When Love of Religion Leads to Hatred of Others

by Stephen Holden

At the heart of Oren Jacoby’s screen adaptation of James Carroll’s book “Constantine’s Sword” lies a question to which each person of faith must find his own answer. When your core beliefs conflict with church doctrine, how far should your loyalty to the church extend? The same could be asked of loyalty to a government or a political party. (NYTimes.com)

Mr. Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest and an acclaimed author whose memoir, “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us” won a 1996 National Book Award, vehemently disagrees with the church on many issues but still embraces Catholicism. A former anti-Vietnam War activist, now in his mid-60s, he is an eloquent screen presence who conveys the same searching moral gravity that characterized other Catholic war resisters during the Vietnam era.

At once enthralling and troubling, the film, whose title has been simplified from the book’s “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History,” Read the full entry »


AN EDUCATIONAL OUTREACH PROGRAM Adapted from James Carroll!s Constantine’s Sword, a film by Oren Jacoby


In 2001, James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews; A History was published to critical acclaim and bestsellerdom. The landmark book traced the development of Western Christian anti-Semitism through several critical turning points, beginning with the first century rivalry between Jewish groups that identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and his teachings as divine revelation, and other Jewish groups that rejected those claims—a rivalry that led tragically to the inclusion of texts in the New Testament Gospels that blamed “the Jews” for the crucifixion of Jesus. Persecutions incited by those texts have persisted through two millennia into our own time. The turning points of Carroll!s historical journey culminate in the mid-Twentieth-Century Shoah, or Holocaust, when Nazis arrested and murdered all European Jews—men, women, and children—within their grasp.

The outcomes of these turning points were not inevitable or fated, in Carroll’s view. Always, choices were made. Other paths could have been taken. At every critical point there was at least one significant person pressing for a humane and peaceful resolution. Still, many of the turns deepened and broadened the force of anti-Semitism. What began as an internal Jewish disagreement eventually metamorphosed into deadly racial anti-Semitism and genocide inflicted by gentiles against Jews.

Using his talent as novelist and memoirist, Carroll cut back and forth from historical narrative to episodes in his own life that signaled his gradual awakening to anti-Semitism as the oldest and deepest moral failure in Western history.

In 2003 Carroll joined forces with a filmmaker, Oren Jacoby, to adapt Constantine’s Sword into a feature-length documentary, not knowing that another documentary about anti-Semitism, Sister Rose’s Passion, that Jacoby was then producing and directing would be nominated for an Oscar in 2005.

A feature-length documentary could not address all of the turning points in Carroll!s book, but it could select several, including the pivotal moment in the fourth century CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and pressed the then dispersed and multifaceted Christian religion into official orthodoxy; his bestowal of special privileges on the newly empowered religion meant that the Church developed the habit of supporting imperial adventures, and the emperor supported the goals of the Church hierarchy.


Carroll’s book was centered mainly in European history, but Jacoby’s and his film has introduced a current American thread; the book focused on Roman Catholicism, while the film shows that Protestants, too, embody the problem. The film opens in Colorado at the United States Air Force Academy where zealous evangelical Christian cadets and faculty are pressuring Jewish cadets to convert, encouraged by an evangelical megachurch and its nationally prominent pastor near the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Colorado scenes point up the constitutional separation of church and state in America—a “wall of separation”-- that undid the marriage of church and state that had dominated Europe since Constantine and might well have defined the nascent United States (nine of the thirteen English colonies had established churches when the American Revolution began). Equally importantly, the Colorado scenes demonstrate that Christian triumphalism and anti-Semitism are very much alive in contemporary America.

The film also touches on current conflicts between countries in which Christianity predominates and countries where Islam predominates, and on the potential for a civilizational confrontation sponsored by the monotheistic religions. As Father John Pawlikowski notes in the film, religion is often assumed automatically to be on the side of good and virtue, but there are many instances when violence and bigotry are faith-inspired. Or, as Carroll puts it, “the things people do in the name of God...”


Our target audiences for educational outreach using the film and related resources include:

Individuals who watch the film and value having ancillary materials to guide their reflections about it, who want to learn more about the themes and topics explored in the film

Teachers in public, private and parochial middle schools, high schools and colleges who wish to work portions of the film and related resources into their courses

Religious education leaders who wish to explore the themes and topics of the film in congregational groups—adult, adolescent, and pre-adolescent

Leaders of community-based organizations or generational-based organizations such as elder hostel or scouting who wish to take up the themes of Constantine’s Sword


The educational program inspired by Constantine’s Sword will emerge in stages. At the outset we are offering here a study guide based on the film. The next step will involve offering a list of other resources that supplement study of the issues raised by the film.

