History recalled

constantine-s-swordConstantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews. A History, by James Carroll

Review by Edwin Carter

There are certain books which should be compulsory reading for all church members with a sense of church history, and in particular any sense of the ways in which the Church has treated our Jewish brothers and sisters. The book Constantine’s Sword is one such book.

In 312 CE, before the battle of Milvian Bridge, the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have seen a vision of a cross in the sky with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces (In this sign, Conquer), and with this a signal of favour from the Christian God. He did precisely that and he, his army and eventually the whole Empire became Christian.

As well, the Cross became the central symbol of the Christian faith which until that time it had not been. For our fellow travellers – the Jews – this acceptance of the Cross was a double affront inasmuch it reminded them of the destruction of the Second Temple and the cross could easily be seen as a sword.

Author James Carroll is a former Catholic priest from the Paulist Fathers. In this book he traces the interaction of the church and the Jewish faith over the centuries with an emphasis on the Roman Catholic Church. But our history is the history of the same western church for 14,000 years and Protestants have been on the whole no less antisemitic than the Catholic Church.

The book is a profound reminder of our total unwillingness to acknowledge our roots in the Jewish faith, our unwillingness to admit to the continuing vitality of that faith and that, from a religious viewpoint, God’s Covenant with Israel has never been revoked.

While it catalogues the many failings of the Church and our civilization, the book is enlivened by personal reflections of the author as he visits the old Roman Empire sites and considers the many occasions in which the Church could have taken a different path.

The opening chapter sets the scene by discussing the hostile Jewish reaction to the symbol of the Cross placed on the boundary of Auschwitz in memory of the quarter-million non-Jewish Poles murdered there. One of these was Father Kolbe, who had voluntarily taken the place of a fellow inmate in the death bunker but who, in a former life, had published antisemitic articles. It also commemorates the memory of Edith Stein who had become a Catholic Saint, but who was in fact martyred because she was a Jew.

Our fellow religious found this association of the Cross at Auschwitz highly offensive for, as they said, “let them rest in peace as Jews”. Surely at Auschwitz, where approximately 1.5 million Jews were murdered, any sense that suffering can serve a universal plan of salvation can seem like blasphemy.

The Synod Working Group on Christian Jewish Relations considers this outstanding book to be highly significant for our understanding of our own religious history and commends it to the whole Church community.

Edwin Carter is a member of the Synod Working Group on Jewish Christian Relations and Treasurer, Council of Christians and Jews Vic.

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