ETA: Newer reviews in comments, since LiveJournal seems to think this entry is quite long enough. See the comments for articles from The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The New Zealand Herald and others. Please see the one from Slate on the third page if you're skimming.
Is `The Passion` anti-Semitic?
By JEFF JACOBY, The Boston Globe
February 24, 2004
"THE PASSION of The Christ" is violent, bloody, and sadistic. Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus' last day has to be the most graphic and brutal death ever portrayed on film. It is being described as a masterpiece -- soul-stirring and beautiful. I found it stomach-turning and deeply troubling.I am not a Christian, but I tried to view "The Passion" the way a Christian might view it. I tried to experience it as a message of God's love and mercy, as a depiction of self-sacrifice so complete and all-embracing as to transform human history. I tried to imagine believing that all that blood -- and "The Passion" is drenched with blood -- was shed to wash away my sins. I tried to understand this grim nightmare as an enactment of mankind's redeemer being tortured and killed, to accept that this was the purpose for which he was born, to feel that I, no less than the howling mob on the screen, was responsible for -- and the beneficiary of -- his death. I tried -- but I failed.
I failed in part because I am not a Christian but a believing Jew. I don't believe that Jesus was God come to earth in human form -- I believe that God is one, incorporeal and indivisible. To me, the Passion is not a manifestation of divine love but a vicious and evil ordeal inflicted on a victim who didn't deserve it. As a Jew I cannot look at the savage murder of an innocent man as anything but a grievous sin. And as a Jew, I could not watch a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus and not be aware of all the other Jews, scores of thousands of them, who also died on Roman crosses.
Most of the prerelease publicity about "The Passion" has focused on its depiction of the Jews and its potential to fuel anti-Semitism. In truth, Gibson's film barely acknowledges that the majority of its characters are Jewish.
If you didn't know that Jesus of Nazareth was born and died a religious Jew, you certainly wouldn't learn it from "The Passion." Almost nothing in this movie connects him with the Jewish people. He does not refer to himself as a Jew or take part in any recognizable Jewish ritual. His reason for being in Jerusalem was to celebrate Passover, but there is never any mention of that Jewish holiday. When he is glimpsed praying or teaching, it is always outdoors, never in a synagogue. Only once is Jesus identified as a Jew: when Judas, about to betray him, greets him with, "Hail, Rabbi."
Many Christians will see gaping holes in what "The Passion" conveys about its main character. The movie has precious little to say about Jesus' life and ministry. There are a few brief flashbacks; occasionally Jesus utters a familiar line; but on the whole there is nothing that makes clear who this Galilean was, why he attracted a following, or why anyone in Jerusalem would have given him a second thought.
And if there is next to nothing about his life, there is even less about what followed his death. The last few seconds of the movie seem to show Jesus walking away from his tomb, but there are no words of explanation, no context, no answers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for Gibson, what matters most about Jesus is not that he lived and preached or that he rose from the dead. All that matters is that he died a bloody and agonizing death.
Is "The Passion" anti-Semitic? That depends on whether it is anti-Semitic to reenact the story told by the Christian Bible. To be sure, there is a good deal in Gibson's movie that is not in the New Testament. In one scene, for example, Judas is driven to commit suicide by a gang of demonic Jewish children. In another, Pontius Pilate, beholding a shackled Jesus who has already been beaten bloody by Jewish guards, chastises the High Priest: "Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?"
But there is no getting around the fact that the parts of "The Passion" that are the most unflattering to Jews -- the bloody-minded and hateful Temple priests, the Judean mob howling for Jesus' death -- come straight out of the Gospels. I shudder at those depictions and reject them as historically false, but I cannot call a Christian anti-Semitic for believing in the truth of his Bible. I will not smear Gibson as a Jew-hater.
But neither will I pretend that he is unaware of the long and horrid history of Passion plays or of the millions of Jews who died at the hands of killers demonizing them as "Christ killers." It is not unreasonable to worry about the effect of a movie like "The Passion" at a time of surging anti-Semitism.
Shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII wrote a prayer of atonement for all the Jewish suffering caused in the name of Jesus. Would that Gibson had read it before making this film:
"We realize now that many, many centuries of blindness have dimmed our eyes so that we no longer see the beauty of Thy Chosen People and no longer recognize in their faces the features of our first-born brother. We realize that our brows are branded with the mark of Cain. Centuries long has Abel lain in blood and tears because we had forgotten Thy love. Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time."
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is email@example.com.
The Passion of the Christ **** (R)
By ROGER EBERT, The Chicago Sun-Times
February 24, 2004
If ever there was a film with the correct title, that film is Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Although the word passion has become mixed up with romance, its Latin origins refer to suffering and pain; later Christian theology broadened that to include Christ's love for mankind, which made him willing to suffer and die for us.
The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.
I prefer to evaluate a film on the basis of what it intends to do, not on what I think it should have done. It is clear that Mel Gibson wanted to make graphic and inescapable the price that Jesus paid (as Christians believe) when he died for our sins. Anyone raised as a Catholic will be familiar with the stops along the way; the screenplay is inspired not so much by the Gospels as by the 14 Stations of the Cross. As an altar boy, serving during the Stations on Friday nights in Lent, I was encouraged to meditate on Christ's suffering, and I remember the chants as the priest led the way from one station to another:
At the Cross, her station keeping ...
Stood the mournful Mother weeping ...
Close to Jesus to the last.