As soon as feasible we will offer curricula based on the film!s themes and topics. The film is a launching pad from which we can delve into this most serious of human issues. One might think, based on the amount of misery and horror generated by human prejudice and bigotry, much of it inspired or supported by religious conviction, that this would be an oft studied and deeply understood phenomenon. Not so. We know surprisingly little about how prejudice works. What aspects of it are grounded in what we might call “human nature,” impulses and tendencies rooted in how we have evolved and how we try to survive and prosper? Or what aspects are specific to a particular person!s or group!s history and circumstances? In many respects we can!t distinguish between religion!s direct responsibility and its mere susceptibility to being dragged into a position of tolerating or blessing what is generated outside the religious impulse.

Anecdotally, at the very least, we have some clues as to how prejudice spreads and deepens, and how to study it:

A.As the film demonstrates, one has to explore history in order to see the platform on which one stands in the present. The film demonstrates the breadth of study required. Prejudice exists on the civilizational level. It infects national histories, while varying from one city or neighborhood to another. Eventually bigotry comes home to the dynamics of each family and each individual within the family. So we all have our histories, much of it hidden from sight, unexplored. The safe approach is to stay at the civilizational level and lament it, or perhaps the national level (preferably, someone else!s nation). But only, as Carroll shows, when one gets in close to individual, family, and congregational experience can one see this human problem in its fullest dimension. It comes down, inevitably, to a personal reckoning. That is why this film centers on one man.

B.Bigotry has its own dynamic, generalizing and spreading over time. As it generalizes it becomes more volatile and dangerous. Thus, what began as first century rivalry between two groupings within Judaism eventually turned into the religious anti-Judaism of Christians and, ultimately, into the "racial! anti-Semitism of the West. Anti-Semitism became a matter not of having the wrong belief, but of having the wrong blood: the religious commitment of a Jew didn!t matter, only his or her ethnic identity. The momentum of bigotry begins with denigration, with the assertion that specific kinds of “others” are inferior to oneself and one!s group. It is the denigration of the other that justifies further aspects of prejudice, always

protecting the bigoted from awareness that such attitudes and actions are unjust. Uninhibited in this way by shame or guilt, even while behaving with cruelty, the bigoted are themselves at the mercy of mechanisms too little understood. Denigration readily leads to exclusion of the other, which is often painful enough; but it also easily turns into persecution of the other, as well. Intolerance can lead to violence.

C.The roots of individual bigotry lie in early childhood experience, as much or more in what is absorbed in passing as in deliberate teaching: the casual expletive, the diversity or lack thereof in a family!s circle of friends, the kinds of persons who are welcomed into a home or never appear therein. Childhood teasing and bullying, and sibling rivalry all yield the kinds of emotions that, in later situations, can energize irrational reactions tied to issues of religion, race, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. There is at least anecdotal evidence that once a particular kind of prejudice gets established it is always latent in a person, available to surface under provocation or stress.

D.While we may speak of bigotry as a universal, there are, of course, dramatic differences from one group; or person to another. But we have not carefully studied these differences for what they may tell us. How have certain Protestant groups such as the Mennonites been able to maintain an ethic of nonviolence so successfully? Does their relative seclusion from the surrounding culture make this possible? How have some Buddhists developed similar traits? Conversely, is there a kind of aggressive “DNA” in the main branches of the monotheistic religions?


1. From early in its development Christianity defined itself as a missionary religion intent on worldwide conversion of others. Judaism has from early in its development (and certainly since Constantine, when Jewish proselytizing was outlawed) defined itself as a religion of a specific people perpetuated by births within the ethnic community and has not encouraged gentiles to convert to Judaism. In what ways has this difference positioned Jews and Judaism to be vulnerable to pressure from Christians? Do Christians generally recognize the aggressiveness (and potential for bigotry) embodied in their faith!s missionary imperatives?

2. There has been a new Christian scholarly emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth in the past few decades. Still, over the centuries in his theological identification as the Christ, the Son of God, he has been commonly depicted as gentile. How broadly has this presentation of Jesus—born a Jew, died a Jew—penetrated Christian churches? What ramifications of this view of Jesus remain to be worked out by Christians? Should Christians think of themselves as spiritually "Jewish! in some critical respects? Why does James Carroll insist that the churches must learn to speak of Jesus in a way that honors his Jewishness, not only as something past, but as something permanent?

3. Elaine Pagels discusses how from the earliest to the latest dated of the four New Testament Gospels (from Mark about 70 CE to John about 100 CE), the anti-Jewish passages about Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus became progressively harsher, and the depiction of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who oversaw the execution (and who is known by historians to have been exceptionally cruel) became more benign. Why does Christian hostility to “the Jews” sharpen in this way? What happened in 70 CE to set it going? Discuss the tradeoffs between a literal reading of the Bible and a scholarly critical reading of the same texts hat pays attention to such context. The advantage of a literal reading is that there aren!t any generally agreed upon grounds for faulting anyone!s literal interpretation. It is easy to claim certainty for literalism. In an uncertain world, that has its appeal. A scholarly critical approach can readily show errors in literalistic readings, but there is rarely agreement among all scholars for any particular reading; thus a critical approach is based partly on the assumption that many things about sacred texts cannot be known for sure. Does this engender a kind of skepticism? How does one evaluate the benefits and limitations of these two methods and choose between them?

