Novelist and National Book Award winner James Carroll claims that Constantine’s Sword is a work of history, and he even uses the term in his subtitle. But it is evident from the outset and amply displayed in chapter after chapter that the word "history"is a euphemism. This is a book driven by theological animus and padded with irrelevant, distracting material from Carroll’s own obsessively chronicled life. Too many pages of the book are self-absorbed meditations on the author’s likes (Bob Dylan, John XXIII) and dislikes (Cardinal Francis Spellman and Pius XII), all delivered with pompous solemnity ("I presume to measure the sweep of history against the scope of my own memory"). The book is filled with information, much of it familiar. Carroll bases his narrative almost wholly on the works of others. If one turns to the notes to check the basis for his comments, the most frequent phrase one finds is "quoted by" whether the passage be from Rosemary Radford Ruether, Salo Baron, Marc Saperstein, Hans Küng, John Cornwell, or others. In a work of such scope it is inevitable that one will have to rely on the scholarship of others, but Carroll displays little understanding of the ambiguities or shortcomings of his sources. Constantine’s Sword is a six-hundred-page indictment of the church for its attitudes toward and treatment of the Jews, deploying historical information to support its accusations. It is an effort not to understand but to use history to advance a tendentious agenda.

The central thesis can be stated simply: "Auschwitz is the climax of the story that begins at Golgotha. Just as the climax of Oedipus Rex...reveals that the hubris that drove the play’s action was itself the flaw that shaped the king’s character, so we can...say that Auschwitz, when seen in the links of causality, reveals that the hatred of Jews has been no incidental anomaly but a central action of Christian history, reaching to the core of Christian character."

Though the author shifts repeatedly from recent events (even Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998, appears) and his own experiences to ancient and medieval times, the material in Constantine’s Sword breaks down into three large historical periods: Christian beginnings and the early church; the Middle Ages through the Reformation; and the modern age, beginning with the Enlightenment and ending with Pius XII and Edith Stein. At the end Carroll appends a wordy fifty-page proposal for the future titled "A Call for Vatican III" and an epilogue, "The Faith of a Catholic."

The first section argues that a fatal mistake was made at the very beginning of Christianity. Following the thinking of Ruether, Carroll adopts the view that Christian contempt for the Jews is derived from Christology, in particular the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Because most Jews did not accept Jesus as Messiah, rejection of the Jews became a defining characteristic of orthodox Christianity. This leads Carroll to conclude that the "death camps are causally linked through two millennia to mistakes made by the first generation of Christians." Hence Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic and the only way forward for the church is "a revision of what we believe about Jesus." The church needs to recover the Jesus who lived before Christians imposed an alien creed on his life and teachings, the Jesus who preached a message of love of the God who created not just one group but all human beings.

With this as foundation, Carroll proceeds to Constantine and the church fathers. His aim is to show that Christianity’s fatal flaw (its belief in the uniqueness of Christ) now takes social and institutional form. But Carroll’s evidence is thin and largely rhetorical (especially sermons), not legal or social. Jewish life went on uninterrupted across the Roman Empire, new synagogues were constructed, and Jewish cultural life flourished. In this period Christians were rivals to the Jews, not oppressors. To be sure, the rhetoric of the church fathers is sometimes extreme (the synagogue is called "a haunt of infidels," "home of the impious," "under the damnation of God"), and when ancient sermons were read in medieval Europe, they had unforeseen consequences. But there is no basis for seeing in early Christian writings on the Jews a portent of the Inquisition or a premonition of the Final Solution. Christianity and Judaism, it must not be forgotten, had a quarrel over the significance of Jesus of Nazareth and the Law. Once Christians embraced Jesus as the Messiah and dispensed with the authority of the Law, it was inevitable that Jews, who continued to live by the Law, would be the object of criticism. It was the spiritual challenge of a vibrant Judaism that spawned sermons and treatises against the Jews. It is perhaps too much to ask that a writer who consciously overheats his language to arouse the emotions of his readers show some sensitivity to the polemical rhetoric of another age.

Carroll makes the novel, but unhistorical, claim that with the conversion of Constantine the Cross of Christ replaced the life of Christ in the Christian imagination, and that this set Christians decisively against the Jews. As evidence he notes that the original Nicene Creed (a.d. 325) did not have the words "was crucified" and "died" under Pontius Pilate. What Carroll overlooks is that these phrases occur in almost all early Christian creeds (and in the New Testament), and it is a historical accident that the creed on which Nicaea was based did not include the words "was crucified." Yet Carroll imposes a wholly wilful interpretation on the additions made at the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381). The difference, he writes, "marks a turning point in our inquiry," for now the Son of God came "not to be one of us, not to take on the human condition," but "in order to be crucified." The shift set in motion a dynamic that will "keep Jews at the heart of a quickened, and quickly armed [!], Christian hatred."

