February 20, 2004 - Much ink has been spilled over Mel Gibson's upcoming movie on the Passion of Christ. No better publicity campaign could have been orchestrated for it.
The first point I would make is that people who have not seen this movie cannot comment on it intelligently - even though many have tried. I have not seen it. I will not comment on the film itself until I do see it. Mel Gibson's creative effort - as well as the public's patience - deserve at least that much respect.
The uproar surrounding the movie is something else. It needs and deserves comment. Even before the movie has been publicly released, the surrounding controversy has already damaged Jewish-Christian relations.
Jews are upset at reports that, in the tradition of passion plays of the past, the movie portrays the Jewish people not only as solely responsible for the death of Jesus but also collectively guilty. Many Christians feel that Jews are attacking a story central to their faith and that Jews want Christians to rewrite their scriptures.
As this discussion has unfolded the issue of anti-Semitism has once again emerged. Is Mel Gibson's father an anti-Semite? Is Mel Gibson? Is his movie anti-Semitic?
Every time questions like these arise, Jewish people suffer. They are accused once again of using the anti-Semitism charge to manipulate the debate and get their own way. They are accused of crying wolf. Thus when real incidents of anti-Semitism occur, those events are much less likely to draw the condemnation they deserve.
I have been involved in discussions with people from numerous religions and countries. I recently heard one European say that Israel was "stolen" from the Palestinians by "a few rich Jewish people," that Jewish money buys votes in the United Nations, and that the "Jewish lobby" is "very powerful in the world." He then went on to deny categorically that he is anti-Semitic.
It is not just "a few rich Jewish people" who lived for centuries in the land that became the modern State of Israel, and who settled there as refugees from the Nazis and from Arab lands. And after so much history, ignorance of the anti-Semitic image of the super-powerful Jew controlling world events is inexcusable. It should hardly have to be explained that Jewish influence in the U.N. is virtually nil, that what money Jews have is far outweighed by Arab oil wealth, and that the so-called "Jewish lobby," whatever that means and which fear of Jews has inflated to mythic proportions, cannot match coalitions of hostile nations and political influences. But perhaps today all of this really does need to be explained.
We are reaching the point where anti-Semitic speech has become so banal that often it is normally accepted discourse. "How can I be an anti-Semite," the anti-Semite asks, "when I talk like so many others do, when I merely repeat what I read in books and hear on TV?" When I challenged him, the European had an easy justification for his statements: he read them in a book. And, he suggested, perhaps I too should read a book if I really want to know what is going on.
The late Senator Patrick Moynihan had a phrase for the lowering of social standards: "defining deviancy down." It means that what used to be unacceptable has now become acceptable. Today we are defining anti-Semitism down. It is harder to make the charge of anti-Semitism stick when it is deserved, easier to blame the Jew for throwing the charge too freely. Obviously not everything that Jews don't like is anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, it is increasingly so that when Jews object to obvious anti-Semitism, they are accused of demagoguery.
Are the following statements anti-Semitic?
There were not that many Jews under Hitlerís power under his sway. They claimed that there were 6.2 million in Poland before the war, and they claimed after the war there were 200,000 - therefore [Hitler] must have killed 6 million of them. They simply got up and left! They were all over the Bronx and Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia, and Los Angeles.
And (the Holocaust) itís all - maybe not all fiction - but most of it is. For instance the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz would not do the job. Do you know what it takes to get rid of a dead body? To cremate it? It takes a liter of petrol and 20 minutes Ė now six million of them? They (the Germans) did not have the gas to do it. Thatís why they lost the war.
FDR pushed us into the war. It was FDR's own private war. He went there for money. The money power that runs this country. The Fed Reserve and those foreign bankers who own our currency and charge us for it. The foreign bankers who run the international reserve like the Rothchilds and their allies in this country like the Rockerfellers [sic] who were Jews and others who own the money. We have given the whole control to the Fed Reserve. Greenspan tells us what to do. Someone should take him out and hang him.