For we altar boys, this was not necessarily a deep spiritual experience. Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose again, we were redeemed, and let's hope we can get home in time to watch the Illinois basketball game on TV. What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of. That his film is superficial in terms of the surrounding message -- that we get only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus -- is, I suppose, not the point. This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it.
David Ansen, a critic I respect, finds in Newsweek that Gibson has gone too far. "The relentless gore is self-defeating," he writes. "Instead of being moved by Christ's suffering or awed by his sacrifice, I felt abused by a filmmaker intent on punishing an audience, for who knows what sins."
This is a completely valid response to the film, and I quote Ansen because I suspect he speaks for many audience members, who will enter the theater in a devout or spiritual mood and emerge deeply disturbed. You must be prepared for whippings, flayings, beatings, the crunch of bones, the agony of screams, the cruelty of the sadistic centurions, the rivulets of blood that crisscross every inch of Jesus' body. Some will leave before the end.
This is not a Passion like any other ever filmed. Perhaps that is the best reason for it. I grew up on those pious Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s, which looked like holy cards brought to life. I remember my grin when Time magazine noted that Jeffrey Hunter, starring as Christ in "King of Kings" (1961), had shaved his armpits. (Not Hunter's fault; the film's Crucifixion scene had to be re-shot because preview audiences objected to Jesus' hairy chest.)
If it does nothing else, Gibson's film will break the tradition of turning Jesus and his disciples into neat, clean, well-barbered middle-class businessmen. They were poor men in a poor land. I debated Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" with commentator Michael Medved before an audience from a Christian college, and was told by an audience member that the characters were filthy and needed haircuts.
The Middle East in biblical times was a Jewish community occupied against its will by the Roman Empire, and the message of Jesus was equally threatening to both sides: to the Romans, because he was a revolutionary, and to the establishment of Jewish priests, because he preached a new covenant and threatened the status quo.
In the movie's scenes showing Jesus being condemned to death, the two main players are Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, and Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. Both men want to keep the lid on, and while neither is especially eager to see Jesus crucified, they live in a harsh time when such a man is dangerous.
Pilate is seen going through his well-known doubts before finally washing his hands of the matter and turning Jesus over to the priests, but Caiaphas, who also had doubts, is not seen as sympathetically. The critic Steven D. Greydanus, in a useful analysis of the film, writes: "The film omits the canonical line from John's gospel in which Caiaphas argues that it is better for one man to die for the people [so] that the nation be saved.
"Had Gibson retained this line, perhaps giving Caiaphas a measure of the inner conflict he gave to Pilate, it could have underscored the similarities between Caiaphas and Pilate and helped defuse the issue of anti-Semitism."
This scene and others might justifiably be cited by anyone concerned that the movie contains anti-Semitism. My own feeling is that Gibson's film is not anti-Semitic, but reflects a range of behavior on the part of its Jewish characters, on balance favorably. The Jews who seem to desire Jesus' death are in the priesthood, and have political as well as theological reasons for acting; like today's Catholic bishops who were slow to condemn abusive priests, Protestant TV preachers who confuse religion with politics, or Muslim clerics who are silent on terrorism, they have an investment in their positions and authority. The other Jews seen in the film are viewed positively; Simon helps Jesus to carry the cross, Veronica brings a cloth to wipe his face, Jews in the crowd cry out against his torture.
A reasonable person, I believe, will reflect that in this story set in a Jewish land, there are many characters with many motives, some good, some not, each one representing himself, none representing his religion. The story involves a Jew who tried no less than to replace the established religion and set himself up as the Messiah. He was understandably greeted with a jaundiced eye by the Jewish establishment while at the same time finding his support, his disciples and the founders of his church entirely among his fellow Jews. The libel that the Jews "killed Christ" involves a willful misreading of testament and teaching: Jesus was made man and came to Earth in order to suffer and die in reparation for our sins. No race, no man, no priest, no governor, no executioner killed Jesus; he died by God's will to fulfill his purpose, and with our sins we all killed him. That some Christian churches have historically been guilty of the sin of anti-Semitism is undeniable, but in committing it they violated their own beliefs.
This discussion will seem beside the point for readers who want to know about the movie, not the theology. But "The Passion of the Christ," more than any other film I can recall, depends upon theological considerations. Gibson has not made a movie that anyone would call "commercial," and if it grosses millions, that will not be because anyone was entertained. It is a personal message movie of the most radical kind, attempting to re-create events of personal urgency to Gibson. The filmmaker has put his artistry and fortune at the service of his conviction and belief, and that doesn't happen often.
Is the film "good" or "great?" I imagine each person's reaction (visceral, theological, artistic) will differ. I was moved by the depth of feeling, by the skill of the actors and technicians, by their desire to see this project through no matter what. To discuss individual performances, such as James Caviezel's heroic depiction of the ordeal, is almost beside the point. This isn't a movie about performances, although it has powerful ones, or about technique, although it is awesome, or about cinematography (although Caleb Deschanel paints with an artist's eye), or music (although John Debney supports the content without distracting from it).
It is a film about an idea. An idea that it is necessary to fully comprehend the Passion if Christianity is to make any sense. Gibson has communicated his idea with a singleminded urgency. Many will disagree. Some will agree, but be horrified by the graphic treatment. I myself am no longer religious in the sense that a long-ago altar boy thought he should be, but I can respond to the power of belief whether I agree or not, and when I find it in a film, I must respect it.