But this is pure fantasy, and the reckless use of the term "armed" is an example of Carroll’s reliance on innuendo to advance his argument. His treatment of the early church shows as little understanding of Christian theology as it does of the social setting of early Christian writings against the Jews. The leitmotif of early Christian thought is precisely that the devine Son took on our condition in order that we might share in God’s life. In the words of Saint Athanasius: "He became man that we might become divine."

The second part of the book is taken up with an extensive description of Christian mistreatment of Jews in the Middle Ages, beginning with the Crusades, then tracing the rise of tales of blood libel, and ending with the forced conversion of Jews during the Inquisition, their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Rome. Especially in sermons preached in the later Middle Ages, one can see how old stereotypes of the Jews had deadly consequences. It is a sordid tale and the violence of Christians against Jews in the Middle Ages is a very dark chapter in the church’s history. It can only fill the Christian reader with sorrow and shame and a yearning for repentance.

Carroll does give space to dissenting voices. He notes that Gregory the Great opposed the forced conversion of Jews, that Bernard of Clairvaux spoke out against attacks on the Jews, and that certain bishops valiantly strove to protect the Jews from the passions of the populace. But Carroll seems always to opt for the most malign interpretation and to claim that theological grounds were used to justify whatever Christians did. What I find most puzzling is Carroll’s strained attempt to trace everything back to the Cross. In one of the most astonishing sections of the book he singles out Anselm of Canterbury for particular censure. Anselm, an early scholastic theologian (1033-1109), was the author of a famous book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), in which he argued that Christ’s death was a sacrifice offered by God’s perfect son to satisfy divine justice. Anselm’s preoccupation with Christ’s death leads Carroll to the unsupported conclusion that the death of Christ became the central saving event in Christianity, thereby making the situation of the Jews even more precarious. The point of Anselm’s book was to demonstrate according to philosophical reason, that the Incarnation was necessary (hence "Why did God become man?"), and that the redemption of mankind had to take place as presented in the Gospels. Salvation was possible only through the work of one who was at once true God and true man.

It is apparent in Carroll’s discussion of Anselm that there is something much deeper at work here than historical explanation. Any teaching, so the argument goes, that rests on the events in the Gospels, as for example the crucifixion of Christ in Jewish Jerusalem, and claims that in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection God was definitively made known, is incurably anti-Semitic. That is really the message of this book, and in an interlude Carroll illustrates the problem with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me."

It is this belief, according to Carroll, that is the source of the church’s anti-Semitism, and also the exclusionary creed adopted at Nicaea (because of its assertion that Christ is God), and the triumphalism of Pope Boniface VIII (and John Paul II). With logic such as this it is pointless to argue over the interpretation of persons or events in the Christian past or present. Christians are guilty for being Christians.

The final section of the book deals with the Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century papacy, especially Pius IX, the Dreyfus case in France, German Catholic intellectuals during the rise of Hitler, the reign of Pius XII and the fate of the Jews during World War II, etc. Carroll tells a familiar and now predictable story (for Pius XII he relies heavily on John Cornwell’s discredited Hitler’s Pope). But some material is less familiar, as for example the discussion of Abbot Ildefons Herwegen of the famous Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach in Germany.

According to Carroll, Herwegen was host to a meeting of Catholic scholars that took place at the monastery in the spring of 1933, shortly after the concordat between the Third Reich and the Vatican. Franz von Papen, vice-chancellor of the Reich, was in attendance and the gathering became a celebration of the Reichskonkordat. No doubt many of the Catholics who attended were supporters of the Reich, and some were themselves Nazis. The abbot, according to a speech cited by Carroll, gave his blessing to the "new form of the State." Unfortunately, there was no way to verify this report since Carroll bases his account on an unpublished lecture delivered in Poland three years ago.

But granted that the facts are correct, it is not clear what this incident proves except that during the Third Reich Catholics (and other Christians) were complicitous with Nazi authorities. That hardly demonstrates that the "arc" of Christian history "curves from Jesus to the Holocaust." Pusillanimity there certainly was and moral myopia and misguided nationalism, but nothing that gives evidence of theological anti-Semitism. Carroll forces everything through a very particular sieve, or to use his image, all actions that relate to the Jews are seen through the single lens of "religious hatred." "The church’s failure to denounce publicly or privately early Nazi violence aimed at Jews...is rooted in the church’s own anti-Semitism." There is no question that Christian teaching helped create an environment in which Nazi ideology could take root. For too many centuries Christians had grown accustomed to depicting the Jews as inferior, as adherents of a decadent religion, as the killers of Christ. In the years leading up to the World War II, resistance of Christian leaders to Nazi ideology was often too little and too late. But Nazism was an anti-Christian ideology and something more will be required to draw a direct line from the Gospels to the Final Solution.

Which brings me to Carroll’s conclusion. He proposes the convening of a Vatican Council III. This council, he says, will be "centrally Catholic," but will also include "Jews and Protestants, people of other faiths and of no faith, clergy and laity and, emphatically women." One purpose of the council will be for the church to purge itself of the "anti-Jewish consequences of the New Testament." For the church which "betrayed Jesus in the first generation has been betraying him ever since." Repentance not only requires transforming the church into an egalitarian and democratic institution ("conversation is our hope"), it will mean a thorough revision of Christian belief. In particular the church must dismantle the Cross (and by that Carroll means "removing the horizontal beam"), banishing it as a symbol of Christian faith, and abandon her belief that Christ is the savior of the world.

