Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Constantine's Sword

Last night I watched the documentary "Constantine's Sword", based on the book of the same title by James Carroll. I read the book several years ago, and was quite moved by it, so when I heard a documentary had been filmed, I was eager to get my hands on the DVD. In both the book and the DVD, Carroll combines his personal search for an understanding of his Catholic faith and its traditions with a study of Christianity's relationship with Judaism throughout history.

The history mostly begins with, and focuses a fair amount on, Constantine, who was the first to use the symbol of the cross, but also the first to use martial imagery as a part of Christianity. The cross, made with the shaft of a spear, led his army to victory in Rome.

Carroll then follows this history through the crusades, where whole Jewish communities in Germany were wiped out, to the first ghettos, and through to the Holocaust. But he continues into modern times, with Bush's announcement of the War on Terror as a crusade. The documentary also tells the story of a Jewish student persecuted at the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs for not accepting the Christian faith (for more on this, see Wikipedia's entry on Mikey Weinstein, the student's father).

Carroll's documentary isn't just a discussion of Judaism and Christianity, but militarism and Christianity, and power and Christianity. From its humble beginnings of a crucified leader, conceived out of wedlock, Christianity has become one of the most powerful forces in the world. Carroll encourages his viewers to examine their own faith. Where has religion's power led? Where is it still leading? How should this power be used?

He interviews several Jews who watched the Nazis round up their people in Rome's ghetto, on the doorstep of the Vatican in September 1943. They all said if only the Pope had come outside, made some sort of gesture of condemnation, the whole thing might have stopped and all of those lives might have been saved.

Watching survivors, children of survivors, historians, and friends and family of those who did not survive, recount these horrible tragedies made me think of how the church's power is being used today. I thought about those churches and religious leaders who would (and have) burned the Qur'an, and those who object to a Muslim community outreach center in New York in an old Burlington Coat Factory. Where do these things lead?

I highly recommend "Constantine's Sword". Of course, the book is better than the documentary, but it's also a long slog at 768 pages. The documentary is a moving, brief overview of the same and very worthwhile. Here's the trailer:


  1. I can't get over the fact that I've only just heard of this book. After seeing that trailer, I will absolutely have to read it.

    If only religion could make people kinder, more tolerant, more compassionate, and more understanding. As it is, too many people seem to use religion as an extension of their own egos.

  2. Oh, I'm so glad I could share it with you, Mary! It's beautifully written and SUCH an important story.

    Exactly. And it's so frustrating to me to look back at Jesus actions and teachings compared to how religion is being practiced in his name. I really appreciate how Carroll encourages us to consider our own practices, beliefs, and religion's history.


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