Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Constantine’s Sword

James Carroll, the author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History is a former Catholic priest. This only one of innumerable personal details one learns from what is a very personal book.

Which helps makes it a long-winded book, as does the author’s writing style. It also provides a very immediate and personal wrestling with issues of faith, the nature of Christianity and the role of the Jews in Christian history that concern the author.

Constantine’s Sword is very focused on the issue of the Holocaust, the Shoah and the questions (personal, theological, historical) it provokes. Part One, A Cross at Auschwitz, discusses the controversy over the erection of a giant Cross as a memorial at Auschwitz, a controversy which weaves in and out of the narrative throughout the book.

The rest of Part One is a discussion of Carroll's personal history and the shifts in his awareness that there are deep problems, even now, with the Catholic attitude to Jews and Judaism, resting on the proposition that Jesus was the Messiah and the Jews, as Jews, rejected Him: to the point of being God-killers. The latter claim rather lets the Romans off the hook: a theme of the book is dissecting the effects of the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity (and Christianity’s embrace of the Roman Empire). With that embrace, blaming the Empire for Jesus’s death became even more problematic. If a defeat (crucifixion) can be become a victory, then a victory (adoption by the Empire) can become a defeat.

The most shameful error in the book is where Carroll writes that the Vietnam War ended in 1973 (p.51): a prime example of the repellent American narcissism of so many American progressivists. The Vietnam War ended in 1975. (And, for the people of Kampuchea, the horror was just beginning.) It was merely direct American involvement that ended in 1973. What increases the irony is that it is at the tail end of a discussion about Carroll, as a Catholic, “not getting” Jewish perspectives.

In Part Two New Testament Origins of Jew Hatred, Carroll takes Christian Jew-hatred right back to the beginning, examining Jew-hatred in the New Testament. During which Carroll conveys well the Catholic notion that Scripture is a creation of the Church (understood as the community of Christian believers).

In Part Three Constantine, Augustine and the Jews Carroll examines what the Christianising of the Roman Empire meant for Jews and Augustine’s role in enunciating a theology that permitted the Jews to survive, but not to thrive.

Part Four From Crusades to Conversionism looks at the Jews as the first (and regular) victims of the Crusades and the theology of Anselm (the crucifixion as the great salvation act with the monstrousness of it projected onto the Jews), Abelard (who held that the life of Jesus was the important thing: which Carroll regretfully calls a “minority report” theology) and Aquinas (who held that the Jews rejection of Christ was not an act of ignorance but of deliberate defiance).

Part Five The Inquisition: Enter Racism examines the baleful effect of the Black Death and the scapegoating of Jews, the Reconquista in Spain – where a resurgent Christianity imposed an intolerant dominance – the forced conversions of Iberian Jews and the creeping insecurity that such conversions were sincere, which led to the "tainted blood" laws and the notion that all Jews were tainted by the “crimes” of their ancestors. Carroll also looks at effects of the Reformation – Calvinism tended to have good effects for Jews – and Jewish responses to patterns in Christian attitudes.

Part Six Emancipation, Revolution and a New Fear of the Jews looks at the Enlightenment, secularism and revolutionary tumult and the growth of modern anti-Semitism. In Chapter 41, Voltaire and the False Promise of Emancipation examines the anticlerical Voltaire denouncing the Jews for being religious. Secularisation could bring new grounds for reviling Jews. Carroll concludes by considering Catholic influences in the Dreyfus affair and noting that Dreyfus’s widow was sheltered (unknowingly) by nuns while her granddaughter Madeleine refused to flee and was killed for being Jewish.

Part Seven The Church and Hitler examines the rise of eliminationist anti-Semitism, the relationship between the Church and Hitler, the problematic behaviour of the Church in the face of the Holocaust and the fate of Rome’s Jews. The Part ends with the case of Edith Stein, a Catholic convert of Jewish ancestry who is an official martyr of the Church. But, as Carroll points out, she becomes a way for the Church to talk as if a Catholic is the archetypal Holocaust victim – Edith Stein, Holocaust martyr becomes image of both diversion and self-exoneration for the Church

Part Eight is a call for a Vatican III with various proposed agenda items, each getting a chapter. As with the rest of the book, this Part shows no awareness of how Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, have become primarily developing world religions. The concerns of a liberal Western urbanite are not their concerns.

A gay man reading about Jew-hatred, particularly Catholic Jew-hatred, is likely to be struck by lots of ironies. After all, the accusations of Jew-hatred (that Jews deny God, are abominated by God, that they should not exist, that treating them equally threatens the basis of Christian civilisation, that they are potent corrupters of social order) and those of the anathematisation of same-sex acts and orientation are very similar. With the extra irony that all the major themes of Catholic anathematisation of same-sex acts and orientation among men were pioneered by Jewish priests, rabbis and writers.

St Paul was the link whereby one, and only one, part of the Holiness Code made it into the New Testament. A part wildly uneven in its burdens (there is no cost in its strictures if you are of the other-sex oriented majority) and which is radically disconnected from the ethic preached in the Gospels. It is the most Jewish, the most Old Covenant, part of the New Testament.

To add to the ironies, St Paul’s rhetoric about “unnatural” lusts (the notion that something can be para physin, against nature, has no precursors elsewhere in Scripture) is clearly a reference to Plato’s natural law thinking, including Plato’s (false) claim that animals of the same sex do not have sex with each other. Plato enters Christianity in its earliest written passages – and on the basis of a simple empirical falsity. And does so, most likely, via Philo Judaeus, a Jewish writer.

Carroll sets out how the Christianising Emperors enacted various oppressive measures against the Jews: the same Emperors did the same against “sodomites”. The parallels abound.

Constantine’s Sword is a very informative and thoughtful study. The very high personal content I found less irritating than I expected, because it is used to personalise the themes of the narrative quite effectively.

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