Note: I said the film is the most violent I have ever seen. It will probably be the most violent you have ever seen. This is not a criticism but an observation; the film is unsuitable for younger viewers, but works powerfully for those who can endure it. The MPAA's R rating is definitive proof that the organization either will never give the NC-17 rating for violence alone, or was intimidated by the subject matter. If it had been anyone other than Jesus up on that cross, I have a feeling that NC-17 would have been automatic.
Newmarket Films presents a film directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Gibson and Benedict Fitzgerald. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated R (for sequences of graphic violence). Opening Wednesday at local theaters, but selected locations will start screening the movie at midnight Tuesday.
By DAVID DENBY, The New Yorker
February 23, 2004
In “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world. He largely ignores Jesus’ heart-stopping eloquence, his startling ethical radicalism and personal radiance—Christ as a “paragon of vitality and poetic assertion,” as John Updike described Jesus’ character in his essay “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” Cecil B. De Mille had his version of Jesus’ life, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Martin Scorsese had theirs, and Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading). For two hours, with only an occasional pause or gentle flashback, we watch, stupefied, as a handsome, strapping, at times half-naked young man (James Caviezel) is slowly tortured to death. Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.
And against whom will the audience direct its hate? As Gibson was completing the film, some historians, theologians, and clergymen accused him of emphasizing the discredited charge that it was the ancient Jews who were primarily responsible for killing Jesus, a claim that has served as the traditional justification for the persecution of the Jews in Europe for nearly two millennia. The critics turn out to have been right. Gibson is guilty of some serious mischief in his handling of these issues. But he may have also committed an aggression against Christian believers. The movie has been hailed as a religious experience by various Catholic and Protestant groups, some of whom, with an ungodly eye to the commercial realities of film distribution, have prepurchased blocks of tickets or rented theatres to insure “The Passion” a healthy opening weekend’s business. But how, I wonder, will people become better Christians if they are filled with the guilt, anguish, or loathing that this movie may create in their souls?
“The Passion” opens at night in the Garden of Gethsemane—a hushed, misty grotto bathed in a purplish disco light. Softly chanting female voices float on the soundtrack, accompanied by electronic shrieks and thuds. At first, the movie looks like a graveyard horror flick, and then, as Jewish temple guards show up bearing torches, like a faintly tedious art film. The Jews speak in Aramaic, and the Romans speak in Latin; the movie is subtitled in English. Gibson distances the dialogue from us, as if Jesus’ famous words were only incidental and the visual spectacle—Gibson’s work as a director—were the real point. Then the beatings begin: Jesus is punched and slapped, struck with chains, trussed, and dangled over a wall. In the middle of the night, a hasty trial gets under way before Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and other Jewish priests. Caiaphas, a cynical, devious, petty dictator, interrogates Jesus, and then turns him over to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), who tries again and again to spare Jesus from the crucifixion that the priests demand. From the movie, we get the impression that the priests are either merely envious of Jesus’ spiritual power or inherently and inexplicably vicious. And Pilate is not the bloody governor of history (even Tiberius paused at his crimes against the Jews) but a civilized and humane leader tormented by the burdens of power—he holds a soulful discussion with his wife on the nature of truth.
Gibson and his screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, selected and enhanced incidents from the four Gospels and collated them into a single, surpassingly violent narrative—the scourging, for instance, which is mentioned only in a few phrases in Matthew, Mark, and John, is drawn out to the point of excruciation and beyond. History is also treated selectively. The writer Jon Meacham, in a patient and thorough article in Newsweek, has detailed the many small ways that Gibson disregarded what historians know of the period, with the effect of assigning greater responsibility to the Jews, and less to the Romans, for Jesus’ death. Meacham’s central thesis, which is shared by others, is that the priests may have been willing to sacrifice Jesus—whose mass following may have posed a threat to Roman governance—in order to deter Pilate from crushing the Jewish community altogether. It’s also possible that the temple élite may have wanted to get rid of the leader of a new sect, but only Pilate had the authority to order a crucifixion—a very public event that was designed to be a warning to potential rebels. Gibson ignores most of the dismaying political context, as well as the likelihood that the Gospel writers, still under Roman rule, had very practical reasons to downplay the Romans’ role in the Crucifixion. It’s true that when the Roman soldiers, their faces twisted in glee, go to work on Jesus, they seem even more depraved than the Jews. But, as Gibson knows, history rescued the pagans from eternal blame—eventually, they came to their senses and saw the light. The Emperor Constantine converted in the early fourth century, and Christianized the empire, and the medieval period saw the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. So the Romans’ descendants triumphed, while the Jews were cast into darkness and, one might conclude from this movie, deserved what they got. “The Passion,” in its confused way, confirms the old justifications for persecuting the Jews, and one somehow doubts that Gibson will make a sequel in which he reminds the audience that in later centuries the Church itself used torture and execution to punish not only Jews but heretics, non-believers, and dissidents.
