James Carroll

Constantine’s Sword

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Constantine’s Sword Summary

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In his non-fiction book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (2001), American author and former priest James Carroll chronicles centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe and explores the Roman Catholic Church’s role in spreading hatred of Jews. The book’s title refers to the 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine who, according to scholarship cited by Carroll, transformed the image of the Christian cross into an icon that symbolized a sword wielded by Christians against non-believers. In 2007, Constantine’s Sword was adapted into a documentary film directed by Oren Jacoby and starring Carroll.

In Carroll’s telling, anti-Semitism is more than an unfortunate byproduct of the Christian religion shared by its most prejudiced members. Rather, it is central to Christianity’s identity and has been for centuries. Carroll begins by describing Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to the grounds of the Auschwitz death camp. There, he prayed for the Catholics who died at the hands of Nazis at Auschwitz, including the Jewish convert Edith Stein, a woman later canonized as a saint in 1998. In response to Pope John Paul II’s desire for a monument commemorating the loss of Catholic lives during the Holocaust, a group of Carmelite nuns built a cross made of railroad ties on the grounds of Auschwitz. This led to an outcry among Jews who felt the monument was an attempt by Christians to co-opt Jewish suffering.

From this anecdote, Carroll launches his exploration into the role of the Catholic Church in propagating and spreading anti-Semitism, and how much blame Christians should bear for the Holocaust. And while he is careful to point out clear divisions and a significant measure of acrimony between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party, he argues that the widespread anti-Semitism in Europe on which Hitler capitalized was in large part a consequence of attitudes taken by the Catholic Church over its centuries-long history.

Carroll goes on to discuss Jesus’s own identity as a Jewish man. As one of many Jewish subjects living under the Roman Empire, Jesus’s struggle was one of asserting a bold and intense form of Jewish spirituality against an oppressive and brutal regime. Jesus, the author argues, sought to renew and reinvigorate Judaism, not replace it. Though Jesus emphasized the more loving aspects of God found in the Old Testament, he did not view his sermons as constituting a new religion or a new God.

Nevertheless, in the early centuries after Jesus’s death, Christians began to focus on Jesus’s death rather than on his life or his teachings. Partly, Carroll argues, this was as a way to blame Jews for Jesus’s death, reframing Jesus’s efforts as a battle between his own followers and Jews, as opposed to between Jews and the Romans. This reframing was driven in large part by Christians’ desire to assert themselves and their fledgling religion against Jews who were indifferent or hostile to the idea of Jesus as their savior. Rather than try to recruit these Jews, early Christians set their sights on converting those around the Roman Empire. From this perspective, it made sense for early Christian proselytizers to downplay the role played by the Romans in killing Jesus and enlarge the role played by Jews.

Throughout the book, Carroll identifies a number of potential “turning points,” when Christianity could have reconfigured itself away from an emphasis on Jesus’s death at the hands of Jews and toward a dogma more in line with Jesus’s actual teachings. The first comes with the ascent of Constantine as the head of the Roman Empire in the year 306. Constantine was the earliest Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However, rather than frame Constantine’s conversion as a matter of divine intervention, Carroll views it as a savvy political move designed to gain support among the Empire’s growing ranks of Christians. In Carroll’s telling, the biggest consequence of Constantine’s conversion was that it aligned Christianity—a religion built upon a man who opposed imperial power—into a tool of that same power. By using secular, imperial power to banish and murder Jews under the reigns of Constantine and his successors, Christians betrayed the teachings of Christ.

Arguably the worst examples of Christians persecuting Jews came during the Holy Inquisitions of the Medieval era. This, Carroll argues, represented a key shift in Christians’ attitude toward Jews in that they now defined Jews by blood and heritage rather than belief. This definition would be used by Nazi Germany as well, which slaughtered Jews regardless of whether they were believers or not. And while the Nazis were hostile to the Catholic Church throughout the Third Reich era, the Vatican remained officially neutral as millions of Jews were killed. Moreover, a number of high-profile bishops and other Catholic leaders were closely linked to the so-called “ratlines” used to smuggle fugitive Nazis out of Europe.

Constantine’s Sword is a thorough exploration of anti-Semitism’s history and one that may challenge preconceived notions about Christian-Jew relations over the past two millennia.