There is a book out not too long ago listing the big Jewish families in the country which lists the Rockefellers as Jewish and there was no protest.
[Holocaust survivors] have to go where there is money.... They have to have some place to go that has money. They didnít work in the mines you can bet your boots... no they donít work anywhere where they can get out of it. Theyíre great pencil pushers they are the superior people and therefore they are entitled to the top jobs supervisory stuff and so on because they hire each other. They have so much influence in the banks for instance. They all look out for one another, you got to give them that. They are at the same time willing to sacrifice a few of theirs if it helps.
I donít know what their (the Jews) agenda is except that itís all about control. Theyíre after one world religion and one world government. Thatís why theyíve attacked the Catholic Church so strongly, to ultimately take control over it by their doctrine and make one world religion and one world government.
Is the Jew still actively anti-Christian? He is, for by being a Jew, he is anti-everyone else.
All of these statements were made by Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson's father, during a radio interview. And of the furor over his son's movie he added: "Mel says he absolutely couldnít buy PR like this."
A son should not be held accountable for the words of his father. However, when asked in a recent television interview (Primetime Live, February 16, 2004) whether he would disavow his father's statements about Jews, he categorically refused, saying he would not allow anyone to drive a wedge between him and his father. In an interview to be published in Reader's Digest next month he goes even farther, saying, "My dad taught me my faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his life."
Is disagreeing with bigotry and racism a sign of disloyalty to a family member? Is that really the issue? Are racist, hateful comments somehow more acceptable because one's father says them? Or teaches them to his children?
That Mel Gibson can refuse to disassociate himself from these views without any consequence is further evidence of defining anti-Semitism down. When asked whether one agrees with sentiments like those quoted above, to refuse to answer is not acceptable.
Being in the center of a controversy that has already adversely affected relations between Christians and Jews, Mel Gibson has a responsibility not to be silent when asked where he stands. Too many were silent during the Holocaust that Mel Gibson's father is now in the business of denying.
All of this contention about the film will no doubt spur interest in it and make more money. But Jewish-Christian relations are more important than money. Those who get publicly involved in this field can exercise great influence, for good or for evil. When someone becomes as well known as Mel Gibson, people notice what he says and what he stands for.
The highly respected Bible scholar Amy Jill Levine has rightly made the point that Jews need to understand what the passion story means for Christians, and that Christians need to understand how the history of the passion story has caused the Jewish people tremendous grief and pain. Only in this way will we be able to come together. We will not find healing by sensationalizing the story even before it is publicly released, and by baiting old religious hatreds. Hyping the movie for months before the public can have access to it, veiling it in an almost cultlike shroud of secrecy, barring everyone but those already sympathetic from previewing it, and refusing to condemn obvious anti-Semitic statements - all of this is a desecration of the Christian story regardless of whatever turns out to be the quality of this film.
The movie's release is set for just a few days from this writing. Let us hope it does not become further occasion for boosting profits at the price of dividing people.
Forces of religous hatred are threatening to tear apart the world. Will we waste our energy hating each other at home, while away from home a religious hatred is building whose darkness we can hardly begin to fathom?
"Furor just before Gibson's 'The Passion' opens." New York Daily News, February 19, 2004.
Speak Your Piece 620 AM. "Hutton Gibson Interview Partial Transcript." February 2004.
"Does Gibson Deserve the 'Passion' Backlash?" Boston Globe, February 16, 2004.
Because I am legally blind, I was unable to watch "The Passion of the Christ" in a movie theater. Now that it has come out on home video, I have been able to see it. And seeing it makes a tremendous difference.
By this time I have read so many reviews, both pro and con, had my head filled with so many different expectations, that I had to prepare myself before turning on the VCR. I tried to see this film in a different way: by "bracketing" - setting aside - my personal experience. This is not easy to do, nor even completely possible. But I did ask myself, what if I came to this film unconditioned by what I know about two millennia of Christian-Jewish history? What would I experience?
