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The dark side of the Christian church

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In its ultimate goals, the perverse ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was not only anti-Jewish, but anti-Christian. Loving one's neighbor and turning the other cheek were not the Nazi way. Hitler hoped eventually to eliminate all institutions, from the Boy Scouts to the Roman Catholic Church, that might rival those of his own creation. Nonetheless, the fact remains that most of the vast number of Germans who supported Hitler were Christians.

This disturbing fact has led many thoughtful people to conclude that Hitler's program to destroy the Jews could never have been carried out had it not in some way appealed to a pervasive and persistent strain of anti-Semitism that was already latent in Germany's - and Europe's - Christian majority.

In his magisterial and searching study "Constantine's Sword," James Carroll probes the dark question of the link between "ancient Christian hatred of Jews" and "the twentieth century's murderous hatred that produced the death camps."

A novelist, cultural critic, and author of an award-winning memoir, Carroll was a Paulist priest prior to his writing career, and it is as a Roman Catholic Christian that he feels compelled to examine how the religion that means so much to him became tainted with the poison of anti-Semitism.

Although Pope John Paul II has tried to redress past wrongs by condemning anti-Semitism, Carroll feels the church needs to confront its past mistakes more squarely.

The problem, he explains, begins with the Gospels, which present the Jews as responsible for the Crucifixion. Already the Christian tendency was to minimize Jesus' own Judaism and to define Christianity in opposition - not to paganism or unbelief - but to Judaism. Hounded by the divide-and-conquer tactics of a brutally repressive Roman Empire, Christians of the 1st century sought to distance themselves from their near-relatives, the Jews.

Things became even worse when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. A man who came to power by warfare and murder, Constantine was also responsible for turning the cross into a Christian icon.

Where previously, Christians had focused on Jesus' exemplary life and Resurrection, the center of the drama now became his Crucifixion and death. No matter that in the time of Jesus' boyhood, the Romans had already crucified some 2,000 Jews suspected of rebellion! Instead of being seen as fellow victims, the Jews - by now a conveniently disempowered minority - were portrayed as perpetrators.

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