Christianity’s History of Exclusion

July 30, 2007

I am reading Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll and it is fascinating.  I’m sure I’ll be unpacking the contents for years, but what’s on my mind today is this:  the connection between the way the early church defined itself and the exclusion of today’s church.  Today’s church is having a very difficult time reclaiming the core teachings of Jesus– the exclusionary and judgemental teachings that the institution has built up around Christianity– which I do not believe are part of the message of Jesus nor of the basic Judaism that he built upon– have gotten in the way of the true teachings of the religion.

Only in the past year or so have I started to put together the connections between the oppression of the Jewish people by the Roman empire, Jesus’ Jewishness, the anti-imperial message of Jesus, and the ironic twist in the plot of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity which gave power to the Church– the same power to the same empire which had persecuted Jesus and his fellow Jews for so many years.

It was in those early years of Christianity– between Christ’s death and before the coming into Roman power– that I’ve been thinking about this morning.  One of Carroll’s points in the book is that while both Christianity and what we today think of as Judaism (more properly, Rabbinic Judaism) sprang forth out of Second Temple Judaism– Christianity came from a sect of Second Temple Judaism just as Rabbinic Judaism came from the Pharisees in the Second Temple period.

Of course, as Carroll points out, the Church has done a good job of covering that up as the Jesus movement caught on more in the non-Jewish world than it did with the Jews, so we ended up with a predominantly non-Jewish religion.  But in the early days it was mostly Jewish, and what seems like anti-Jewish bias in the gospel is really inter-Jewish competition as the various sects of Second Temple Judaism compete for followers.

All of this is to get to this point:  what I find most interesting is that in the first few centuries after Christ’s death, as both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were forming, only Christianity seeks to define itself against the other party.  Rabbinic Judaism, in early writings such as the Mishnah, didn’t apparently feel the same insecurity that the early Christians did.

Thus began Christian exclusion and polemic of exclusion.  It is in our roots.

That is so interesting to me because in Luke and Acts we see a very inclusive theology, as “the elect” is shown to be not just “what is pure” but everything in creation (Acts 10), following upon some of the Hebrew scriptures (Isaiah, for example) which opened up God to be a God for all the nations.

I’m not finished with the book yet, but Carroll draws a correllation between the tendancy of the history of Christianity to emphasize this exclusivity and superiority over Jews to the actions of Hitler and the Nazis in the Shoah.  I don’t think it is a difficult connection to make to see how 50 years later we still have Christianity making value judgements about “the damned” and “the elect,” whether it be over race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever.  Various sects and denominations of Christianity still stray from the base teachings of Jesus in order to try and pass judgement on others instead of working towards full inclusion; justice and peace; love of God and neighbor.

It seems, though, that we see signs of hope.  There are pockets all over mainline denominations where movements have started to shift back to the core teachings, put carefully back into what context we can gather, of Jesus– and leave “damnation”, if there need be any, to God.  My own thought is along that of Isaiah – that God is a God for all nations– for all people.  There is great hope in that, and there we shall see the kingdom come.



5 Responses to “Christianity’s History of Exclusion”

  1. Jan Says:

    Exclusivity so often defines our identity. I believe that it is only through silence with God are divisions dissolved and hearts opened. In fact, Ken Wilber and Beatrice Bruteau advocate meditation/contemplation as the only way for the human race to advance (and save) life.

  2. FrMichael Says:

    If you are looking to James Carroll for historical information, you have truly divorced yourself from any sort of academic objectivity. His book is laughable history.

  3. Jeff Says:

    Fr Michael,

    You’ve made it quite clear that you think anyone who critcizes the Roman Catholic church can’t possibly have their facts straight. My tradition has just as much invested in the Roman Catholic tradition up through the Anglican reformation and I embrace much of the history Carroll has summararized –not created but summarized from other’s work– here.

    Carroll quotes his sources and those scholars are respectable in academic circles (even if the Vatican doesn’t think so).


  4. FrMichael Says:

    I don’t know where to begin with regurgitating some of the more egregious historical errors, but here’s a few book reviews by true scholars if you have 15 minutes:

    Robert Lockwood of the Catholic League:

    “First Things” on some of the more glaring logical inconsistencies of the screed and its thin use of sources:

    These latter two come from theologians involved in official Jewish-Catholic dialogues and are on the progressive side of things–

    A Reform Jewish rabbi reviews the book:

    A progressive Catholic view:'s%20review

  5. Jeff Says:

    Of course it is controversial and easy to find reviewers that don’t like it — nobody (even me) is going to agree with him on everything.

    But to quote one of your reviewers– the only non-Catholic, and a Jew at that– Ruth Langer, “Carroll’s basic narrative is fundamentally correct; it is not a work of historical fiction.”

    I am not at all surprised that the other reviewers– all Catholic– have a bad taste left in their mouth with Carroll’s book.


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