on "Constantine’s Sword," a film by James Carroll and Oren Jacoby (Storyville Films)

My mother and maternal grandparents were Jewish holocaust survivors, repetitive in their reminiscences. I grew up with knowledge that the world is visited by pervasive terror. The survivors are fated to live with a looming story. This world-quality extended into my adulthood. Now I understand my chagrin on watching the crucifixion scene in Ben-Hur: I was excluded from those who could mourn this most famous and graphic of persecutions. I was merely horrified; some part of my emotion was inoperable. Apparently my mother’s sorrow and grievances were not severe enough to include the whole world. I began to think: There is more to it. In my early teens, I dreamed that John Kennedy, our freshly killed Catholic president, stood up on the back seat of his limousine, spread his arms out wide, and was blown forward into the sky. In another dream, he stepped out of the limo and entered the room where I was sitting with a group of women; he told me to take care of them during his absence, and departed making the sign of the cross. Catholic heroes always had more allure than Jewish ones. Jesus the miracle-maker was more interesting than Moses the law-maker. When Moses died, he evaporated somewhere up on Mount Sinai. When Jesus died, they made paintings of it, and then a major motion picture.

This past week I attended a viewing of James Carroll’s film Constantine’s Sword, based on his 2001 book of the same title. Since that publication, Hollywood released yet another Golgotha screen gem, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), financed with $25 million of Mel’s own cash. (The film grossed $400 million before DVD release.) The movie repudiates Nostra Aetate, a Papal declaration promulgated on October 28, 1965 that formally exculpated the Jews for the death of Jesus. On July 30, 2006, Hezbollah fired 148 rockets at northern Israel, one of which was found undetonated with the scrawled taunt on its housing, “This is from Mel Gibson,” thus unnecessarily proving that the appetite for American entertainment is global in scope. Just the day before, Mel had been arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in Malibu, California for suspicion of DUI. Bail was set at $5,000. He apologized in a written statement for his “belligerent, despicable behavior” with the cops, having advised them that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” not that the police were interested in military history. Most people I know simply dismissed Sir Braveheart as an idiot. But one morning late that summer, my secretary Vonette, an otherwise benign Catholic, told me of The Passion of the Christ, “You can really see what it was like when the Jews killed Jesus.”

Carroll’s 93-minute film is a response to The Passion of Christ. Like Constantine’s Sword,” the movie takes aim at the Roman Catholic Church’s delight in vilifying, antagonizing, and every so often murdering or ignoring the murder of Jews. But the film has a broader agenda. Carroll’s ire is now fixed on the use of religion and theocracy as an excuse and foundation for war and persecution, the conviction that one may kill for God. In this retelling and amplification of his book’s themes, Carroll has chosen to frame his thesis as a personal pilgrimage, a search for truth. This makes the narrative a transparent invention, since Carroll “discovers” nothing in his filmed trek that he hadn’t exposed earlier. The controversial cross installed at Auschwitz, for instance, depicted in the segment where Carroll travels to Poland, is discussed in the opening of his 756-page book. Nevertheless, Constantine’s Sword is a most compelling documentary, with formal elements and an ironic pitch that somewhat resemble a Michael Moore movie.

carroll.jpgCarroll’s father began his career in the FBI and made a remarkable lateral transfer to the Air Force as a high-ranking Pentagon officer dispatched to many critical operations, including surveillance during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. James Carroll had early ambitions to attend the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs. In 2005, Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and outspoken critic of the school's handling of religion, sued the Air Force, claiming Academy senior officers and cadets had illegally imposed Christianity on others at the school. In the film, Carroll visits the Academy, interviews Weinstein, and takes the camera to Ted Haggard’s mega-New Life Church located nearby. Since then, Haggard has been banished from his pulpit for methamphetamine use and pedaphilia. But the film captures him in close-up, juiced on righteousness and imbecility, his face weirdly alert to infidels. It was bad enough when B-52s bombed North Vietnam and Cambodia. Back then, Carroll protested as a priest marching on DC. Now, the ex-priest is further outraged because a born-again president, on the phone every Monday morning with church leaders, is waging Jesus’ jihad. The Christian right, voting pro-life to avoid the demise of a fetus, is voting pro-choice for preemptive war that kills thousands.