I realize that the mere mention of historical research could exacerbate the awkward breach between medieval and modern minds, between literalist belief and the weighing of empirical evidence. “John was an eyewitness,” Gibson has said. “Matthew was there.” Well, they may have been there, but for decades it’s been a commonplace of Biblical scholarship that the Gospels were written forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus, and not by the disciples but by nameless Christians using both written and oral sources. Gibson can brush aside the work of scholars and historians because he has a powerful weapon at hand—the cinema—with which he can create something greater than argument; he can create faith. As a moviemaker, Gibson is not without skill. The sets, which were built in Italy, where the movie was filmed, are far from perfect, but they convey the beauty of Jerusalem’s courtyards and archways. Gibson, working with the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, gives us the ravaged stone face of Calvary, the gray light at the time of the Crucifixion, the leaden pace of the movie’s spectacular agonies. Felliniesque tormenters gambol and jeer on the sidelines, and, at times, the whirl of figures around Jesus, both hostile and friendly, seems held in place by a kind of magnetic force. The hounding and suicide of the betrayer Judas is accomplished in a few brusque strokes. Here and there, the movie has a dismal, heavy-souled power.
By contrast with the dispatching of Judas, the lashing and flaying of Jesus goes on forever, prolonged by Gibson’s punishing use of slow motion, sometimes with Jesus’ face in the foreground, so that we can see him writhe and howl. In the climb up to Calvary, Caviezel, one eye swollen shut, his mouth open in agony, collapses repeatedly in slow motion under the weight of the Cross. Then comes the Crucifixion itself, dramatized with a curious fixation on the technical details—an arm pulled out of its socket, huge nails hammered into hands, with Caviezel jumping after each whack. At that point, I said to myself, “Mel Gibson has lost it,” and I was reminded of what other writers have pointed out—that Gibson, as an actor, has been beaten, mashed, and disembowelled in many of his movies. His obsession with pain, disguised by religious feelings, has now reached a frightening apotheosis.
Mel Gibson is an extremely conservative Catholic who rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican council. He’s against complacent, feel-good Christianity, and, judging from his movie, he must despise the grandiose old Hollywood kitsch of “The Robe,” “The King of Kings,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and “Ben-Hur,” with their Hallmark twinkling skies, their big stars treading across sacred California sands, and their lamblike Jesus, whose simple presence overwhelms Charlton Heston. But saying that Gibson is sincere doesn’t mean he isn’t foolish, or worse. He can rightly claim that there’s a strain of morbidity running through Christian iconography—one thinks of the reliquaries in Roman churches and the bloody and ravaged Christ in Northern Renaissance and German art, culminating in such works as Matthias Grünewald’s 1515 “Isenheim Altarpiece,” with its thorned Christ in full torment on the Cross. But the central tradition of Italian Renaissance painting left Christ relatively unscathed; the artists emphasized not the physical suffering of the man but the sacrificial nature of his death and the astonishing mystery of his transformation into godhood—the Resurrection and the triumph over carnality. Gibson instructed Deschanel to make the movie look like the paintings of Caravaggio, but in Caravaggio’s own “Flagellation of Christ” the body of Jesus is only slightly marked. Even Goya, who hardly shrank from dismemberment and pain in his work, created a “Crucifixion” with a nearly unblemished Jesus. Crucifixion, as the Romans used it, was meant to make a spectacle out of degradation and suffering—to humiliate the victim through the apparatus of torture. By embracing the Roman pageant so openly, using all the emotional resources of cinema, Gibson has cancelled out the redemptive and transfiguring power of art. And by casting James Caviezel, an actor without charisma here, and then feasting on his physical destruction, he has turned Jesus back into a mere body. The depictions in “The Passion,” one of the cruellest movies in the history of the cinema, are akin to the bloody Pop representation of Jesus found in, say, a roadside shrine in Mexico, where the addition of an Aztec sacrificial flourish makes the passion a little more passionate. Such are the traps of literal-mindedness. The great modernist artists, aware of the danger of kitsch and the fascination of sado-masochism, have largely withdrawn into austerity and awed abstraction or into fervent humanism, as in Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), which features an existential Jesus sorely tried by the difficulty of the task before him. There are many ways of putting Jesus at risk and making us feel his suffering.
What is most depressing about “The Passion” is the thought that people will take their children to see it. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” not “Let the little children watch me suffer.” How will parents deal with the pain, terror, and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead? The despair of the movie is hard to shrug off, and Gibson’s timing couldn’t be more unfortunate: another dose of death-haunted religious fanaticism is the last thing we need.
A Gospel of Love and Hope: How To Respond To Mel Gibson's "Passion"
By RABBI MICHAEL LERNER, Tikkun
February 19, 2004
Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism in the way that we did with the other great systems of hatred (racism, sexism, homophobia) when he told a national t.v. audience on February 16 that "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film (_The Passion_) but with the Gospels." Few Christians today know the history of anti-Semitism and the way that the Passion stories were central to rekindling hatred of Jews from generation to generation. Many are embracing Gibson's movie and not understanding why Jews seem to be so threatened. Gibson knows that for many Americans it is simply unimaginable to question the Gospels.
Those who wanted to purge hatred of Jews from the collective unconscious of Western societies after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 faced an impossible dilemma. The dominant religious tradition of the West was based on a set of four accounts of Jesus, each of which to some extent is riddled with anger at or even hatred of the Jews. The Gospels were written, many historians tell us, some fifty years after Jesus' death at a time when early Christians (most of whom considered themselves still Jewish) were engaged in a fierce competition with a newly emerging rabbinic Judaism to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews (some of whom were becoming Jewish Christians, retaining their Jewish practice but adding to it a belief in Jesus as messiah) and the minds of the disaffected masses of the Roman empire (some Christians already having given up on converting Jews and beginning to think that the real audience for their outreach should be the wider world of the Roman Empire).
