Constantine’s Sword

Last night I watched Constantine’s Sword, based off the James Carroll book of the same name from seven years ago. It chronicles Christianity’s role in perpetuating antisemitism and our disgraceful ties to violent regimes.

The story and critique is mostly clear-eyed, and powerful when it takes a personal bent (Carroll has led a very interesting life). I’m uncomfortable, however, with how much antisemitism he reads into the Gospel accounts themselves. He intones, at one point, “At every Good Friday service, with the reading of that Passion narrative: ‘The Jews, the Jews, the Jews’… it really hits the ear. And Jesus is against the Jews. And I don’t know how else Christians can hear this story.

This strikes me as odd, for I’ve only ever read this story in one way. How else do I hear this story? I hear the Gospels blaming me. Who crucified Jesus? I did.

There’s a Goethe quote that I take quite seriously — he says something like “There is no crime so heinous that I cannot also imagine myself committing it.” This is good theology, and this is ignored theology. It requires hideous, uncomfortable self-awareness.

Our human tendency is to always marginalize, to “otherize.” I am not like that one or those people. When, in fact, the truth is much more disturbing. “It is a simple tenet of human nature,” writes Dave Grossman, “that it is difficult to believe and accept that anyone we like and identify with is capable of these acts against our fellow human beings. And this simple, naive tendency to disbelieve or look the other way is, possibly more than any other factor, responsible for the perpetuation of atrocity and horror in our world today.”

There’s a poignant moment in Constantine’s Sword where Carroll is at Auschwitz-Birkenau and while contemplating the past nightmares but present-day beauty, the guide fills the void by simply saying: “There is no meaning… only Auschwitz… only butterflies… silence.”

What drives me crazy is the American pretension at moral authority. Dresden alone wiped out whatever supposed moral capital we’d accumulated in fighting the Nazis, not to mention our unspeakable atrocities inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I think the point is that none of us personally have any moral capital either. My heart is totally bankrupt. At the end of Jesus’ famous quip in Luke 6, I read in an extra clause:: “…and in reality, you will never be able to remove the log from your own eye.”

Of course, this hints at the missing piece here that was filled in for us by a murderous Judeofascist extremist who had a blinding encounter with a Jewish carpenter. It changed his life. And this is the crux: “While we were still terrorists, Christ died for us.”

10 thoughts on “Constantine’s Sword

  1. Dude, this is somehow unlike most of your other writing, or at least I feel like it is. This is really profound stuff. I’m definitely going to have to watch the movie now, if it causes the great Kev Cole to wax theological… Great reminder though. Thanks.

  2. Amen.

    “And I don’t know how else Christians can hear this story.”

    –If you think about it, this statement actually provides a huge opening for the sharing of the gospel. “Well, here’s how I hear it…”

  3. Great post, Kevin. It’s nice to hear your writer’s voice in a more personal essay. I met this older man yesterday who was a philosophy major in college. He’s written a lot of articles for newspapers, a few books, taught classes, and works at Dilliards. 🙂 He was awesome. Here’s to philosophers!

  4. Dude, this is possibly my most favorite article you’ve ever written. I totally dug it, was challenged to thought by it, and thought you nailed the closer.

  5. good thoughts, Kev. It’s the past history and current distortions that cause me NOT to identify myself with “christianity”. The current definition is not compatible with a true follower of Jesus Christ. So becareful about using inclusive sentences like “…our disgraceful ties…” It was their distorted “christianity” not mine!

  6. Everyone: thanks for the kind feedback. I thought I should also note that Carroll is actually a Christian, though not an Evangelical.

    DOD: your point is exactly opposite of the one I’m making in this essay. My argument is precisely FOR that inclusiveness, for owning up to OUR past. No strain — whether Lutheranism, Methodism, Anabaptism, Catholicism — is pure. Projecting the problem onto others denies our own culpability. To say it was “their distorted Christianity” implies that “our” Christianity is undistorted. I’m deliberately trying to erase the distance we put between US and THEM. Crusades & Inquisitions Etc are in OUR religious history, and a Christian must honestly confront that past just as Americans must confront the massacre at Dresden as part of OUR cultural history. Wishing it away or wishing it onto others is dangerous denial…IMHO.

  7. I disagree. I do not identify my brand of christianity with the “christianity” of the RCC and their Crusades; the misguided Protestants who persecuted the anabaptists; nor the White House “christians” who bombed foreign countries. I will take the blame for all my sins but I have yet to “take up the sword” against non-christians. In fact, I’ve spent my life reaching out peaceably to non-christian people groups. If my guilt is by association, then I stand guilty as one carrying a USA passport. But my (and your) ancestors were by-and-large, Anabaptist pacificists.

  8. I think I’d have to agree with Kev. Even if WE don’t associate “our brand” (and I hate that term) of Christianity with a past history, most of the rest of the world will. Moreover, we definitely are a part or a result of that history. A separation or reactionary movement cannot exists without a previous hierarchy against which we are rebelling. Especially in the case of the Anabaptist. You are shaped even (perhaps especially) by what you disagree with. So regardless of whether or not you associate with “them”, they still make up your history and define you by your reaction against them. We are part of a history, agree/identify with it or not.

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