Engaging in Self-criticism: An Interview With James Carroll


In his book, Carroll takes a critical look at the way Christians, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church, have treated the Jews throughout history.

The potential for religions to engage in evil acts, and the necessity of self-criticism, is at the heart of James Carroll's new book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. Carroll spoke with EthicsDaily.com recently about the book and some of the thoughts it introduces.

Replacement Theology

In his book, Carroll takes a critical look at the way Christians, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church, have treated the Jews throughout history.

At the heart of the matter, Carroll told EthicsDaily.com, is the challenge of talking about the church and Israel without using language that is "inherently denigrating."

This denigration is evident in replacement theology.

"Replacement theology assumes the replacement of one people by another," Carroll said. In the case of the church and Israel, it assumes that the old covenant was replaced by the new.

Carroll said it is time we move away from the "old covenant, new covenant" language.

"We need a new way to think of Israel," Carroll said. "I don't mean that those who read the Old Testament aren't able to see in it patterns in the Christian story. But, we don't have to read it only in exclusively Christian terms."

We can read prophecies in Isaiah, he said, and realize that they can refer to more than just references to Jesus.

The key is understanding traditional expressions in light of contemporary experiences, Carroll added.

Blood Libel

Carroll noted that blood libel is an old and very deep form of anti-Semitism.

Blood libel refers to the "slander accusing the Jews of the murder of Christian children," Carroll said. Jews were accused of using the blood of the child in Jewish rituals. A specific accusation was issued in England around 1144, he said.

"It is directly related to the false charge of ascribing the blood crime of the crucifixion of Jesus to the Jews," Carroll said. "This is a common source of attacks on Jews."

Blood libel is not a thing of the past, Carroll said. Last year, the president of Syria repeated the charges when he greeted the Pope in Damascus.

Carroll said there are also references to blood libel in great literature, including works by Chaucer and Joyce.

"It is part of a deep-rooted anti-Semitism tied to the murder of Jesus," Carroll said. "It is important to let it go."

Salvation vs. Revelation

In his book, Carroll takes a look at the root of Christian faith and conflicting views of why Jesus Christ had to suffer crucifixion.

He presents the philosophies of Anselm and Abelard to illustrate the vast differences in thought.

Anselm, Carroll said, believed that "God became man to appease the offense inflicted against God by the sin of man. Jesus had to die to compensate, or atone for that sin."

And because of the death of Jesus, God's mind was changed. This, Carroll said, is the salvation view.

Abelard, however, didn't think God's mind needed to be changed, but that man's mind needed to be changed because God's mind never changes.

According to the Abelard school of thought, "Jesus came to reveal that we were already saved," Carroll said. This is the revelation view.

"There are aspects of truth in both," Carroll said. "I personally believe that God never rejects the creatures of God. If such a thing as rejection is possible it is because the creature rejects God."

Communism, Fascism, Hitler and the Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has taken hits for its failure to denounce Adolf Hitler and his heinous acts against the Jews. Hitler lived and died on the rolls of the Catholic Church. He was never excommunicated.

"There is no doubt that the Catholic Church was not friendly towards Hitler," Carroll said. "Hitler hated the church but was prepared to use it."

Carroll said the church should have been clearer about its stand, but it is "much more sensitive to assaults on the prerogatives of the church."

The church also denounced communism, while seemingly ignoring fascism.

The reason, Carroll said, was because communism was against the church altogether. "The church didn't feel as threatened by fascism," he said.

The church has since been much bolder, Carroll said. In 1948, all communists were excommunicated from the church. But Hitler still remained.

"It's not too late to excommunicate Hitler," Carroll said.

Christians and Jews: Sibling Rivalry

"Just as siblings grow up and mature in relationships, so can these two religions," Carroll said, "especially on the Christian side."

"Children don't quite trust that their parents' love is infinite. They don't feel like their parents can love each child enough."

Growing into maturity, Carroll said, means we need to leave this thinking behind.

"We can have an intimate bond while being different," he said. "After all, we have the same Father."

Carroll said that this renewed bond is happening mostly because lay people are interested in reconciling.

"Clergy are rushing to keep up with the grassroots movement started by their congregants," he said.

Challenging the Church

"This book is a direct challenge to the power structure of the church," Carroll said. "It is no surprise it is under assault."

Even so, Carroll said he is frequently asked to speak to Catholic audiences and has made several appearances at Catholic colleges and universities.

"People are not going to accept corruption," Carroll said. "They are ready for the denigrations of the church to come to an end."

Carroll said the "defensive hierarchy" is on the margin, while the people are "vitally alive." They see that infallibility is a "mistake."

Religion Advancing the State

Carroll said the American tradition is confused about its Christian origins.

"The United States has a long history of using religious language and symbols to advance the power of the state," Carroll said. "Today, people who use the Christian religion to justify the actions of the state misuse their own religion."

Especially as America sits on the brink of war with Iraq, Carroll said, we must be careful not to use any language that names us as more holy.

"God is not always on the side of America," he said. "I always pray 'God bless America' only when it can be replaced with 'God bless the world.'"

Asking Basic Questions

Sept. 11 changed the way many people view their faith, Carroll said.

"Every religion understands the necessity of religious self-criticism," he said.

We have to ask some basic questions, Carroll said, about Christian triumphalism, Islamic Jihad, the Jewish religious claim to land, and more.

"What," he asked, "is the relationship between violence and religion?"

Jodi Mathews is BCE's communications director.

Order Constantine's Sword from Amazon!

Read Mike Smith's review of the book.

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