The question of the Jews is only the first item on the agenda. The council must also address the oppression of women, patriarchal autocracy, dishonesty, clericalism, exclusion of the laity in decision making, denominational narcissism, harmful views on sexuality and clerical celibacy, all of which, Carroll believes, stem from the church’s theology of the Jewish people. But clearly this catalogue of vices is driven by something more than the church’s relation to the Jews. If Carroll is genuinely interested in the church and the Jews, he knows that for almost half a century Christian thinkers, church leaders, and catechists have made extraordinary efforts to come to terms with the "teaching of contempt." Whether one thinks of the decree Nostra aetate of Vatican II and other Catholic statements over the last two decades, or the various declarations of the World Council of Churches and Protestant denominations, the depth and seriousness of Christian engagement with Judaism and the Jewish people is unprecedented in Christian history.

In 1980 Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to the Jewish synagogue of Rome where he called the Jews "our dearly beloved brothers," and on his visit to Germany in 1980 he said that the covenant with the people of God is "never revoked by God." Last spring the pope led a service of repentance in Rome in which there was a "confession of sins against the people of Israel," and on his journey to Jerusalem last year he made a pilgrimage to the holiest site of the Jews, the Western Wall of the Temple, and deposited this prayer of confession in a crack in the wall.

Of even greater theological significance, Nostra aetate cites Saint Paul’s words in Romans 11: "If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you." At Vatican II it would have been easy to transpose Paul’s present tense "support" into the past tense, "supported." It is thus of great significance that when Nostra aetate paraphrases Paul’s words it retains the present tense. The church received the revelation of the Old Testament from the Jewish people, and she "cannot forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been engrafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles." One might have expected, two thousand years later, to read, "drew sustenance" from the Jewish people. But what the decree says is, "draws sustenance from the root of that good olive tree." In these few lines the council laid to rest "supersessionism," the theological idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism.

Constantine’s Sword is behind the curve of history. Had this book been written fifty years ago it would have been noteworthy. But its message has been heard, digested, and acted upon. And the new openness of the church to the Jews has led to a dramatic transformation of relations between Jews and Christians. Just this last year a group of Jewish thinkers produced a remarkable document the first ever by Jews on Christianity and one that would have been inconceivable before the developments within Christian thinking a generation ago. Titled "A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," it speaks directly to Carroll’s concerns:

"Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to, Nazi atrocities against Jews. Other Christians did not protest sufficiently against these atrocities. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity. If the Nazi exterminations of the Jews had been fully successful, it would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians. We recognize with gratitude those Christians who risked or sacrificed their lives to save Jews during the Nazi regime. With that in mind, we encourage the continuation of recent efforts in Christian theology to repudiate unequivocally contempt of Judaism and the Jewish people. We applaud those Christians who reject this teaching of contempt, and we do not blame them for the sins committed by their ancestors."

Carroll knows about the church’s response over the last generation to its dealings with the Jews in the past, but deems it insufficient. He will not be satisfied until the "foundational assumptions of Christian faith" are challenged. The "entire structure of the Gospel narrative," he says, "is unworthy of the story it wants to tell." The church must free itself from any claim that "salvation, redemption, grace, perfection" have come in Christ. Coincidentally I read these words two days after hearing the epistle from the Mass on Christmas Eve: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men. . . " (Titus 2:11). For Carroll repentance can only mean renunciation of Christ and of Christian faith, as he puts it, repentance "without Golgotha, redemption or sacrifice."

At the end of the day, in spite of the enormous effort to lay bare the sins of the church over two millennia, Constantine’s Sword is not really a book about Christian theology of the Jews. Its subject is Christian theology tout court and its polemic springs from the currently fashionable "ideology of religious pluralism," what might be termed horror at strong opinions. Carroll wants a Christianity that celebrates a "Jesus whose saving act is only disclosure of the divine love available to all," and calls for a pluralism of "belief and worship, of religion and no religion, that honors God by defining God as beyond every human effort to express God." What we have then is a rather conventional cultural critique of Christianity. The Jews are the victims par excellence of the excesses of revealed religion. But what Carroll forgets is that the Jews too believe in revelation. If Christians, on the basis of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, cannot confess Jesus as Lord, can the Jews, on the basis of the Scriptures and Jewish tradition, claim that they are the elect people of God? In Carroll’s brave new world there will be neither Jews nor Christians. 

 


Related: Thomas Baker, "An Offer You Can Refuse"
The Editors on 'Hitler's Pope'
Paul Baumann, "Re: James Carroll"
An interview with James Carroll, "Father & Son, God & Country"

Published in the 2001-01-16 issue: 

Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia, is the author of The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (Yale University Press), and Remembering the Christian Past (Eerdmans).

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