4. Ted Haggard, the pastor of the evangelical New Life (mega)Church near the United States Air Force Academy, says there should be unfettered competition of religious beliefs at the Academy; there is nothing wrong, he says, in being forced to listen to the best arguments of a believer from a different faith. His statements seem to imply that there is a level playing field for this competition of religious beliefs. How close to a level playing field exists when there is a large Christian majority of fellow students and staff in a public institution intent on converting religious minorities? Why did the founding fathers, as they prescribed a separation of church and state in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, express concern about the potential of competing religious bodies to bring instability to a body politic?

5. What are the principal components of “supersessionism,” the Christian belief that Christianity replaces Judaism as “the New Israel” and Christians replace Jews as “the Chosen People”? What have been the consequences of supersessionism for Christians and Jews at the various stages of their shared 2000-year history? Is the idea of supersession built into the human condition— younger siblings striving to replace the older in their parents! affection? How has supersession affected Judaism (Cain versus Abel, Isaac versus Ishmael, Jacob versus Esau), Islam (Muslim faith replacing both Christianity and Judaism), and Christianity (Reformed religion replacing Rome)?

6. What was the political and religious significance of Constantine!s conversion to Christianity? What did the elevation of Christianity from its former status as one among many religions in the Roman Empire (and a much persecuted one) mean for Jews and Judaism who were roughly equal in numbers and influence to Christians until close to the Constantinian period? Carroll singles out Constantine!s conversion as one of those acts of political expedience that could have gone in another direction. How might history have unfolded differently if Constantine had converted to Judaism?

7. The Constantinian conversion and adoption of Christianity as the favored religion in the Empire opened the door to mutual alliances in which the state supported the church against its competitors and adversaries, and the church supported the state in its imperial adventures and domestic policies? Can examples be found where this kind of alliance was beneficial to the common good? Identify the historical points in the film where the alliance was destructive.

8. At the time of Constantine’s conversion there were many variants of Christianity around the Mediterranean world. Various centers of Christian thought promoted dramatically different views of the nature of God and the significance of Christ. Constantine called the bishops of these centers together and bade them define an “orthodox” faith that would resolve the differences between the many contending theologies; some would win, others lose, and the persecution of unorthodox belief (heresy) would become rampant in church history. Many unorthodox Christians would be persecuted (exiled from their home territories, even imprisoned and killed). Discuss how Christianity might have developed differently with respect to aggressively persecuting Jews if Christianity had continued to be a religion with many contending views and decentralized control.

9. It is at the time of Constantine that the Cross became the central Christian symbol. As Constantine’s “sword,” how did it change attitudes toward violence? The more concentration on the asserted benefits to humanity of Christ!s sacrificial death and ascent to afterlife in heaven, the less emphasis on the benefits of the earthly life and work of Jesus the Jew. The more Good Friday, the less Easter. The more concentration on the Cross, the more the question of who was responsible for the Savior!s death came under scrutiny again. If bigotry and prejudice begin with denigration of “the other” as justification for the exclusion and persecution to follow, discuss how the brew from which anti-Semitism would grow was brought to a new boil after Constantine. Where was the Cross in this?

10. Less than a century after Constantine came to power, the security of Jews in Europe and the Middle East had deteriorated dramatically. A powerful Christian figure, St. John Chrysostom, was preaching and writing incendiary words against Jews. The first pogrom against Jews took place in Antioch. The great western Christian theologian, Augustine, stood over against St. John Chrysostom. Augustine argued against attacking Jews, but he denigrated them and considered it just that they should be excluded from predominantly Christian communities and be forced to wander about the Mediterranean world. Constantine!s Sword singles out Augustine for saving Jews at a moment of great peril. Discuss whether tolerating denigration of Jews, while excluding them from gentile communities, can in the long run save them from the ultimate stage of bigotry: persecution.

11. What were the origins of the stereotypes of Jews that have taken hold over the centuries—moneylender at outrageous interest rates, greedy capitalist, violent revolutionary, kidnaper of gentile children, and the like? Were there comparable stereotypes of Christians on the Jewish side? What effects have these stereotypes had on Jewish-Christian relations? What life do they have today?

