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Director Oren Jacoby and author James Carroll
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Movie Review:
Constantine's Sword

When Love of Religion Leads to Hatred of Others

By STEPHEN HOLDEN
April 18, 2008


Author James Carroll as seen in "CONSTANTINE’S SWORD," a 2007 documentary film directed by Oren Jacoby based on the book
by James Carroll.
At the heart of Oren Jacoby’s screen adaptation of James Carroll’s book “Constantine’s Sword” lies a question to which each person of faith must his find own answer. When your core beliefs conflict with church doctrine, how far should your loyalty to the church extend? The same could be asked of loyalty to a government or a political party.

Mr. Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest and an acclaimed author whose memoir, “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us” won a 1996 National Book Award, vehemently disagrees with the church on many issues but still embraces Catholicism. A former anti-Vietnam War activist, now in his mid-60s, he is an eloquent screen presence who conveys the same searching moral gravity that characterized other Catholic war resisters during the Vietnam era.

At once enthralling and troubling, the film, whose title has been simplified from the book’s “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History,” does about as good a job as you could hope of distilling a 750-page historical examination of religious zealotry and power into 95 swift minutes. Because the book was published several months before 9/11, the film adaptation, which was written by Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Carroll and uses the voices of Liev Schreiber, Philip Bosco, Natasha Richardson and Eli Wallach, updates the book’s pessimistic vision of how religions demonize one another to include Christian and Islamic fundamentalism as well as anti-Semitism.

What must Middle Eastern Muslims feel, Mr. Carroll wonders, when George W. Bush throws around concepts like good and evil and uses the word crusade to describe the Iraq war? Mr. Carroll worries that we may be heading toward an all-out holy war between state-supported religious extremists.

The movie begins in Colorado Springs where Mikey Weinstein, an alumnus of the United States Air Force Academy, describes the harassment of his son, Casey, a Jewish cadet, by evangelical Christians who over several days blanketed the student cafeteria with fliers promoting the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ.” There is no doubt in his mind that the film promoted an inflammatory view of Jews as Christ killers. He sued the Air Force, but the case never made it to trial.

Aggressively arguing the evangelicals’ right to proselytize is Ted Haggard, the former pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who was filmed for this movie before his fall from grace in a scandal involving a former male prostitute. Fiery-eyed and grinning maniacally, Mr. Haggard suggests a Paul Lynde caricature of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. The evangelical fervor in Colorado Springs is the somewhat tenuous topical hook on which the movie’s exploration of religion and power is hung.

Woven into the film is Mr. Carroll’s family history. Born Irish Catholic, he is the son of a former F.B.I. agent who became a three-star general and an enthusiastic prosecutor of the Vietnam War. When Mr. Carroll was a boy, his family had a private audience with the pope, and he recalls his feelings of awe. Years later he became an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. His estrangement from his father began when, shortly after becoming a priest, he referred to napalm in a sermon.

The movie then dives into the distant past for Mr. Carroll’s alternative, shadow history of the Catholic Church. He dates the notion of Christian militancy to the early fourth century, when the future emperor Constantine I, on the eve of a battle for control of the Roman Empire, had a vision of the cross in the sky inscribed with words promising that under its sign he would conquer. After the battle, in which he led a victorious army wielding a sword in the shape of a cross, he legalized Christianity and the cross, previously a minor symbol, became synonymous with Christian might.

He traces the origins of Christian anti-Semitism to Constantine’s birthplace in Trier, Germany, where Crusaders sailing down the Rhine systematically destroyed Jewish communities, which the pope refused to protect unless the people converted. Centuries later Trier was the site of an agreement between the Catholic Church and Hitler, negotiated with the future Pope Pius XII, whose later refusal to speak out during the Holocaust Mr. Carroll considers to be a great shame of the church.

In the most moving segment Ms. Richardson is heard reading a letter written in 1933 to Pope Pius XI by Edith Stein urging him to speak out against Nazi persecution of the Jews. A Jewish convert to Catholicism and a Carmelite nun, Stein died in Auschwitz in 1942. The letter, which went unanswered, was made public in 2003, five years after she was canonized.

Above and beyond criticizing the church’s refusal to stand up to Hitler, “Constantine’s Sword” is a cri de coeur about the abuse of religion when aligned with the state. Jesus, “the prince of peace,” Mr. Carroll insists, was not an intolerant warmonger.

