Jun 2, 2010

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

In this book, Carroll seeks to do nothing less than completely revolutionize the religion of Catholicism. Carroll is a former Catholic priest and current dissident Catholic. He starts with the erection of a large cross in front of Auschwitz, and the controversy that quickly followed. How did the Holocaust occur? What role/responsibility did the Catholic Church play/hold, and why has it not taken its responsibility seriously?

To explore these questions, Carroll sets off on a journey through history, starting with the nature of Judaism before the birth of Jesus Christ, and ending with Vatican II. He quickly comes to the conclusion that the root of all the terrible happenings between the Church and the Jews is caused by supersessionism, the ideology by with Catholicism believes itself to exit both over and against Judaism, to have succeeded to its place as God's chosen people, to have won when Judaism has failed. As such, the Church developed its own relationship toward Jews, whereas Jews quickly decided against maintaining any such relationship with Christians. Each event that Carroll describes shows the Church acting on/to/against Jews, yet the Jews fail to be even active participants in their own fates. They do not fight, they do not argue (government-ordered "debates" not withstanding), they do not - for the most part - rail against the Christians as the Christians do against them. They are acted upon, set up as the Other/Opposite, as a means by which Christianity can define itself. The Church's current claim that there have been faults on both sides is, according to Carroll, rubbish. The Catholic Church has consistently promoted an ideology of "Jew-hate" in order to both define itself and consolidate papal power (Carroll's example: every time a pope wanted to strengthen his role, he would reinstitutionalize the Roman ghetto).

The most important act in all this was the very first one to occur. Carroll claims that, shortly after the horrible death of Jesus, his Jewish followers took comfort in scripture - obviously, this meant Jewish scripture. As the first generation, the people who actually knew Jesus, passed on, later generations began to take the stories the former had told as truth. The "prophecies" from Jewish scripture were taken as clear evidence of Jesus' messianic nature. As Carroll repeatedly states (and notes that it was another scholar who came to this particular conclusion), this was a case of "prophecy historicized," rather than "history prophesied." This laid the groundwork for supersessionism.

The next nail in the coffin was Paul, who lived and wrote his canonical letters from the perspective of the imminent Second Coming. With Paul, the focus was trained on salvation, the cessation of physical suffering. This is when the cross first started to creep into the Christian conscious as something more than a weapon of murder. When the Hellenic dichotomy of material vs. spiritual was adopted by Christian theologians after Constantine's dramatic (but oh so political) converstion to Christianity, there was no turning back.

Carroll, in his epilogue, argues that the message of Jesus was, and therefore that the message of Christianity should be, in the way he lived his life, NOT in his death. The focus on Jesus' death lead to an obsession with salvation, even though Jesus had clearly said that the Kingdom of Heaven was here, right now, on Earth. In effect, the Catholic Church has it all wrong. Carroll does not want the Church to simply return to where it once was; he wants it to utterly, radically change itself to fit with what we know of the actual teachings of Jesus. This is a task, needless to say, with practically insurmountable obstacles. To ask a proudly conservative institution to essentially hippy-ize itself is incredible. It is difficult, however, to argue with Carroll's reasoning.

In terms of the organization and writing, the book is mostly quite good. Carroll is a fiction writer, so the book is quite readable and interesting, if at times rather melodramatic, which makes its 616 page length not nearly as daunting as it would seem. I must, however, take issue with the numerous references to Carroll's own past and emotions. Yes, it is entirely necessary for him to explain exactly why he took on this enormous challenge, and to elaborate on his past as a means of getting his biases out in the open, as an scholar should; but 100 pages on his adolescence in Germany and his love affair with the Catholic Church are a tad unnecessary. Also, every so often, Carroll will insert a comment bound to make at least some people uncomfortable. These comments usually hold the implication that Carroll, very deep down, knows Catholicism is the right way to go, but this is not allowed to suppress his desire for common respect between all faiths. Or he writes a little note that the separation of church and state is a very recent, somewhat odd idea. As a Jew reading this book, I was constantly amazed that Carroll didn't up and convert to Judaism once he'd finished! He is clearly horrified by the actions of his Church, disgusted with most of its leaders, and consistently writes with tones of utter admiration at Jewish thinkers and beliefs. If Judaism is so amazing, why isn't he Jewish? Though I was a little annoyed at all of the personal parts of this book (which is subtitled, "A History"), I would have liked an explanation of just why it is Carroll sticks with Catholicism.

That being said, this was an extremely well researched, well written book, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone.

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews -- A History