptable to target Muslims with vitriol and violence, Carroll points out, “Islam is accused of the problem [of religiously motivated violence], as if Christianity is innocent.”
Searching but un-preachy, Carroll bears witness with deep reflection, sorrow, and concern. At Birkenau, he rests his hand on the shoulder of a crying survivor of the death camp who daily walks visitors through the verdant grounds, which are now marked by a towering cross.
Constantine’s Sword is a personal and historical investigation that’s daring and necessary – an earnest warning that “no war is holy.” If you miss it in the theater, look for the film on DVD starting in August.
by Melony Swasey