Constantine gets the blame for transforming the cross, a symbol of love and peace, into an icon for war. “In Hoc Signo Vinces" -- in this sign, you will conquer. Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Alois Ratzinger), a former member of Hitler Youth (enrolled in 1941), has spurned Nostra Aetate and asserts that relativism's denial of objective truth is the central problem of the 21st century. Unfortunately, Ratzinger has yet to acknowledge that Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli), the World War II-era pontiff and one of only two popes ever to invoke papal infallibility, was one of the central problems of the 20th century. Pacelli refused to show his ferret-like face in the streets of Rome when the city’s Jews were herded off to the camps. Carroll brings this history alive in Constantine’s Sword through interviews along the way of his “journey.”

Over the years, Carroll’s work has sought to apply basic moral values to interpretations of history and current events. The following link will give you a good sense of his editorial orientation in his pieces for The Boston Globe. All war, he says, is bad. Acknowledging that Bush’s latest war whoops have been less punctuated by crusader language, he is now criticizing the more secular urgencies for military action.
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/1.... Carroll warmly encourages us to appeal to our better sides – and so perhaps inevitably, other parts of our being go unaddressed. In the same way, we watch Michael Moore’s film Sicko and conclude that our healthcare system is brutal and complex – but we have no idea how to proceed towards change. Moore shrugs off the actual. In Carroll’s case, the message comes close to: If only we were nicer to Islamic radicals, they’d stop flying commercial airliners into our skyscrapers. But what if warfare is our natural state? An unattributed article on hunter-gatherer societies in The Economist neatly sums up some anthropological thinking on this subject. http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10278703 Carroll is aware that the tragedies of history aren’t aberrations. Although he doesn’t seem optimally equipped to suggest how to incorporate this knowledge of our active selves into policy and direction, Carroll’s passion and intelligence open the way for others do to so.

Carroll's singular voice asks us to liberate ourselves from concepts promulgated over the centuries. His individualism places the entire Church in relief. In Constantine's Sword, he said that Paul's struggle to find his footing between the Judaism he grew up with and the Judaism he then witnessed under the influence of Jesus "gave external shape and language to the equivalent sturggle of the entire Jesus movement." Carroll then asks us to embrace Paul's paradoxical experience -- and to reject seeing Christianity and Judaism as contradictions since they both point "to the covenant of Israel, which remains the one tie to God." His idea obtains its force from a stubborn, poignant desire to rectify. His agenda, by definition, is a stretch.

The Passion of the Christ is a junk movie, an aesthetic and intellectual insult. Carroll has noted elsewhere that while interviewed by Diane Sawyer, Gibson said the film is based on John’s eyewitness gospel. Sawyer replied, “You’ve got a point there.” Carroll objects by way of noting that the gospel was written as long as 100 years after the crucifixion. Here’s what Steven Greydanus has to say about the movie on Catholic.net: “The most important point, though, is that responsibility for Jesus’ death in The Passion of the Christ is not something to be variously apportioned among the Roman and Jewish supporting cast. From the portentous opening scene, with its confrontation between Jesus and the tempter, the film is abundantly clear that the reason Jesus died was not the intrigues of Jews or Romans, but because he freely chose to lay down his life in atonement of the sins of the world.” The logic here is that Jesus died mainly for the sins of other humans, and only secondarily because of them. Since there were only Romans and Jews around then, both groups were sinful and no one, not even Pope John and Vatican II, may absolve the intrinsically culpable. This rationalization doesn’t obviate the fact that the boys in my neighborhood took it as fact, not as metaphor, that Jews killed their Lord. Often, I had it tough in the schoolyard. On the other hand, my rabbi never buggered me.

In the end, we’re all victims of both massive misreadings and feckless hopes. A cautionary tale integrating the voices of Elaine Pagels, Leon Wieseltier, and others with Carroll’s own testament, Constantine’s Sword is not only an engrossing and provocative film, but a personal and moving story well told.

The victimary process

Are you familiar with Girard's work? I'd like to read something, as well as the main critiques.

As to Ratzinger's membership in the Hitler Youth, it's advisable not to read too much into it. For most teens at the time, there was really very little choice, and though I'd like to think I'd have had the moral courage to act otherwise (though as an ethnic Jew, I'd have been given little choice), it would be dishonest of me to lay claim to such high ground. And as a mother, what would I have encouraged my children to do?