Review: Constantine’s Sword

James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, or Constantine’s Sword

2007, Storyville Films/First Run Features

A historical documentary film on the relationship between the Catholic Church and Jews. Directed and produced Oren Jacoby, inspired by former priest James P. Carroll’s 2001 book Constantine’s Sword.

First of all, having only seen the film, and not read the book, my comments may not relate directly to what the original work represents. From what I do know of the book, though, it goes into far more exhaustive detail and builds a far more elaborate case for a continuity of anti-Semitism from Constantine to the present day. That broad arc is not quite as visible in the film, which might, ironically, be a saving grace, albeit a minor one, of the film over the book.

A broad connective arc is definitely implied, though. It’s hard at times to sketch a clear historical arc from the film version because it jumped back and forth from biography (with heavy doses of quasi-confessional angst, or so it appeared to me) to history. Again, I don’t know if that was the case in the book as well; if so I question the value of its organizational structure! But the events that do appear are related by implication if only by virtue of the fact that they appear in a sequence, each one punctuated by Carroll’s ongoing “revelations along his journey.” (I use the phrase for lack of a better one; I don’t really connect to him on this level, any more than I do to the documentary AS a documentary, but maybe I’m just unsympathetic, cold, and critical.)

I don’t have TOO much difficulty with his treatment of contemporary issues, although he focuses almost entirely on contemporary anti-Semitism in conservative and evangelical Christianity, which I think rather misses the salient point. Granted, it is there – the public statement by the head of the Southern Baptist Seminary (yes, the one located in our fair city) that “God doesn’t listen to the prayers of Jews” is ample proof of this. However, if we are going to worry ourselves over the threats inherent in the rise of contemporary ultra-conservative Christianity, we have much broader concerns to address, thank you very much. Let’s start with theocracy and the Constitution, for example, and go from there. 

For example, Carroll starts by discussing the problem of proselytizing in the military – this is a serious issue, with broad-ranging implications reaching well beyond the Jewish population, and I was (at first) happy to see some light shed on it. However, he quickly focused only on the pressure on Jews, which, from everything else I have read about this (and similar issues) is one of the smaller aspects of it; this same aggressive proselytization exists across the armed forces, and anyone not in accord with evangelicalism is pressured equally. To discuss it as though it is exclusively a Jewish/Christian issue both misrepresents it, and shifts focus from the true problems.

He begins his history with Constantine, and says not too much interesting, except to note that the cross was not really used much as a Christian symbol until Constantine himself made it one. I have always thought that this rather makes the account of his victory and conversion a bit less remarkable, not to mention rather suspect (as though it wasn’t already).

When I first started railing at the screen, however (Yes, I am someone who yells at the TV; now you know), was his first foray into the ‘tragic history.’ (Strongly evocative to me at least of what Baron termed “the lachrymose” view of Jewish history.)  That begins with the Crusades in the Rhineland, of course. I don’t know how the events are portrayed in the book, but in the film – well, to say the presentation is ‘heavily shaded’ towards his message is perhaps too polite. He doesn’t say outright that the church supported the massacres, but he certainly does nothing to note that they didn’t, either. (And based on his treatment of other events, it is clearly implied.) He says that the Bishop of Mainz refused entrance to his palace to any Jews except those who would convert. I have not read every account, to be sure, but that’s not how I recall reading it. Nor does he ever mention any attempt on the part of the Bishop to stop the Crusaders, something I definitely recall reading in several sources, even in the Jewish accounts.

He never gives numbers, but his telling of how “the entire Jewish population of the Rhineland was wiped out” certainly suggests numbers far greater than I recall reading about as well. Nor do I recall any suggestion that the entire region found itself suddenly utterly devoid of a single Jew… He visits a Jewish cemetery, also in Mainz, and first shows a stone telling the story of a young woman converted by force. He doesn’t mention a date, but it is implied it’s from the same time. He then shows an elderly Jewish man, a guide to the cemetery, weeping over a gravestone that is obviously MUCH more recent, (looked to be maybe 18th C, but what do I know about gravestones in the Rhineland?) but again, the implication is that this is a victim of the Crusaders. Indeed, the suggestion is that the entire cemetery is filled with such victims.