12. From a boat on the Rhine drifting past Crusader castles, Carroll reflects on the Church he was born into and raised in: it was a “perfect” church with its panoply of saints, and with its leadership of priests and bishops who were “holy, holy men.” It is difficult for him to make this mindset square with what he learned as an adult--that Christian Crusaders led by priests a millennium after the crucifixion of Christ, having barely started on their mission to rescue the Holy Land from the grip of Islam, entered the Rhineland cities and began killing Jews. How do our inaccurate and exaggerated notions of the purity of our religious pasts get established, and why are they so seldom challenged from within the Christian community?

13. What shape does the story of the Crusades take when told from the point of view of its first victims, the Jews of Europe? How might a historically accurate modern-day retelling of that story, widely disseminated in church and synagogue, affect the ways in which Christians and Jews look back upon their shared history and at the issues that divide them today? What would the story of the Crusades look like if told from the point of view of its second victims, Muslims?

14. What have been the consequences of the First Crusade!s sparking of an era in which for the first time in Christian history violence was defined as a religious act, a source of grace? How did the vows of the Crusaders to free the Holy Land by slaughtering Muslims (and Jews) transform the Western Latin Church into the Church Militant? In what ways was the Crusaders! “peacemaking” a heretofore unthinkable militarization of Christian religion? What religion-fueled antagonisms remain today as an active legacy of the Crusades? How has the very word “crusade”—an assertive and potentially violent mission justified by the Cross, kept its legitimacy as a term of respect and honor?

15. In the film a German cathedral archivist in Trier shows Carroll references to acute scapegoating of Jews in European cities well before the Crusades began. Jews were blamed for epidemics, crop failures, polluted water and the like. Discuss the process by which a specific prejudice—for example, against Jews for allegedly plotting and arranging the crucifixion of Jesus—can evolve into a mindset that converts any threat to a community into license to punish Jews for it. Describe and analyze contemporary examples of scapegoating. (See Leviticus 16: 8-22 for the Jewish origin of the scapegoat.) Might the current War Against Terror defined and executed by the United States and its allies be reasonably understood as a crusade of the medieval sort? Are there evidences of this contemporary crusade falling into the practice of scapegoating?

16. One of the many overarching points in the book and film Constantine’s Sword is that apprehension and anxiety about a perceived enemy outside can so easily be converted into hostility and aggression toward a constituency inside that is suddenly and unfairly perceived as alien. Perhaps the current attention to “illegal immigration” in this country as wars are being fought abroad might suggest this kind of dynamic? Discuss other historical examples of this tendency. Consider, for example, the Inquisition as a way of misdirecting aggression as Christians first pressed European Jews to convert and then, doubting the sincerity of forced conversions, arrested and tortured converted Jews to display the “insincerity” of their conversions. How had Jews gone from being an enemy “outside” to being an enemy “inside”?

17. When and where did the invidious concept of the taint of “Jewish blood” come into play? What similar bigotries based on the notion of tainted blood have infected societies over the past 500 years—for example, the nineteenth-century attempt to legislate the degree of African American ancestry that would tip the categorization of a “white” person into a “black” person? Why does Constantine’s Sword assert that the shift from a religious definition of Jewishness to a "racial” one would be perhaps the most decisive in the long development of Christian anti-Semitism?

18. How could you not have cared, one could ask of all Western Christians, that the Nazis prepared to murder and then did murder all but the relatively few European Jews who escaped or eluded capture? Why did you not see that your passivity had become collaboration? What did American and British leaders know about the Shoah, and what did they do or not do about the Jews whose rescue was within their grasp? What did American and British religious leaders know about the Shoah and do or not do? How do we judge their accountability today?

19. Two Roman survivors of the Nazi roundup of Jews in 1943 lament in the film that Pope Pius XII did not speak out against the roundup; both attribute to the papacy a moral authority that could have short circuited the Italian part of the Shoah. Is that a reasonable assessment? Are there other historical examples of modern papal intervention preventing what threatened to be historical catastrophe? Do Christians place too much emphasis on the effectiveness of pronouncements from religious leaders? The film highlights the passage of Nostra Aetate as the highest accomplishment of Vatican II—the document exonerated Jews from the burden of being held responsible for the death of Jesus—but elsewhere in the film there is acknowledgment that most contemporary Christians know little or nothing about Nostra Aetate.

20. How should we assess the twentieth century Vatican teaching that the Church—meaning the Roman Catholic Church—cannot err on matters of doctrinal teaching and its official application to historical situations; only individual Catholics can err?

21. What is the most effective way to convey to youth and young adults today— for whom the Shoah is almost ancient history—the depth of its transgression and the horror of its atrocities? And what is its legacy? Has the Shoah anesthetized us to less violent manifestations of anti-Semitism since 1945—such as the zealous proselytizing of Jewish cadets at the Air Force Academy accompanied by denigration of Jewish faith? Since there have been genocidal assaults on a large scale since 1945 in Asia, Africa, and Europe, how should we assess the capacity of extreme campaigns of persecution and murder to continue to override moral repugnance and resistance?


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