The dark side of the Christian church

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In its ultimate goals, the perverse ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was not only anti-Jewish, but anti-Christian. Loving one's neighbor and turning the other cheek were not the Nazi way. Hitler hoped eventually to eliminate all institutions, from the Boy Scouts to the Roman Catholic Church, that might rival those of his own creation. Nonetheless, the fact remains that most of the vast number of Germans who supported Hitler were Christians.

This disturbing fact has led many thoughtful people to conclude that Hitler's program to destroy the Jews could never have been carried out had it not in some way appealed to a pervasive and persistent strain of anti-Semitism that was already latent in Germany's - and Europe's - Christian majority.

In his magisterial and searching study "Constantine's Sword," James Carroll probes the dark question of the link between "ancient Christian hatred of Jews" and "the twentieth century's murderous hatred that produced the death camps."

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A novelist, cultural critic, and author of an award-winning memoir, Carroll was a Paulist priest prior to his writing career, and it is as a Roman Catholic Christian that he feels compelled to examine how the religion that means so much to him became tainted with the poison of anti-Semitism.

Although Pope John Paul II has tried to redress past wrongs by condemning anti-Semitism, Carroll feels the church needs to confront its past mistakes more squarely.

The problem, he explains, begins with the Gospels, which present the Jews as responsible for the Crucifixion. Already the Christian tendency was to minimize Jesus' own Judaism and to define Christianity in opposition - not to paganism or unbelief - but to Judaism. Hounded by the divide-and-conquer tactics of a brutally repressive Roman Empire, Christians of the 1st century sought to distance themselves from their near-relatives, the Jews.

Things became even worse when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. A man who came to power by warfare and murder, Constantine was also responsible for turning the cross into a Christian icon.

Where previously, Christians had focused on Jesus' exemplary life and Resurrection, the center of the drama now became his Crucifixion and death. No matter that in the time of Jesus' boyhood, the Romans had already crucified some 2,000 Jews suspected of rebellion! Instead of being seen as fellow victims, the Jews - by now a conveniently disempowered minority - were portrayed as perpetrators.

As various church fathers from Chrysostom to Ambrose vilified Jews as the enemy, not surprisingly anti-Jewish violence broke out: Synagogues were burned, countless Jews murdered.

When Crusaders bound for the Holy Land set out in 1096, their first actions were to kill Jews who had been living among them in the Rhineland for centuries. The church hierarchy would regularly condemn this kind of mob violence, but it was from the church liturgy that the mobs had derived their demonic image of Jewry.

Yet, Carroll argues, anti-Semitism need not have been - and need not be - an inevitable byproduct of Christian belief. Throughout the church's history, as he shows, there were wiser, more compassionate roads that could have been taken.

In the 12th century, the scholar Peter Abelard (lover of Heloise) preached a theology of limitless mercy and salvation for all. In one of his dialogues, he has a Jewish speaker point out: "To believe that the fortitude of the Jews in suffering would be unrewarded was to declare that God was cruel. No nation has ever suffered so much for God."

In 1453, even as Constantinople was falling to the Turks, the theologian Nicolaus of Cusa made the case for mutual respect and tolerance among all the world's religions. His words were not heeded, and within decades, the Jews were expelled from Spain.

Carroll's book is a monumental undertaking, as admirable as it is ambitious. Not only does he take us on an eye-opening journey through 20 centuries of history; he also tells us a good deal of his own personal history.

In some ways, the personal material seems extraneous. With so much else to cover, Carroll's memories of his Catholic boyhood sometimes break up the flow of his riveting historical narrative and analyses of complex issues.

But there is also something to be said for a writer who lets us know where he is coming from rather than one who offers up his conclusions ex cathedra. Richly informative and argued with intelligence, passion, and conviction, "Constantine's Sword" is a book for everyone.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews

By James Carroll Houghton Mifflin 756 pp., $28

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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