On Christians and Jews

Novelist and journalist James Carroll's huge book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Houghton Miflin, 2001), presents us with a damning indictment of Christianity's treatment of Jews down through the ages. 

       Although billed as "a 'history", the book contains both autobiographical background — Carroll being a resigned Catholic priest — as well as much theological reflection. But through it all, the author keeps returning to a single theme, which is Christianity's almost pathological need to define itself over and against Judaism and the devastating results of that need.

       According to Carroll, all this has its roots in the New Testament itself.  Almost from the start the followers of Jesus — who were mostly Jews to begin with — saw themselves threatened by the very existence of those other Jews who rejected him as a failed or false Messiah. But at the same time, these early Christians depended almost entirely on the witness of the Jewish Bible to make their scriptural claims for Christ since the New Testament can only be fully understood in the light of the Old.  The result was a real dilemma from the very first, even for those non-Jews who became Christian.

       Most of all, it was Emperor Constantine's decision to use Christianity as a means of unifying the decaying Roman Empire that led to the persecution of Jews, not as political rebels (as was the case under earlier Roman emperors) but simply against Jews as such. Beginning with his victory "under the Sign of the Cross" in 312 and "The Edict of Milan" in 313, Constantine forged the beginning of a political "Christendom" that evolved a policy of both protecting Jews and yet at the same time persecuting them because of their failure to believe in Christ.

       So begins a long history of restrictions against Jews, ranging from measures like preventing them from owning property except what they could carry, forbidding them from making converts, and often requiring them to wear special clothing or badges to mark them off as different or dangerous, to the mass expulsions (like that from Spain in 1492), and the creation of special walled‑off ghettos where Jews were forced to live. All this provided the anti‑Semitic soil where the seeds of hatred took root and led to the Holocaust — the systematic extermination of some six‑million Jews in Hitler's Germany during World War II.

       For all this Christianity must bear a tremendous load of guilt. Although the present Pope, as well as various groups of bishops and other Christian leaders have expressed sorrow and the determination that such atrocities must never happen again, still, the dilemma remains. How can Christians recognize, as Pope Pius XI put it, that we are all "spiritually semites" without, at the same time, implying that we somehow have been elected to take their place? Even more, if Christians continue to insist that they too have become a "chosen people" in a world that increasingly questions all such claims, how can they avoid suffering the same fate?

R.W.Kropf    9/1/2001                                                     Christians&Jews.doc  01-09-01.html