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Monday, 20 October 2008 23:12

James Carroll Explores How War Became Justified in the Name of God, Killing for the Lord: "Constantine's Sword"

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Humanity's dirty little secret it that humans (especially males) love war - and they really love it if they can be assured of God's favor for it. That is why every great religion ... also includes an argument against violence and war. "No War is Holy" is the tag-line of this film, and the essence of its argument. But I make that argument not against religion, but from within it.

-- Author and peace activist James Carroll

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Readers of the Boston Globe are familiar with the thoughtful, reflective and often moving essays written by James Carroll.  Take for instance, Caroll's October 20th column entitled "Courage, wisdom in an age of fear," in which Caroll discusses America's legacy of political violence and how Obama is openly confronting it: "A Republican mantra has been, 'Who is Barack Obama?' But he has been showing us. His courage runs as deep as his wisdom. For some Americans, he represents, in addition to everything else, the unexpected possibility that we can find release in middle age from what took us hostage when we were young."

Carroll has written several books, including "Constantine's Sword," which has been made into an enlightening documentary about how one wing of Christianity came to justify wars by invoking God. As we well know, this is still a belief held by the likes of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and key members of the Republican Party leadership.

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BuzzFlash: You did a wonderful job of adapting your book Constantine's Sword into a documentary, with yourself as the narrator.  It offers a very different dimension than the written word, particularly with your travels and personal reflections.  Why did you decide to turn from author into narrator? 

James Carroll: First, let me point out that my partner and collaborator in the film is director Oren Jacoby. I am the on-screen narrator, but Oren's vision shares the center of the film. After the publication of my book, I was resolved to bring its important questions to as broad a public as possible. Obviously, films reach large audiences, with compelling power. In the religiously enflamed world, the history of Christian anti-Semitism, the threat of Islamophobia, and the danger of a so-called ‘clash of civilizations' make the urgency of such questions plain.

BuzzFlash: Let's ask the most basic question, which is really in the title of the book and documentary.  What is the dual religious/militaristic significance of the historical meaning of "Constantine's Sword" and how he became empire of Rome?

James Carroll: Constantine, emperor of Rome in the early fourth century, converted to Christianity and brought the Roman Empire with him. The Empire became the Church, and the Church became the Empire.

Beware when the state uses religion for political ends, and beware when religion uses state power to advance a religious program. In the ancient world, this had drastic consequences for Christian belief (which left the non-violence of Jesus behind), and profoundly negative consequences, especially for Jews. Now they could be pressured by the state to accept Jesus, and when they refused, pressures mounted further, beginning the long and sorry tale of Western anti-Semitism.

The dangers of state-enforced religion were apparent - if not to the Founders of Plymouth Plantation (a theocracy) - then to the Framers of the Constitution of the the United States. The tradition of the separation of Church and State is precious. In the Bush years, that separation has been endangered, especially by religious zealotry in the U.S. military - a profoundly dangerous development during the War on Terror.

BuzzFlash: You weave into the documentary your thoughts on having been raised an observant Catholic and having spent some years in the priesthood during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War.  How much of the book and documentary reflect your own religious journey? 

James Carroll: I entered the seminary in the early 1960s during the height of nuclear dread. The existential crisis sparked by dangers attached to nuclear war was reflected in my case by the determination, as I said to my father, "to give myself to the things that last." I entered the priesthood. The upheavals of politics and religion of the 1960s (In the Catholic Church the Second Vatican Council; in the U.S. the Vietnam War, etc.) made me who I am. I left the priesthood in 1974, after five years as Catholic chaplain at Boston University. I remain a practicing Catholic and a committed anti-war activist. As a writer, religion and war define the center of my work.

BuzzFlash: Here's a key perspective we got of the film.  Tell us if we are getting one of your key theses or not.  Here goes: After Constantine's "divine" victory, blessed as he saw it by God and Christ, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, in his case, saw war and conversion as inextricably intertwined in carrying out the will of God.  As a result, two different strains of Christianity developed: those Christians who believe in the gospel of peace as practiced in the name of Jesus before Constantine's victory -- and those Christians who see military Crusades as carrying out divine will.

Do you agree with that broad generalization?

James Carroll: Yes. Christianity, including Catholicism, is ambiguous and ambivalent - working for peace and justice on the one hand (The Catholic Church is the largest NGO in the world, doing good without strings attached all over the world), and reinforcing chauvinistic and imperialist attitudes on the other (Christians have sponsored some of the most violent wars in history, and the Church did too little to oppose Hitler). But this ambivalence is true of every religion - and every human institution for that matter. (America is a militarist empire and a source of liberal democracy both.) Indeed, such ambivalence characterizes every person. None of us is pure. I value my religious tradition most for the way it includes principles of its own self-criticism. If I am a critical Catholic, it is because the Church has taught me to be that way.  

BuzzFlash: You spend a good deal of time covering the Crusades, which exemplified slaughter in the name of God.  As the Knights of the Templar traveled to the Middle East to slay and conquer the "heathen" Muslims, they took a side trip in Germany to kill Jews.  Did the Crusaders truly believe that God sanctioned these murderous rampages? 