I can say one thing at the very outset: this is not an anti-Semitic film.
I am aware of the usual arguments. The Jewish figures did look stereotyped. Some of them wore costumes suggesting Jewish prayer shawls. They looked the way Jews look in just about every Bible movie I've seen since I was a kid. And the two Jewish priests who defended Jesus at his trial wore the same costumes and looked just as stereotyped. I therefore attribute this iconography more to Hollywood history than to any anti-Semitic motivation. I also did not see the hook-nosed Shylocks that some reviews had led me to expect.
As to characterizations of the Jews, these varied. Some Jews supported and followed Jesus. Others were ambivalent. And others considered him a troublemaker and wanted to destroy him. But what made a far greater impression on me was the hideous glee of the Roman soldiers as they grinned and laughed while humiliating Jesus and practically skinning him alive. The Jews were by no means singled out as the sole personification of evil.
The movie admittedly was not completely faithful to the biblical text, and embellished the story quite a bit. But was there ever a Bible movie that didn't? This movie took fewer liberties than "The Ten Commandments," a perennial classic. It is not intended as a strict representation of the Gospel account. It incorporates mystical visions that help bring out the story's deeper meaning.
And yes, the movie does portray Pilate as rather benign, even cowardly, not the ruthless autocrat we know him to have been from other sources. But the Gospels also so portray him. And in this film the truly cynical Pilate does emerge, when he confesses that his main concern is to quell any uprising and so he must calculate who is his greatest threat, Jesus' followers or Jesus' opponents.
And then there is all that violence. The press played it up so much that I expected an unremitting blood fest for the full two hours. But the scourging didn't even begin until more than halfway through the movie. And much of it was off camera. The violence was indeed brutal, at times even surreal, and beyond what the Gospels portray. Still, I believe it was dramatically necessary.
Why? Because I believe Gibson has done something in this film that I have not seen mentioned in any review. And that is to take the Gospel passion story and present it as the struggle of goodness to overcome transcendent evil. All the melodramatic touches, the dark hues, the flashbacks, the extrabiblical allusions, as well as the drama (the movie is not all violence), bring this struggle vividly to life. The use of strange, subtitled languages suggests involvement in something beyond everyday experience (and perhaps that is a reason why Gibson avoids the koine or everyday Greek that would have been spoken at the time).
The serpent in Gethsemane that Jesus crushes under his foot is not there because it came from the vision of an anti-Jewish nun. It is there as a symbol of evil itself, which is truly what killed Jesus. It is the same evil reflected in the lurking figure of Satan, the demonic faces of children, the sadistic laughter of the Romans, and even the crow that pecks out the eyes of the crucified thief. This evil is woven into the fabric of nature itself. And it is not romanticized. It is visible even in the twisted expressions of the children who tormented Judas, in a scene that makes many uncomfortable but that realistically shows the streak of cruelty that can infect even the most innocent soul.
This is ultimately why the film is not anti-Semitic. It really does set forth the idea that Christ as symbol of goodness was killed by the power of sin that dwells within all of us.
And so the violence. Yes, it was excessive. Yes, it was unrealistic - Jesus could not have carried that cross after having been thrashed to a bloody pulp. That is part of the point. We are dealing with something surreal, beyond normal experience, something that haunts the spirit, violence not only against the body but against the soul. The film intends to picture not merely a single violent act, but the spirit of violence itself. This is violence gone mad, violence with a mind of its own, which can invade and dominate the human heart.
Of course there are historical inaccuracies in this film. The Roman soldiers speak Aramaic rather than Greek when addressing the Jews, and Jesus speaks Latin to the Romans. Scholars inform us that Jesus carried just the crossbeam to Golgotha, not the entire cross. But the crossbeam is not the symbol of evil-driven suffering. The cross is. And that is what Jesus bears and even, in one brief scene, embraces. The movie ultimately is not about Jews against Jesus. It is about the power of goodness confronting and overcoming transcendent evil.
