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Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

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Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

Christianity’s legacy of antisemitism is undeniable. Christianity’s legacy of suppression of dissent and unorthodox ideas is also undeniable. What is interesting, however, are the ways in which both of these legacies are related and dependent upon each other. Ranging over the entire history of Christianity and the Catholic Church, James Carroll describes how power has been preserved through the suppression of both internal (unorthodox) and external (Jewish) dissent.


Title: Constantine’s Sword
Author:James Carroll
ISBN: 0618219080

•  Expansive historical coverage
•  Detailed comparison of paths taken and paths not taken
•  Personal and well as impersonal history

•  Perhaps too long for some readers

•  Covers several major issues which plague the Church today
•  Explains problems in Catholic history and anti-semitism
•  Offers potential solutions for today’s problems


Book Review

Carroll begins and ends his massive work on the same point: describing how contemporary Catholics attempt to come to grips with the Holocaust, the role played in it by Catholics and their Church, and how the Catholic history of antisemitism contributed to it all. This was Carroll’s personal starting point as well, because it was in wondering how this all could have happened that he was driven to research his Church’s history and treatment of the Jews.

But Church failures in the Holocaust are only the most recent and violent part of the story - as Carroll shows, the death camps are a culmination of two thousand years of entrenched anti-Judaism. What is key here is that the problem originally was anti-Judaism - not a racial or political anti-semitism, but a fierce opposition to the religion of Judaism itself.

The history moves from the harsh anti-Jewish statements in the Gospels to Constantine’s transformation of the cross into the primary Christian symbol, and even worse transforming it further into a sword, and on through blood libels, scapegoating, and ghettos.

Through much of Christian history, people have imagined that Jesus and his disciplines were in conflict with “the Jews” - but this ignores two important points.

First, it should be obvious to everyone that Jesus and his disciples were themselves Jews, making any conflict not a struggle between “us” and “them,” but an internal disagreement among Jews. But second, and perhaps more importantly, there was no single social or religious entity known as “the Jews.” There were a wide variety of groups and perspectives among the Jewish poeple and no monolithic force for any one dissident to oppose.

Thus, instead of a sectarian conflict among Jews, the gospels portray “the Jews” as a single group, wholly blameworthy, in an apparent attempt to gain favor among the Romans, the most likely group to have had any great interest in getting rid of Jesus. This allowed later Christians to continue scapegoating “the Jews” over and over:

    The Jews have become not just the historical enemy but the ontological enemy - the negative against which every positive aspect of Christianity is defined. This Manichean demonization of Jews by the first-century followers of Jesus - themselves mostly Jews - and the sanctioning of that demonization in the canonizing of the Scriptures are what made this story murderous down the centuries.
Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

The role of Constantine in shaping the Christian church and church history should not be underestimated, and that is why Carroll named his book after him. What is most important to remember about Constantine is that he ascended the throne of an empire which was fragmented and in disarray, thus his chief goal was always creating and maintaining unity, be it political, economic or, eventually, religious. For Constantine, one of the greatest threats to Roman domination and peace was disunity.

Christianity filled the need for a basis of religious unity quite well. Christians may have been a minority through the empire, but they were a well-organized minority. In addition, no one had already tried to claim their political allegiance, leaving Constantine no competitors and giving him a group of people who would be supremely grateful and loyal for finally finding a political patron.

» More: Contantine, Politics, Religion, and Unity

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