“Every religious person has to take responsibility for the way in which their tradition promotes intolerance and hatred."
These are the words of author, former priest and disenchanted Catholic James Carroll, and they drive home one of the central themes of Oren Jacoby’s documentary Constantine’s Sword. The film looks at several historical examples of a fused church and state and documents the marginalization, oppression and death such a merging produces—often in Christianity’s name.
Constantine’s Sword is an adaptation of Carroll’s 2001 book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History. The movie begins with Carroll’s trip to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where there are reports of commanding officers pressuring cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity.
Through his ever-present shit-eating-grin, former pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life evangelical megachurch ardently defends proselytizing cadets. Haggard asserts that Christians have the right to go anywhere and express their opinions to whomever they’d like, even nonbelievers. “I drink Coke, and I have to listen to Pepsi commercials,” Haggard uses as rationale. After the film was made, revelations about Haggard’s involvement with a former male prostitute forced him to relinquish his title as a minister.
At its most fundamental level, Constantine’s Sword is about power and its relation to religion.
The film then rewinds back to the fourth century AD, where the Roman Emperor Constantine is about to leave his mark on Rome and religion forever. It was Constantine, the film explains, who made the cross a popular Christian symbol back in the early 300s. Before then, Carroll says, Christianity had used symbols of life such as the fish or the shepherd. It was only after the cross, a symbol of death, became its predominant symbol, that Christianity mimicked its violent iconography.
The film then delves into the death and destruction caused to Jews during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. Constantine’s Sword also examines the current War on Terror and the potentially negative effect that President George W. Bush’s good vs. evil rhetoric has had on the Muslim community worldwide.
The grand historical narrative the film follows is interspersed with segments about Carroll’s personal life. His father was a devout Catholic who went from being a slaughterhouse worker to an Air Force General. Carroll was a priest during the Vietnam War, but his pacifist views caused him to feel alienated from the church. He left the priesthood in the ’70s.
Carroll’s tone is far from whimsical, but he has a calm demeanor that’s comforting, especially during the film’s more disheartening moments. He has not lost all faith in Catholicism and notes that his relationship with God remains strong.
But he does not shy away from criticizing Catholic leaders. Carroll and others in the film reprimand Pope Pius XII for signing a secret agreement with Hitler that said he would not do anything to protect the lives of unconverted Jews. A less harsh scolding is leveled upon current Pope Benedict XVI for blaming the Nazis’ racist ideology on “neo-paganism.” Carroll accuses the Pope of not telling the whole truth about the Catholic Church’s roll in perpetuating the extermination of Jews.
At its most fundamental level, Constantine’s Sword is about power and its relation to religion. Carroll is adamant that religions should own up to their role in major atrocities, and he cites clear examples where historical truths are obfuscated by religious leaders.
Constantine’s Sword is an engaging, un-obtuse and thoroughly intriguing documentary that grapples with some of the biggest issues facing religion. The film makes a powerful case that unless these problems are met head-on, they’ll never go away.