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James Carroll

CISA’s Shindleman Speaker: A Superb Choice

Simone Cohen Scott, July 15, 2022

One can be sure that when the speaker for the annual Shindleman Lecture is chosen, if one is not already familiar with the candidate, one ought to be. This is certainly the case with James Carroll, whose clear, concise history of every juncture at which the Catholic Church exacerbated antipathy toward the Jewish people, should accompany the study of Western civilization. Carrol’s 2001 book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History, and 2008 documentary film of the same name, reveals the initial flaw to be in early church teaching, misinformation which orchestrated the ostracizing, demonizing, and anathematizing, of the People of the Book. It is as the author of this particular book—out of twelve novels and eight works of non-fiction—that qualifies him for this particular forum. 

          James Carroll was born on January 22nd, 1943, in Chicago, Illinois, and was raised in Washington, DC. His father was an Air Force general, serving as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency. Reared closely by his devout Catholic mother, he was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, when he left the priesthood to become a writer. His list of novels, histories, political analyses, and newspaper columns goes on and on, as does the list of his literary awards and honorary degrees. 

           The title of the talk “The Troubling Existence of Antisemitism: An Unfinished Christian Reckoning” gives warning that more revelations will be forthcoming. It is without doubt that this man is very courageous, having taken on the Catholic Church in his book, and now, here, doubling down on his critique of Christianity in all its denominations. He begins by citing details of the several atrocious antisemitic crimes that have taken place in the United States in recent months and years that reveal a continuous growth of vicious, extreme hatred. He points out that even, or especially, in the “criminal” war of Russia against Ukraine, antisemitic tropes and dangerous lies are put forward to demonize the Jewsscapegoating them still, even after 2000 years. In the United States, the year 2021 was the worst in a decade, approaching Europe in the number of antisemitic attacks. “What is antisemitism?” Carroll asks, citing the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. He believes antisemitism is not sufficiently understood, neither the current manifestations of it nor the deep poisonous cesspool from which it springs. He calls the Holocaust a drastic epiphany of contempt, not yet sufficiently understood. What the Holocaust did, he believes, is strip Christianity of its moral bearings. What it did not do is put an end to genocide, a term first used in 1943, (the year James Carroll was born), nor to antisemitism, which is still alive and well.


           Carroll’s premise is that Christianity needs to be overhauled; the false narrative rooted out. The Catholic Church, with its 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, did that, stating that the Romans, not the Jews, killed Jesus, and that it was not a necessary part of G-d’s plan for world redemption to turn the Jews into Christians. Too little, too late—the mistaken information has permeated Christian teaching and celebrations in all the denominations and in Western thought generally. What is forgotten is that Jesus was a religious Jew, and a learned one at that, whose preaching was out of the Five Books of Moses, the Jewish Bible.  What is not realized and never acknowledged is that Jesus’ congregation, so to speak, was Jewish. The Gospels of the New Testament were written long after Jesus’ life on earth was over, and not by participants in his ministry. Rather, they were written after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, during a time when the Jews in fact were undergoing a civil war and rabbinic Judaism was beginning to be formulated. During Jesus’ lifetime it was the oppressive rule of the Romans that the Jews opposed. Carroll maintains that the New Testament depicts Jesus as if he were a Gentile struggling against Jews, when in fact the first people who believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, were only Jews.   


           That the Holocaust could happen in a society where Christianity formed the basis of morality dealt a fatal blow to the faith. The aftermath of losing faith, combined with what he calls an infection in the genes of Christianity, is what has led us, he believes, to the present political crisis. The cosmic conflict in Christianity pits Jews against others, pits Jesus Christ against Jews, puts a permanent barrier between Jesus and the synagogue, and ultimately, when Christians began to believe that Jesus was G-d, it followed that Jews killed G-d. Carroll cites sources from the New Testament that form a template for the progression of antisemitism throughout the centuries. In the Book of Matthew: “Let his blood be upon us and on our children.”In the Book of John: “He came unto his own, but his own received him not.”  Not true; his fellow Jews were the only ones who did receive him and his message, both during his lifetime and some decades following. The Church taught that the Jews were cursed by G-d for not believing, and that the believing Gentiles would now be the recipients of the promises meant for the children of Israel. The term for this is replacement theology. The polarity is stressed each year in Christian celebrations. At Christmas, Herod the Jew, in attempting to avoid the birth of a messiah (King of the Jews as predicted by three wise men), has all boys two years old and under, killed. At Good Friday (the Gregorian calendar anniversary of Jesus’ Passover meal with his followers), the drama of Jesus’ death at the hands of the Jews is recited in churches throughout the world.


           Carroll points out this polarity, set up by a narrative written in circa 70 AD regarding an event of 40 years earlier, following it through the centuries, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and so on, wherein Jews are the anathema. He includes items more subtle, for instance that there are two calendars, the Hebrew and the Gregorian, the latter numbering the years up to and from Jesus’ birth. The difference in Sabbath days comes to mind. Carroll’s re-evaluation of the basis of Western civilization seems bottomless. He notes that the Jews were expelled from Spain the same year that Columbus took colonizers to the New World, and he points out that also that same year (1492) another ship from Spain went to a trading station in Africa, and there laid down the beginnings of European involvement in the African slave trade. He mentions that here was the first time the word “White” was used to denote skin colour, referring to Europeans, the term not being biological but indicating power.  Carroll also believes the slave trade generated liberal democracy, but that idea begs another lecture, one that is probably beyond the purview of the Shindleman forum.


            Perhaps with the intent not to close on a dark note, Carroll suggests that today’s planet, being a much smaller place, transforms the concept “neighbour” to include every person. One is left with the impression that once Christendom receives a major overhaul, the Jewish commandment Jesus highlighted, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” from Leviticus 19:18, will transform relationships between Christians and Jews. As one Bible commentary puts it: “This imperative is so sweeping that both Jesus and the rabbis regarded it as one of the two ‘great’ commandments, the other being ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’”


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