In the early hours of October 28, 312, historians say, a man had a dream that changed one religion possibly forever. Most do not tell us how really, really bad the dream was.
The dreamer was Constantine, and his dream was reported to have been of a sword formed by the first letters of Christ’s name, underneath which were the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Facing a battle the next day for the imperial throne, Constantine had the symbol painted on his soldiers’ helmets and shields, and they won the battle.
Things have not been the same for Christianity since. What began as an era of toleration for Christians throughout the Empire devolved into centuries-long, State-governed programs of imposing Constantine’s version of the Christian faith upon people by force.
As James Carroll pointed out in his book, Constantine’s Sword, the cross became to Jews a symbol of Christian persecution and to Muslims a symbol of Christian imperialism. Islam’s response was to advance its cause the way that Constantine advanced Christianity’s. Judaism’s was to yearn more fervently for a land in which Jews would forever be protected from both.
Personally, I doubt that Constantine ever had the dream that Lactantius attributed to him. But I’m certain that if Constantine did in fact dream it, he misinterpreted it badly, and at the world’s expense. Truly revelatory dreams work to unite people, not divide them.
They don’t present the cross of Christ as a battering ram for storming the sanctuaries of other peoples’ worship. They don’t present Jews as spiritually and genetically inferior beings deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth. And they don’t present angels reciting messages of hell on earth for anyone their recipients arbitrarily decide to call infidels.
One of the greatest catastrophes that can befall any religion is to mix up the rendering of taxes to Caesar and the rendering of praise to God. In its best years, the Roman Empire was content to ensure the first and leave the second to powers not of this world. In their worst years, Christianity insisted on controlling both, Islam fell quickly into line, and Judaism identified with its aggressors on both sides.
Happily, all three religions have their good years as well as good dreams along with their bad ones, and it is from the former that we ought not to disaffiliate.