The Gospels sought to play down the antagonism that Jews of Jesus' time felt toward Rome, so they displaced the anger at his crucifixion instead onto those Jews who remembered Jesus as an inspiring and revolutionary teacher but not much more (not a messiah, not God). The result: an account that portrays Jews as willfully calling on the Romans to kill Jesus, rejecting the supposed compassion of the Romans, and thereby earning the hatred of humanity for the Jews' supposed collective responsibility for this act of deicide. Conversely, Jesus' Judaism, his viewing the world through the frame of his Jewish spiritual practice and Torah-based thinking, is played- down or at times completely obscured, so that the message of these professional "convert the non-Jews" thinkers would not be undermined by a covert message (still advocated by some of the Jewish Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospel) that to be a Christian one should also become a Jew.
When Christianity gained state power in Rome in the 4th century of the common era, it quickly began to pass legislation restricting Jewish rights. And as Christianity conquered Europe in the ensuing centuries, spreading its story that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the Jews became the primary demeaned other of Europe for the next 1700 years. Jews came to fear Easter--because the retelling of the Crucifixion story often led to mob attacks on defenseless Jews who were blamed for having caused the suffering of Jesus.
In the aftermath of WWII, many principled Christians recognized that the Holocaust was possible in part because Hitler was able to draw upon the cultural legacy of hatred toward Jews nurtured by this kind of Christian teaching. The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have sought to distance themselves from this long history of demeaning the Jews. But although anti-Semitism became unfashionable, only a few Christians were willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels and culminated in its historically doubtful account of the Roman imperialists, who ruled with an iron fist and crucified thousands of Jews, bowing to the will of a hateful Jewish mob determined to kill Jesus.
Even when the Catholic Church officially banned teaching hatred of Jews, it never ordered its dioceses to teach about the role the church itself had played in creating and sustaining those negative stereotypes.
Liberals and progressives in the late 20th century did an impressive job of confronting and educating the public about the literary, intellectual, and cultural sources of racism, sexism and homophobia. But they tended to shy away from anti-Semitism, both because of the mistaken assumption that it was no longer a real problem (after all, Jews were economically and politically flourishing in post-WWII America) and because such a confrontation would have forced a challenge to the dominant Western religion at the core of its most dramatic story: the crucifixion.
Nevertheless, ever since the 1960s there have been thousands of sensitive Christians, who, to their credit, have created a Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story and giving greater focus to the Resurrection than to the Crucifixion. Returning to Jesus' Jewish roots, and refocusing attention on the bulk of the Gospel, with its stories portraying a Jewish Jesus who builds on and elaborates the ancient Torah commandments to "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love the stranger," the Christian renewalists tended to see the two-thousand-year history of Christian anti-Semitism as a distortion of the deeper truth of the Gospel. Easter became a holiday to celebrate the rebirth of an ancient Jewish hope--that the forces of hatred and cruelty manifested in the Crucifixion could be overcome by a triumph of the forces of love, generosity and kindness whose Resurrection and ultimate victory were celebrated at Easter.
Yet that renewal movement is now being effectively challenged by a Christian fundamentalist movement with deep ties to right-wing politics. In post 9/11 America, many people have given up on the hopeful vision of social change movements. They have turned to a deep pessimism in which the idea of a world based on love, cooperation and generosity to the Other is alternately ridiculed and disdained as unrealistic and dangerous. A cynical realism holds sway in the media and mainstream American culture and political institutions, placing American progressive and visionary thinkers on the defensive. No wonder, then, that many Christians are attracted to interpretations of their religious tradition which emphasize the danger and cruelty in the world while sidelining aspects of the Gospel which teach compassion and solidarity with the oppressed.
I've written about this struggle in another context (see my book _Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation_). Inside the Jewish tradition there has always been a struggle between those who have heard God's voice as the voice of accumulated pain and cruelty of the universe passed on from generation to generation, and those who have heard God's voice as a voice of love, compassion, generosity and transcendence. Even in our Torah there are moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own accumulated pain and hence hear a voice that talks a language of power, domination and cruelty, and other moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own capacity to respond to God's revelation of love and generosity. And so it is through history that we find in virtually every religious tradition the people who distort the message of love of their own traditions and instead portray God as the voice legitimating domination, power over others, cruelty and violence. The George W's, the Osama Bin Ladins, the Ariel Sharons are found in every tradition. And they don't even need the frame of religion (some people like to blame these distortions--but the truth is that the Nazis, Stanlinists, and Vietnam-war mongers of the US did not need religion to act out the legacy of pain and cruelty in the world). There is no religious tradition, no ideology of liberation (including Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, etc.) that cannot be appropriated by a distorted consciousness and transformed into its opposite, that is, into a mechanism or a justificatory ideology to dominate and act out of cruelty.