James Carroll: Yes. "God wills it!" was the Crusader slogan, given to them by Pope Urban II. Such violence in the name of God was a profound betrayal of Jesus, especially when it targeted his own Jewish people. What makes religious zealotry dangerous is the way it convinces people of their absolute righteousness, leading to the obliteration of any doubt or second thought. That is why every religion must nurture the habit of self-criticism.

Humanity's dirty little secret it that humans (especially males) love war - and they really love it if they can be assured of God's favor for it. That is why every great religion - note my remarks on ambivalence above - also includes an argument against violence and war. "No War is Holy" is the tag-line of this film, and the essence of its argument. But I make that argument not against religion, but from within it.  

BuzzFlash: Obviously, your documentary has contemporary implications to say the least.  Can you tell us why you begin the documentary not in ancient Christian history, but at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs? 

James Carroll: The U.S. Air Force Academy was the scene of an outbreak of religious intolerance, and even anti-Semitism, in the years after conservative evangelicals began targeting the academy for conversion. Officers pressured cadets to come to Jesus, not only for religious reasons but for "unit cohesion" - an outrageous violation of cadet rights and the separation of Church and State. Christian fundamentalists have their rights, too - but not to exert the power of the state to advance their agenda. The Bush years have been marked by this mixing of conservative Christian religion with politics, and in the military it is especially dangerous. It still goes on.

BuzzFlash: Although the film was made before the arrival of Governor Sarah Palin on the political scene, we found her videotaped exhortation at her primary Wasilla church that the Iraq War was, in essence, God's will.  Even though she is in an extremist Pentecostal sect of a fundamentalist denomination, is her perspective a legacy of "Constantine's Sword"? 

James Carroll: Governor Palin has the right to her beliefs, but she must not invoke God or denominational values to advance public policy. That is especially true when it comes to war. And anyone who knows the terrible history of religious war knows it is dangerous to justify military adventures by appealing to God. Every aggressor does it. Even though George Bush is leaving office, with much of his religiously inspired political program (including wars) discredited, the problems of state-empowered religion and religiously-driven politics remain a threat in the United States. Governor Palin is a reminder of that.

BuzzFlash: Are we doomed, as people of faith, to choose between a God of wrath and a God of peace? 

James Carroll: There is only one God - and that God beholds creation, as Genesis says, and sees it as good. God did not create the world to see it destroyed. The heart of existence is benign. God's will for the earth is peace and justice. The way to honor God is through compassionate love. These are the core tenets of the major religions, but humans have an inbred inability to remember them as such. That is why again and again we do have to return to our sources (Hillel, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, etc.), criticize ourselves (confess sin), repent (accept forgiveness) - and, yes, choose the God of peace.

BuzzFlash: Getting back to the evangelical missionary activity that you describe taking place at the Air Force Academy, is this a non-Catholic extension of the need to convert "non-believers" in order to fulfill God's will? 

James Carroll: Believers feel an urge to convert others - and call it God's will - because they are uncertain in what they believe. That is clear in relation to the old Christian impulse to convert Jews - because Jewish rejection of Christian claims is profoundly threatening to Christians. This was an ancient Catholic impulse, and reached a climax with the Crusades. Protestants continued it, with a kind of climax in the missionizing of European colonialism.

But in the contemporary world more and more believers recognize that tolerance and mutual respect for others requires an abandonment of assertive convert-making. Let other people be other people.

BuzzFlash: As a last question, you, in choosing to enter the priesthood, felt a deep need to serve God but ended up serving the cause of peace.  What do you think was in your background, given that your father was a powerful Pentagon figure, that freed you from the paradigm of linking holiness with war and conquest of the "infidels"? 

James Carroll: Returning to the point of Cold War nuclear dread - I saw up close (because of my father) what it meant that the Godly United States of America was just as ready to destroy the earth as the "ungodly" Soviet Union. Nuclear war, and my visceral rejection of everything that prepares for it or justifies it, was the opening for me to a new notion of what it means for me to be a Christian believer and to be an American. I became and remain a resister. Resistance!

Today, the United States is still armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, with no enemy to justify it, but plenty of religions to bless it. At the end of the Cold War, the "infidel" Communists were far readier to eliminate the nuclear arsenal than "good Christian" Americans were (e.g., Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons by 2000 - but Reagan killed that by refusing to give up his dream of the Strategic Defense Initiative - which Bush is now deploying in Poland and the Czech Republic, starting a new Cold War with Russia). We Americans are keeping nukes in place -- and making it almost certain that eventually undeterrable terrorists will obtain nukes and use them.

Abolishing nuclear weapons defines for me the central purpose of life - political and religious. The very earth is at stake. For a further explanation of what I mean, see my book House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

* * *


"Constantine's Sword" Documentary DVD (2008). Narrated and Based on the book by James Carroll, available from the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

James Carroll Puts Bush's Religious Crusade Against Terrorism Into Historical Context, a BuzzFlash Interview, 5/18/05.

Read 2794 times Last modified on Monday, 10 November 2008 09:03