Monday, June 10, 2013

Constantine's Sword

Last night I watched a documentary film called "Constantine's Sword."  It's based on a book by a former Catholic priest named James Carroll, and it's about the Christian church's gnarly history of anti-semitism.

It's a hard movie to watch, because it reveals some very dark episodes in the history of the church, like how entire Jewish communities in Europe were wiped out during the Crusades, and how Jews in Rome were actually walled off in a ghetto for centuries.

The film was especially poignant for me because I've been reading a book called The Story of Christianity, by a historian named Justo Gonzalez, which tells the good, the bad, and the ugly events of the history of Christianity.  As someone who grew up Christian, I had the impression that the Christian church has always been a force for good in the world.  But reading Gonzalez's book, and watching Constantine's Sword is showing me that, for all the good it may have done, the church has also caused tremendous misery and death, historically.  

Learning about things like the crusades, the persecution of Jews, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, or missionaries who were responsible for the wiping out of Native American cultures, creates what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance."  This is an uncomfortable feeling you get when something you've taken to be true is called into question.  This cognitive dissonance is deeply troubling, but also an essential first step in coming to terms with the truth.

The title of the film, "Constantine's Sword," comes from the historical figure Constantine, a Roman emperor who converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and used the cross as a symbol of military and political conquest (as the crusaders would later do).  The conversion of Constantine is a hugely important event in the history of Christianity, because it marks the point in history when the church goes from being a persecuted minority to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, and is thereafter aligned with great political power.

This event is cause for deep reflection, as its impact can still be felt in our time, when politicians invoke religion to promote war or other dubious policies that have virtually nothing to do with the figure of Jesus Christ.  The film goes into some of the rhetoric surrounding the most recent Iraq War, how politicians like George W. Bush called it a "crusade," how mega-churches and religious organizations and influential pastors aligned themselves with powerful political figures and groups.  

This collusion of religion and political power did not end with Constantine.  It seems to be an ongoing issue, and one worthy of serious reflection.  As James Carroll says, "Every religious person has to take responsibility for the way in which their tradition encourages intolerance, suspicion, hatred of 'the other'. And in the Christian tradition, both in relation to Muslims and Jews, we have some very clear reckoning with history to do."

Constantine's Sword is currently streaming on Netflix.

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