“If you think of religion as a great lake,” he warns, “it’s a lake of gasoline, and all it’s going to take is someone to drop a match into it for a terrible conflagration.”

CONSTANTINE’S SWORD

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Oren Jacoby; written by James Carroll and Mr. Jacoby, based on the book by Mr. Carroll; director of photography, Bob Richman; edited by Kate Hirson; music by Joel Goodman; produced by Mr. Jacoby, Mr. Carroll, Michael Solomon and Betsy West; released by First Run Features and Red Envelope Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. This film is not rated.


NYTimes.com Readers' Reviews:

The Sword came later!
Rating: 5 stars
Reading the book cleansed my mind of despair over the misdeeds of Christianity: that it was the co-option by Rome of Christ, not Christ who has sanctioned 2000 years of barbarity. It has signaled to many of us that The Christ is badly represented by much of organized religion; not all, because I see more and more churches searching profoundly for a Christianity enhanced by Christ's soul and not Constantine's Sword.

I am looking forward to the film.
- c895zp

 

A holy Moment at the Cinema
Rating: 5 stars
I saw Constantine's Sword last Sunday. I studied Holocaust history and theology intensely in college and graduate school, but no history of the background and events of the Hollocaust impressed me more than the book Costantine's Sword, and now the movie will give me a way to share its moving insights and the memoir of James Carroll that is woven into the book, with those who are unable to read the book. The way the movie moves (perhaps UNDULATES would be a better word) from past to present: The Middle East to Europe to Colorado Springs to inside James Carroll's head is breathtaking. Carroll's own struggles to reverence his family critique that inheritance is an example for all of us who face a similar task. I have always enjoyed Carroll's non-fiction in the way it blends rigorous history with memoir, and now he and his collaborator have done the same on film. KUDOS AND A GRAND HAZZAH! A Passover gift to us all. Mazel Tov!
- kek613

 

A Flick to Catch
Rating: 5 stars
After finishing the book just a few months ago, I was ecstatic to hear that Oren Jacoby would be directing Constantine's Sword, the Documentary. In my opinion, this book is a must read for historians, Christians, Catholics, and ANY spiritual person alike. It's a sobering and humble account of the authors life experiences as a now former Paulist priest, and the blood shed by his church over the past 2000 years.

Spanning over 600 pages, this book is so intricately detailed that my little movie review could never do it justice. But the manner in which Mr. Jacoby was able to apply this story to a documentary and add the modern day footage of Ted Haggard and the Air Force Academy affair is truely remarkable and nothing short of an artistic masterpiece.

As a lifelong Christian, I was able to face a reality posed in this story that, quite frankly, most believers aren't emotionally able to do. That reality is that since the conversion of Constantine the great in 312, the Church has been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind. But not just against mankind in general, but more specifically the Jews, the very people God first established his covenant with.

Regardless of where you stand in this debate, I think Constantine's Sword is a must see documentary and a masterpiece of human struggle and spiritual journey.

This film just might move you.
- speedracer77

 


 

Religious Freedom Under Siege
at the Air Force Academy


Sarah Posner
April 16, 2008

After the Air Force Academy paid three speakers who claim to be ex-Muslim terrorists-turned-fundamentalist-Christians to speak against Islam in February, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which battles against the Christianization of the U.S. military, sought an event of its own.

Featuring MRFF's president, Mikey Weinstein, Ambassador Joe Wilson, and writer Reza Aslan, last week's event was designed, according to Weinstein, to show that "we are losing the war on terror" because of the type of Islamophobia presented at the February event. They were scheduled to show a segment from the forthcoming film Constantine's Sword, which showed Weinstein's exposure of aggressive proselytizing of fundamentalist Christianity in the military when Bill Donohue of the Catholic League protested. The film, based on former priest and writer James Carroll's book about the historical and religious roots of anti-Semitism, is deemed by Donohue -- like so many other things -- to be anti-Catholic.

"We wanted to show a segment dealing specifically with New Life Church and the Academy... there was nothing in [the segment] about Catholicism," Weinstein told me. But Academy officials "begged" Weinstein not to show the film after pressure from Donohue. The film, which was shown at film festivals last year, opens in New York on April 18th.

