The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.
This Friday, the same day Joseph Ratzinger arrives in New York for the first time as pope to address the United Nations, a film that examines Christianity's role in religious violence will make its long-awaited premiere across town.
Ratzinger is expected to call for world peace which, as papal apologist Peggy Noonan notes, "is what popes do and should do." Afterward, he'll visit a modern orthodox synagogue, where he'll be serenaded by a children's choir then wish the Jewish community well for Passover, which starts at sundown the next day.
There will be a trip to Ground Zero and mass at Yankee Stadium. In all, expect quite a show.
But for an honest, thought-provoking look at how Christianity and its symbols have been hijacked by para-political institutions like the Church, which actually jeopardize world peace, look across town for "Constantine's Sword," the documentary by Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby, which opens on Friday at a small theatre near the Lincoln Center.
The film examines a series of questions, including: Why are intolerance, violence and war so deeply ingrained in religion? How did the cross become a rallying symbol for persecution? And where did anyone get the idea is it all right to kill people in the name of God?
It took five years to complete, so its release on the day Ratzinger is expected to call for world peace is completely coincidental - that is, if you believe in consequence rather than, say, providence.
Already, the predictable response has begun from Papal institutions, such as Catholic New York, America's largest Catholic newspaper, which cited the film's "controversial content" and rejected paid advertising set long ago in the producer's distribution plan.
Let's be clear. This isn't a commercial venture by Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock designed to maumau the demon du jour.
Jacoby and James Carroll, the author and central figure in the story, are sober, accomplished men widely respected in their fields. Carroll's memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us," received the 1996 National Book Award for nonfiction. Jacoby's previous film, "Sister Rose's Passion," won Best Documentary Short at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award.
(One of the producers invited me to the premiere, but when I realized the irony of the scheduling opposite Ratzinger, I asked to see it early, so I could write about it here. The brouhaha with Catholic New York came gratis.)
The film is a detective story of sorts based on the real life journey of Carroll, a former priest whose estrangement from his father - an Air Force general at the center of Pentagon intelligence during the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam War - spurred him to search for the roots of religious-based violence.
Along the way, he discovered a growing scandal involving fundamentalist recruitment and intimidation of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where an official whitewash of the investigation is having a lasting effect on our military and foreign policy.
The reporting includes an interview with Ted Haggard, the defrocked leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, who played a key role in the military-evangelical operation. Haggard was at the height of his influence and full of hubris when he bragged to Carroll about his regular Monday conference call with President Bush and their work at the academy. He also defied logic when he claimed that freedoms basic to our pluralistic society protect unfettered, ongoing attempts by fundamentalists to proselytize Air Force cadets from Jewish and other non-evangelical traditions.
Carroll also traveled Europe to retrace the post-Constantine development of war against Muslims and church-sponsored persecution of Jews.
Perhaps the most moving segment is the story of Dr. Edith Stein, an observant Jew who converted to Catholicism at the age of 30, became a Carmelite nun and died in the gas chamber of Auschwitz in 1942. Carroll uncovered a chilling letter Stein sent to Pope Pius XII at the onset of the Holocaust - spelling out clearly what was underway.
"Isn't the extermination campaign pursued against those of Jewish blood an insult to the most holy humanity of our redeemer," she wrote in 1933, imploring the pope on behalf of German Jews and thousands of faithful Roman Catholics to raise the voice of the church against Nazi anti-Semitism.
Pius, who had an agreement with Hitler not to interfere in activities inside the borders of the Reich, ignored her plea.
This is where Jacoby and Carroll challenge Ratzinger directly. They charge that he is trying to revise history by offering Stein's work as emblematic of the church's stand against anti-Semitism without acknowledging his predecessor's shameful legacy.
Earlier, they offer important footage from a speech Ratzinger gave last year to a Jewish group in Cologne, Germany. Although he rightly began by acknowledging the Holocaust, Ratzinger veered sharply into further revision when he insisted the "insane racist ideology" of the Holocaust was born solely from neo-paganism.
"That hatred had two parents," chides Carroll, "and the other one, the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, he didn't mention."
Later, the film notes, Ratzinger made further remarks that associated Islam with "things only evil and inhuman" and reversed reforms of Vatican II and authorized a Good Friday mass that includes a previously disavowed prayer for conversion of the Jews.
If there is one message to take from this film, it's that religous horrors of the past 1,000 years - the crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust and many lesser-known wars, pogroms and disgraceful governmental edicts - are always at some level enmeshed with efforts to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity and the anger that turns to violence by some Christians when they refuse to surrender their heritage.
This is the conversation Ratzinger desperately wants to avoid or at least revise. His visit to America is designed to dazzle us with lofty phrases and symbolic gestures. The crescendo is his speech at the U.N.
The challenge for us is to listen closely to what he is says on Friday, and thereafter, armed with facts and history, to call-out him and other leaders when their words and actions actually jeopardize the calls for peace in which they so comfortably cloak themselves.
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