So let's understand that the attempt to revive Christian enthusiasm around the part of the story that is focused on cruelty and pain is not only (or even primarily) a threat to the Jews, but rather a threat to all those decent, loving, and generous Christians who have found in the Jesus story a foundation for their most humane and caring instincts. It is these Christians who are under assault by Mel Gibson's movie, and by the particular form of Christian evangelicalism that it is meant to stimulate. Yet, in a deeper way, the Gibson movie is likely to stimulate a broader assault on all of us who seek to build a world based on caring and love, cooperation and generosity, by giving strength to the part within each of us that despairs, the voice within each of us that tells us that cruelty is what is "really how the other is, really how the world is," the voice inside each of us that feels that there is no point in struggling to transform the world because it is too hopeless and too dominated by craziness (and that is the point of the Jews in the Gospel calling for Jesus to be killed, because it is saying "even the Jews, his own people" do this, because evil is dominant in the world and always will be, and the only way out is to believe in Jesus and find salvation in another world, and despair of changing this one). So, part of the struggle is to reclaim and reaffirm the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who retains hope for building love right here, the Jesus who unabashedly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived (which is to say, that it is here on earth, that the world right now can be based on love and kindness, and that we don't have to wait for some future time or "the end of days" as described by Isaiah, because it is here now, we can make it happen right away by the way that we live our lives). And it is this voice of Jesus that The Passion movie seeks to marginalize or make invisible.
I hope Christians will take the lead in organizing people of all faiths to leaflet every public showing of Gibson's film with a message that runs counter to the anger at Jews that this film is likely to produce in at least some viewers. I hope that every morally sensitive Christian minister and priest will use the weeks ahead to preach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism until most parishioners can understand why Jews would feel worried about the popularizing of the Gospel story. But I hope also that the discussion isn't reduced to that--that Christians take on the underlying challenge and affirm their commitment to the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus that preaches that a world of love is possible right now, right here, through our actions.
The best hope to avoid a new surge of anti-Semitism will not come only from de-coding the anti-Semitic themes in Mel Gibson's film, or the Gospel on which it was based, but rather by re-crediting the ancient Jewish vision of Jesus--that in place of the Old Bottom Line of money and power, a New Bottom Line of Love and Generosity is possible. People of all faiths need to shape a political and social movement that reaffirms the most generous, peace-oriented, social justice-committed, and loving truths of the spiritual heritage of the human race. It is only this resurrection of hope that can save us from a new wave of global hatred.
Please take this message and ask your local newspaper to publish it. Send it to your friends and anyone on your email lists. Please approach local Christian groups to take the lead to create this discussion publicly. Or, failing that, please have your local Tikkun Community create a public discussion of these issues (we are doing that in the Bay Area on March 14th--check our calendar of events at www.tikkun.org a few days before). We will also discuss these issues in greater detail at the annual Tikkun Community Conference and Teach- In to Congress for Middle East Peace April 25-27 in Washington, D.C.-- because at a deep level they underlie the entire enterprise of building a world of peace (if you despair of that, then you stop thinking about how to build more cooperation and the Ariel Sharon and George Bush strategy of domination over others is what you are left with).
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, national chair of the interfaith peace and justic organization The Tikkun Community, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, and author of _Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation_ (HarperPerennial) and most recently, of _Healing Israel/Palestine_ (North Atlantic Books, 2003).
The Pope's Thumbs Up for Gibson's 'Passion'
By FRANK RICH, The New York Times
January 18, 2004
Pope John Paul II, frail with Parkinson's at age 83, is rarely able to celebrate mass. In recent weeks, such annual holiday ceremonies as the ordination of bishops and the baptism of children in the Sistine Chapel were dropped from his schedule. But why should his suffering deter a Hollywood producer from roping him into a publicity campaign to sell a movie? In what is surely the most bizarre commercial endorsement since Eleanor Roosevelt did an ad for Good Luck Margarine in 1959, the ailing pontiff has been recruited, however unwittingly, to help hawk "The Passion of the Christ," as Mel Gibson's film about Jesus's final 12 hours is now titled. While Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed a margarine for charity, John Paul's free plug is being exploited by the Gibson camp to aid the movie star's effort to recoup the $25 million he personally sank into a biblical drama filmed in those crowd-pleasing tongues of Latin and Aramaic.
"Mel Gibson's `The Passion' gets a thumbs-up from the Pope," was the incongruously jolly image conjured up by a headline over Peggy Noonan's column for the Wall Street Journal Web site as she relayed the "happy news this Christmas season" on Dec. 17. Daily Variety, a day earlier, described John Paul as "a playwright and movie buff," lest anyone doubt that his credentials in movie reviewing were on a par with Roger Ebert's. Mr. Gibson's longtime producer, Steve McEveety, told Ms. Noonan that "The Passion" had been screened "at the pope's pad," after which John Paul declared of its account of the crucifixion, "It is as it was." That verdict was soon repeated by virtually every news outlet in the world, including The New York Times. In Ms. Noonan's view, the pope's blessing was likely to settle the controversy over a movie that Jewish and Christian critics alike have faulted for its potential to reignite the charge of deicide against the Jews. It was also perfectly timed to boost the bookings of a movie scheduled to open nationally on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.
Since I am one of the many curious Jews who have not been invited to press screenings of "The Passion," I have no first-hand way of knowing whether the film is benign or toxic and so instead must rely on eyewitnesses. In November, The New York Post got hold of a copy and screened it to five denominationally diverse New Yorkers, including its film critic. The Post is hardly hostile to Mr. Gibson; it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox film studio has a long-standing deal with the star. Nonetheless, only one member of its chosen audience, a Baptist "Post reader," had kind words for "The Passion." Mark Hallinan, a priest at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church, found the movie's portrayal of Jews "very bad," adding, "I don't think the intent was anti-Semitic, but Jews are unfairly portrayed." Robert Levine, the senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, called the film "appalling" and its portrayal of Jews "painful." On Christmas Day, Richard N. Ostling, the religion writer of The Associated Press, also analyzed "The Passion," writing that "while the script doesn't imply collective guilt for Jews as a people, there are villainous details that go beyond the Bible."