He does the same sort of thing on his brief mention of Spain and the Inquisition – tosses out a few broad statements about expulsion, torture, and extermination, voiced over what appeared to be 18th-century woodcuts of diabolical torture, and moves on, leaving the viewer to draw only the worst conclusions. It’s that kind of misleading, slanted, and to me, entirely gratuitous misrepresentations that riddled the film, and drove me nuts. I don’t know that he intentionally misrepresents, or how much of it is editing, and how much of it is him just not checking his sources. (For example, his source for the information on the events in Mainz is, if I recall correctly, a local abbot.) Then again, it’s difficult to imagine this not being intentional, as he never seems to err against his argument; convenient that. 

It irritated me enough that when he got to talking about things I don’t know much about personally, I didn’t trust a word he said. He implied, for example, that the confinement of the Jews to the Ghettos in Rome was at the explicit order of the Pope. I don’t know anything at all about Rome in the 1500s, but I doubt the accuracy of this (or at least, strongly suspect that, even if this is true in one sense, there is vastly more to the events) simply because I saw how the events of 1096 were portrayed. And so on.

In dealing with the Nazi phenomenon, again, he doesn’t say outright that the Church was involved, or that the ideology was Christian, but he might as well have. He never discusses the difference between religiously and racially motivated persecutions, (a crucial difference!) again, save by implication. However, the implication is very much that the support of the Vatican for the Third Reich is religiously motivated. i.e. The Vatican knew just what Hitler was about, and was only too happy to sit back and let him do the dirty work. He even discusses at great length the warning sent to the Pope by Edith Stein about what Hitler was up to, and how she never received an answer, but herself perished in Buchenwald. OK, that is true, but it’s the WAY it’s presented that makes it so pregnant with accusation.

(Nota bene: I want to be clear that Hitler was very much a devout Christian, as is evidenced in all of his speeches and writings throughout his public career. And the notion of his undertaking as the will of God was quite prevalent; Nazi gear was everywhere emblazoned with ‘Gott mit uns’ [God with us]. So it is not an exaggeration on Carroll’s part to imply that the Third Reich was Christian in its leanings, but it IS inaccurate to say that any specific church qua institution, be it Catholic or Protestant, was a driver of the Reich.)

It’s never said explicitly, but it is clearly there. (It’s infuriating really, to watch!) He gives a brief nod to the influence of “neo-pagan” ideology to the formation of the Nazi programs as a way to share or shift blame from Christianity (also inaccurate as far as I know; my impression has been that Hitler’s quasi-mythical inspiration had more to do with Wagner and the 19th-century romantics & occultists than anything genuinely ‘pagan,’ much less ‘neo-pagan.’). But he never explains what he means, leaving the viewer to either cast blame on contemporary Wicca/neo-pagan groups, or to simply dismiss it, and remain focused on Christianity/Catholicism, neither of which do a thing to further any understanding of the issue at hand.

Nothing is ever mentioned about the other myriad elements which formed the foundation for the Nazi phenomenon: social Darwinism, Malthus, the early forms of Aryan thought, Müller, no mention of the impacts of technology, or the social and political history of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazi party, or the rise of totalitarian regimes in other places in the 30s; not a bit of it. Yes, Christianity was one of those elements, but it was only one of those elements. No context here, folks, it’s a context-free zone.

Naturally, I do think that there is plenty to be discussed on many fronts here. In no sense am I trying to soften the harsh realities of anti-Semitism, or pogroms against Jews, whether in antiquity, the middle ages, the early 20th century, or now. Nor am I issuing a blanket pardon for those individuals and groups that have used religion as the excuse for this or any form of persecution. But to my mind, there is plenty to talk about without distorting meaning and misrepresenting events. So too, is there plenty to discuss in terms of the Vatican and its willingness to meet (and thereby legitimize) Hitler as a political ally, and its reticence to speak out against the Reich. (Then again, the same could be said, perhaps even more vehemently, about many other governments and other entities, not the least of which being major American companies; something else Carroll utterly fails to mention. And why would he? It might detract from his message.) 

But if we are to have this conversation, let’s have it correctly, with responsible scholarship and unbiased history. To do otherwise is to construct our own Guantanamo – if we are to hold history, or the church to trial, let it be a fair trial. However, the sort of blame Carroll sketches seems to be, like so much else, too deeply shaded to read as balanced or credible. This sort of editing and shading is, I know, bread and butter for ‘message-driven’ film as a genre. But in this case, I think it really detracts from those points he may have that may be valid, or at least, worth discussion. It takes what could have been a documentary with real value, and real impact, and puts it on par with something like Zeitgeist, or one of the 9-11 conspiracy films.

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