Christianity's Violent History

Article excerpt

James Carroll's best-selling book Constantine's Sword has been made into a powerful film documentary with the same title. The book, published in 2001 to some controversy, had concentrated on the responsibility of the Catholic church for the long history of persecution of the Jews. The director of the film, Oren Jacoby, wants to raise the even broader question: "Where did anyone get the idea that it was all right to kill people in the name of God?"

A handsome, well-acted film that mingles scenes and characters of both past and present, the documentary opens with an expose of the attempt at the U.S. Air Force Academy, located in Colorado Springs, Colo., to turn its students into militant evangelical Christians. One Jewish cadet reports that they were urged to convert or "burn in the fires of hell." The academy's actions were explained as both Christian and patriotic by the Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of the nearby 14,000-member evangelical parish who was later forced to leave in disgrace.

Though the incident occurred after Mr. Carroll's book was published, this sequence is used to underscore Mr. Carroll's theme that the relationship between Christianity and militarism exists even today. It triggers Mr. Carroll's travels to Europe in the film to review ancient documents and conduct personal interviews in the hope of understanding the intolerance that led to the Crusades and to the Holocaust. Mr. Carroll has called the film an "exercise in Christian self-criticism," a spur to Christians to examine how their tradition has contributed to suspicion, hatred and intolerance of others.

"Constantine's Sword" emphasizes Carroll's own life story, with a pious mother and an Irish-American father who became an Air Force general. We see him early with proud parents at an audience with Pope John XXIII, then later as a priest in Boston counseling conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. His deeply emotional conflict with his father at this time, the substance of his earlier memoir, God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us, which won the 1996 National Book Award for nonfiction, is briefly suggested.

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In Rome, the deeply committed author discovers Constantine's role in turning the cross into a symbol of military might and making it the dominant symbol of Christianity. …