And so at the end of the film there is just a hint of the resurrection. That is more than a Passion play normally requires; those who criticized the film saying it should have portrayed Jesus' teaching and ministry, or shown more of the resurrection, do not understand what a Passion play is about. But "The Passion of the Christ," while being a traditional Passion play, transcends that genre. It gives us the promise that good will survive. The barest inkling of the resurrection that the film provides is precisely the right artistic touch. We are not quickly lifted out of the darkness. We do not see the complete fulfillment, but just enough to inspire hope. This tiny sliver of light is often the most that we receive, yet all that we need to go on.
I found much faith and comfort expressed amidst the violence. On the cross, in extreme pain, Jesus remembers through snapshot flashbacks the good he did in his life, as exemplified by the tormented woman who prostrated herself and kissed his feet and whom he lifted up. In my work in a cancer ward I see people crucified every day, at times in pain and nausea that may continue for weeks. If the violence in Gibson's film is excessive and unreal, so is the pain these patients experience. At the foot of their cross, I wonder what will comfort them. In terminal care we have what is called "life review," helping patients see their lives as a whole and what they have meant to themselves and others. As I watched these fleeting recollections of Jesus, I wondered how the memory of even a brief moment of good that one has done might help bring some solace from the pain.
I can't imagine that this film would inspire anti-Semitic feeling in people who do not already nurture such feelings in their hearts. Yet many have found this movie offensive. We need to understand this and respect it.
Existentialist philosophers talk about an abstract-sounding concept called "intentionality." In plain language, it means that we do not perceive things simply as they are. What we see is conditioned by our intentions, our desires, and our past experiences. And since these differ for each one of us, when beholding the same object we each see something different. And when the experiences are heavily loaded, the differences in perception can be dramatic.
When watching this movie, we see not just the movie on the screen but also our past experiences, which for many of us have been affected by two thousand years of Christian history and Jewish-Christian relations. Christians see a deep testimony to their faith, their defining narrative come to life. Jews see the history of passion plays that has made Holy Week a life-threatening hell for many Jews through many centuries. It is agonizingly difficult to step out of one's own history and enter, even briefly, the history of another.
Yet that is what we must do if we are to heal these deep wounds of the past. That is what those Christian scholars have done who have seen this Passion and have criticized its use of motifs common to Passion plays that have incited anti-Jewish violence. The Jewish community should be grateful to these scholars. While they have not succeeded in invalidating the film, they have reached out of their own history and embraced the Jewish community in its history. As Jews we should return the favor, stepping out of our own history and appreciating how deeply moving this film can be to many Christians who see it without the thought even occurring to them to blame all Jews of the past, let alone all Jews of today.
The outcry against this film from Jewish circles even before its release was an unnecessary and tragic miscalculation. It was understandable - the Jewish experience with Passion plays is itself full of tragedy. But it missed the mark. It has contributed to tensions between Christians and Jews that could and should have been avoided. Jews are under fire today for making the charge of anti-Semitism too freely, even when that charge is deserved. We must therefore be extremely cautious about using such language in a case like this, where it is not deserved.
This film is not a threat to Jews. As of this writing it has not incited crowds to anti-Jewish violence, although on the day it was released a Denver minister put up an embarrassing and offensive sign that has since been taken down. No doubt his attitudes formed long before this film. Christians with whom I have spoken, who have seen it and loved it, say the thought of its putting all Jews in a bad light never crossed their minds. Of course Christian anti-Semites still exist, but this film should not become a club to beat them with.
What a wonderful opportunity for interfaith understanding this film could become, if instead of throwing accusations at each other we would try to honor what the film means to those who see it differently. We need to adjust to a change in history that has made possible a bridge between Christians and Jews that not long ago would have been unthinkable. Especially today, with values that both Christians and Jews hold dear under vicious attack, we need this bridge more than ever.
Peace with Realism