Sarah Posner, author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, has covered the religious right for the Prospect, The Nation, The Washington Spectator, AlterNet, and other publications.

 


 


MRFF's Inbox


The Enemy Within:
Bughouse Square
Opinion Editorial Submission


David H. Siegle
April 17, 2008

We all know what can happen when a heavily armed group of dedicated religious fanatics embraces a sectarian cause. Throughout history we have borne witness to the violence and carnage perpetrated by the willing minions of kings, popes, sheikhs, caliphs, sultans, imams, mullahs, tinpot dictators and born again presidents, all bound by the singular delusion that they are doing God’s work.

This is, of course, what we’re looking at today as well. The West, that is to say America with the Brits nipping at our heels, has for several years now been locked in mortal combat with the toxic fundamentalism of Islamist Wahibism, the sect that spawned bin Laden and his gang. By all accounts, at least from our perspective, we have gone to war to defend and uphold the sterling virtues of a secular, pluralistic and democratic society we the people have spent nearly three centuries trying to perfect.

So it would seem at first glance that we’re on the side of the angels in this particular conflict. After all, aren’t we the ones defending the right to think as we wish, worship - or not - as we wish, and to be safe in our homes and workplaces from those who would impose their own narrow-minded world view on the rest of us? At the same time, aren’t we also the ones who would lay down our lives to protect the rights of an individual to say or think something we might find personally or politically repulsive?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you. But what if in our own country we had a large and heavily armed group of political and religious extremists, our own Christian al Qaeda if you will, that is itself seeking to impose their own theocratic will on the rest of us? And what if, instead of these radicals operating on the fringe of society, out there on cable or cyberspace or in isolated Idaho redoubts, they were firmly entrenched within our governmental infrastructure with a virtual blank check to pursue their nefarious ends?

Wake up call, neighbors. It’s happening now, and if we’re not careful we could easily reap the whirlwind. You see, the particular bit of government infrastructure previously referred to is the United States military, and by conservative reckoning about thirty percent of it, from the highest echelons of the Pentagon to the most basic ground units, has been all but co-opted by a particularly toxic cadre of Christian fundamentalists identified as Dominionists, who are fanatically pro-Jesus and just about anti-everything else.

Now in and of itself the presence of any non-mainstream ideologues in our military shouldn’t be a concern. After all, we’re the nation of the big tent, with room for any number of faiths and philosophies, even in the service, but once the balloon goes up everyone’s on the same side. It’s an idea that worked well during the various struggles of the last century, but for some reason in this post-bin Laden age we now find ourselves being told by many of our military leaders that we’re not just fighting for the American way but we are now the spearhead of the apocalyptic holy war these brass-hat wingnuts so desperately crave.

Space precludes laying out the whole case, but consider the following, and remember that this stuff’s been well documented. We couldn’t have made this up if we tried:

Begin with the uproar over the verbal and physical harassment of Air Force Academy cadets considered “unchurched” by the over-the-top Dominionists in charge of the place. Even after the Air Force was shamed into investigating, and they were forced to admit that this was going on and that it was antithetical to everything we purport to stand for, they then turned around and issued a convoluted set of guidelines that all but endorsed the status quo.

To date the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group formed by former Air Force Academy honors graduate Mikey Weinstein, has heard from nearly eight thousand aggrieved service people who have been subjected to theocratic abuse, and that number is increasing almost literally as we speak.

There have been several lawsuits filed in federal court on behalf of some of the aforementioned grievants, but one case in particular puts the whole thing in microcosm. A young GI, a two-tour Iraq vet with an exemplary record but who is also a confirmed atheist, ran afoul of one of his superior officers when he convened an off-hours discussion group consisting of himself and fellow atheists. The officer belligerently broke up the meeting and threatened the soldier by saying he’d block his re-enlistment and bring charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), whereupon the young man filed suit.

The case is pending, and the soldier, now back on post in the US, is living under the dark cloud of army-initiated threats of retribution and retaliation for daring to confront this issue head-on. This follows a number of death threats the soldier received while still deployed in Iraq, where the original incident took place.

So if any of this troubles you, and shame on you if it doesn’t, the face staring back at you in the mirror, the one that says I’m an American and this isn’t right, should be all the incentive you need to do what you need to do as a participant in our democracy to help take our country back.

 


 

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