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'Sword' takes stab at religion

The Baltimore Sun

Constantine's Sword, according to the credits, is "based on" the book by James Carroll calling for enlightenment and clarity on the history of Christians' relationships with Jews. But it's more like an eloquent sidebar to the book, focusing on Carroll himself.

This ex-priest and son of a Cold War Christian soldier was drawn to the Catholic Church for Jesus' messages of peace. But he has spent his adult lifetime noting the disconnect of those teachings to Christian oppression of the Jews and other Semites (including Arabs during the Crusades) and the hijacking of Christianity to bless sometimes-questionable Western wars.

The movie has a time span of 21 centuries, but it begins right up to the minute. Carroll grapples with the alleged evangelical-Christian infiltration of the U.S. Air Force Academy. It's a controversy that hits home to Carroll twice over, because his father was a three-star Air Force general and pioneering intelligence officer who brought forward the first evidence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

The movie swings back and forth between the well-known horrors of Christian and Jewish history, including the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and the fight of Mikey Weinstein to preserve the separation of church and state in the U.S. military in general and at the Air Force Academy in particular. This loyal academy grad and former officer brought suit against the Air Force after his two sons and daughter-in-law informed him of Christian proselytizing on campus.

The danger of putting state power behind an evangelical force is what concerns Weinstein, and Carroll, too. The author contends that the Roman Emperor Constantine roused the dark side of Christianity when he made it his state religion and changed its dominant symbol from a bread loaf or a fish to the cross - a shape that could be replicated with spears.

With so much ground to cover, Carroll's own story must hold everything together. And it just about does, because it's inherently fascinating and because Carroll has the rare ability to note in a tough-minded way where the forces of history, politics and religion impinge on personal life. The movie becomes a memoir of a certain kind of American idealism in the Vietnam era. Yet it has all these fascinating and pertinent intricacies that derive from Carroll's autobiography. He grew up partly in Germany, with a mother who identified with St. Helena, Constantine's mother, the collector of Christian artifacts. That's why Carroll is so acute on the use of symbols like Jesus' cross and the robe as instruments to advertise Jews' supposed guilt for the crucifixion.

Carroll wants honesty, not forced healing, and he looks for authentic spokespeople and witnesses. In a quick, lucid vignette, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, says he finds the story of Jesus' mortality moving. But he can appreciate the poignant beauty of a sculpture of Jesus' suffering only if he shuts down a piece of his heart. He must obliterate his knowledge that the supremacy of the cross in European culture was responsible for the deaths of Jews for centuries and the obliteration of his own family in Poland. Don't ask the victims to explain anti-Semitism, advises Wieseltier - and Carroll, wisely, doesn't. His paramount virtue - one he bequeaths to his director, Oren Jacoby, and this movie - is the gift of empathy.

Constantine's Sword

(First Run Features) A documentary by Oren Jacoby. Featuring James Carroll. Unrated. Time 93 minutes.

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