And so, John Paul's plug notwithstanding, the jury remains out on "The Passion." What can be said without qualification is that the marketing of this film remains a masterpiece of ugliness typical of our cultural moment, when hucksters wield holier-than-thou piety as a club for their own profit. For months now, Mr. Gibson and his supporters have tried to slur the religiosity of anyone who might dissent from his rollout of "The Passion." (And have succeeded, if my mail is any indication.) In The New Yorker last fall, the star labeled both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times "anti-Christian" newspapers for running articles questioning his film and, in this vein, accused "modern secular Judaism" of wanting "to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church," a non sequitur of unambiguous malice.
This game of hard-knuckle religious politics is all too recognizable in our new millennium, when there are products to be sold and votes to be won by pandering to church-going Americans. At its most noxious, this was the game played by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on Sept. 13, 2001, when they went on TV to pin the terrorist attacks of two days earlier on God's wrath, which Mr. Falwell took it upon himself to say was aimed at all of those "who have tried to secularize America" by "throwing God out of the public square." The two men later apologized, but this didn't stop Mr. Robertson from declaring this month that he was hearing "from the Lord" that President Bush is going to win this year's election in a blowout. "It doesn't make any difference what he does, good or bad," Mr. Robertson said. "God picks him up because he's a man of prayer and God's blessing him."
Such us-vs.-them religious oneupmanship is more about political partisanship than liturgical debate. Its adherents practice what can only be called spiritual McCarthyism, a witch hunt in which "secularists" are targeted as if they were subversives and those who ostentatiously wrap themselves in God are patriots. Mr. Gibson has from the start plugged his movie into this political scheme; his first pre-emptive attack on the movie's critics (there weren't any yet) took place on "The O'Reilly Factor" a year ago. Not for nothing did he stack last July's initial screening of "The Passion" in Washington with conservative pundits like Ms. Noonan, Linda Chavez and Kate O'Beirne who are more known for their ideology than for their expertise in the history of the passion play's lethal fallout on Jews. (Should anyone not get the linkage of conspicuous sectarian piety with patriotism, Ms. Noonan produced a book titled "A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag: America Today" last summer.)
A more recent private screening of "The Passion" was attended by another conservative ideologue, the columnist Robert Novak, who was born to Jewish parents and converted to Catholicism. The movie, he wrote in November, is "free of the anti-Semitism that its detractors claim." Since then, he has joined other journalists in applying spiritual McCarthyism to the presidential race, noting darkly that reporters who followed Howard Dean on the campaign trail "recently observed that they never had seen so secular a presidential candidate, one who has never mentioned God and certainly not Christ." It's a measure of how fierce the demagoguery over religion has become that Dr. Dean now tries to fend off such attacks by suddenly (and unconvincingly) talking of how he prays every day, just as the president purports to do.
That a movie star would fan these culture wars for dollars is perhaps no surprise, but it demeans the pope to be drafted into that scheme. It also seems preposterous - so much so that I wondered whether the reports of the gravely ill John Paul's thumbs up for "The Passion" were true. A week after the stories first appeared, the highly respected Catholic News Service also raised that question, quoting "a senior Vatican official close to the pope" as saying that after seeing the movie, the pope "made no comment. The Holy Father does not comment, does not give judgments on art."
I sought clarification from the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls. His secretary, Rosangela Mancusi, responded by e-mail that "this office does not usually comment on the private activities of the Holy Father" and would neither confirm nor deny the pope's feelings about "The Passion." But she suggested that I contact "the two persons who brought the film to the Holy Father and gathered his comments" - Steve McEveety, Mr. Gibson's producer, and Jan Michelini, the movie's assistant director.
Mr. McEveety declined to speak with me from Hollywood, but last week I tracked down Mr. Michelini, an Italian who lives in Rome, by phone in Bombay, where he is working on another film. As he tells it, Mr. McEveety visited Rome in early December, eager "to show the movie to the pope." Mr. Michelini, it turned out, had an in with the Vatican. "Everyone thinks it's a complex story, the pope, the Vatican and all," Mr. Michelini says. "It's a very easy story. I called the pope's secretary. He said he had read about the movie, read about the controversy. He said, `I'm curious, and I'm sure the pope is curious too.' "
A video of "The Passion" was handed over to that secretary - Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom Vatican watchers now describe as second in power only to the pope - on Friday, Dec. 5. "McEveety calls me like crazy, 20 times that weekend, saying, `I want to know what the pope thinks,' " Mr. Michelini continues. On Monday, the archbishop convened a meeting with Mr. McEveety and Mr. Michelini in the pope's apartment. There, Mr. Michelini says, the archbishop quoted the pope not only as saying "it is as it was" but also as calling the movie "incredibile." Mr. Michelini was repeating the archbishop's Italian and said that "incredibile" translates as "amazing," though Cassell's dictionary defines the word as "incredible, inconceivable, unbelievable." But why quarrel over semantics? Followed by an exclamation point, it will look fabulous in an ad, perhaps next to a quote from Michael Medved, the conservative pundit and film critic who has been vying with Ms. Noonan to be the movie's No. 1 publicist.
"Are you Catholic?" Mr. Michelini asked me as we concluded our conversation. No, I said. "Maybe you'll become one," he said, laughing. "Many, many Jewish people like this movie."
