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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

Contantine the Great was the Roman emperor that embraced Christianity in the 4th century and gave this religion the necessary means to propagate itself throughout the Roman Empire and become, over time, the world's largest religion. The story goes, that on the eve of the crucial Milvian Bridge battle of Rome in 312, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the night sky with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces ("with this sign you shall win") across it. He pledged that if he would be victorious, he would embrace Christianity. Thus, "Constantine's Sword" became a symbol of the power of the cross combined with the sword, the power of the Christian Church.

James Carroll used to be a Catholic priest, and nowadays he's a writer-historian with a mission in life: to reform the Catholic Church. For Carroll, the fundamental flaw and central issue in the church's thinking since its inception, the "defining sin" if you like, is the church's attitude towards Jews. In this book, Carroll describes almost 2,000 years of how the church thought, preached and acted towards Jews. It is an extended version of J'accuse, an indicting statement against the Catholic chruch through the ages. What Carroll tries to show is that an alternative path could have been chosen by the church's leaders at various points in this bloody and murderous journey, a path that would have defined the Christian-Jewish debate in completely different terms.

Carroll strips traditional Christian beliefs apart, showing how they were formed and why they are flawed. He does so by starting the obvious: Jesus lived and died as Jew, wanting to renew and reform his fellow Jews. It was only much later, within the context of the debate between his followers and the Jewish majority and in response to the persecution by the Roman emperors, that the concept of the "other" was formed and a line separating the two religions began to form. He does so also by unravelling the political and economic factors hiding behind the church's leaders' so-called theological decisions through the ages: from Constantine's "conversion of convenience", through the murder and explusion of Jews for "religious reasons", culminating the in unholy pact between Pope Pius XII and Hitler shortly after the latter came to power.

This book is, strictly speaking, not a history book. Many would undoubtedly argue, and with justice, that Carroll is not an historian and his use of secondary (and selective) sources to prove his point of view is not rigorously academic. But I don't think that was his intent. This is very much a personal story, of how Carroll fell in love with the Catholic Church, how he became a priest, why he decided to remove his habit, his journeys through Europe and his ideas about chruch reform. This combination of historical facts with a personal story is very powerful. Although it does become a little too personal for my likeing when he tells us about his erotic attraction to his pious mother, who took him to see the seamless robe of Jesus in Trier.

I read this book during and after a course I took about Jews and Christians in medieval times. It was a good companion to the course and helped me frame many historical events in their proper context. It is not an easy book to read (not least because of its length) but it's a must read for anyone wanting to understand the core values that drove, and to a certain extent are still driving, the attitude of the Catholic church towards Jews.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there...the book is now a movie opening next week in NYC theatres. WE did a sneak preview two nights ago at the JCC in Manhattan that was packed and filled with area clergy. The film opens, coincidentally, the day the POPE is in town, visiting Park East Synagogue.

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