We shall see. In the meantime, you've got to give Mel Gibson's minions credit for getting the pope, or at least the aide who these days most frequently speaks in his name, to endorse their film in the weeks before it opens in 2,000-plus theaters. In keeping with every other p.r. strategy for "The Passion" - Mr. Gibson has said he felt that the Holy Ghost was the movie's actual director - Mr. Michelini says that the successful campaign for the Vatican thumbs up is an example of divine providence. Jews in show business might have another word for it - chutzpah.
Months Before Debut, Movie on Death of Jesus Causes Stir
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN, The New York Times
August 2, 2003
With his movie about the death of Jesus under attack as anti-Semitic, Mel Gibson is trying to build an audience and a defense for his project by screening it for evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, right-wing pundits, Republicans, a few Jewish commentators and Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
Mr. Gibson has poured $25 million of his money into the movie, "The Passion," calling it the most authentic and biblically accurate film about Jesus' death.
Now, seven months before its scheduled release on Ash Wednesday, the film has set off an uproar that both sides warn could undermine years of bridge building between Christians and Jews. The selected audiences who have seen the film defend it as the most moving, reverential — and violent — depiction of Jesus' suffering and death ever put on screen. Detractors, who have read a script but not seen the film, say it is a modern version of the medieval Passion plays that portrayed Jews as "Christ killers" and stoked anti-Jewish violence.
The dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin. Scholars say that belies the assertion of total authenticity, because the Romans spoke Greek. Mr. Gibson had said the film would not have English subtitles. But it is being screened with them, the marketing director, Paul Lauer, said, and they may remain. "The Passion" has no distributor. Mr. Lauer said "two major studios" were interested or Mr. Gibson might distribute it himself.
The controversy has been cast by many of his supporters as the Jews versus Mel Gibson. But it began when several Roman Catholic scholars voiced concern about the project because of Mr. Gibson's affiliation with a splinter Catholic group that rejects the modern papacy and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which in 1965 repudiated the charge of deicide against the Jews.
Mr. Gibson has been screening "The Passion" for a few weeks for friendly audiences, but has refused to show it to his critics, including members of Jewish groups and biblical scholars. In Washington, it was shown to the Web gossip Matt Drudge, the columnists Cal Thomas and Peggy Noonan and the staffs of the Senate Republican Conference and the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and others. In Colorado Springs, the capital of evangelical America, the film drew raves. A convention of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Roman Catholic order of priests, saw a preview, as did Rush Limbaugh.
Audiences wept, and many were awestruck.
"Mel Gibson is the Michelangelo of this generation," said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"It's going to be a classic," said Deal W. Hudson, publisher of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine. "It's going to be the go-to film for Christians of all denominations who want to see the best movie made about the Passion of Christ."
Mr. Gibson has said his movie will be true to the Gospel account of the last hours of Jesus' life. But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John differ greatly, presenting Rashomon-like accounts of the roles of the Romans and Jews in the Crucifixion.
A committee of Bible scholars who read a version of the script said that it was not true to Scripture or Catholic teaching and that it badly twisted Jewish leaders' role in Jesus' death. The problem, the scholars said, is not that Mr. Gibson is anti-Semitic, but that his film could unintentionally incite anti-Semitic violence.
One scholar, Sister Mary C. Boys, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said: "When we read the screenplay, our sense was this wasn't really something you could fix. All the way through, the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty. We're really concerned that this could be one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations."
Mr. Gibson, who directed and was a co-author of the script, is vehement that any criticism is based on an outdated script that was stolen. He declined an interview, and his company, Icon Productions, said it was showing the movie just to selected journalists and critics.
Mr. Gibson said in a statement: "Anti-Semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs; it is also contrary to the core message of my movie. `The Passion' is a film meant to inspire, not offend."
The furor began in March, when the committee of scholars, five Catholics and four Jews, asked Icon Productions to show them the script. Five scholars hold endowed chairs at their universities, and all have long been engaged in interfaith dialogue. The group was assembled by officials of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Those organizations were wary, because they had spent years drafting guidelines for ridding Passion plays of anti-Semitism. Some of the same scholars had consulted on the overhaul of the most famous Passion play, at Oberammergau, Germany.
The scholars say the other reason for concern was Mr. Gibson's strain of Catholicism. He built and belongs to a church in Los Angeles that is part of a growing but fractured movement known as "Catholic traditionalism." Considered beyond the pale even by conservatives, the traditionalists reject the Second Vatican Council and every pope since then, and they conduct Mass in Latin.
Mr. Gibson also set off alarms among the scholars when reports quoted him as saying his script had drawn on the diaries of Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century mystic whose visions included extrabiblical details like having the Jewish high priest order that Jesus' cross be built in the Jewish temple.
Icon did not respond to the request to see the script. But someone leaked a copy to one of the scholars, the Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics and the director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at the Catholic Theological Union. Father Pawlikowski said in an interview that the script came from a friend who got it from another person whom he did not know.
The scholars sent a report to Icon complaining about the script, again receiving no response. After excerpts of the report appeared in the news media — both sides say the other leaked it — the scholars circulated their complaints.
"This was one of the worst things we had seen in describing responsibility for the death of Christ in many many years," Father Pawlikowski said.
In particular, the scholars objected that the Jewish priest, Caiaphas, was depicted as intimidating Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, into going along with the Crucifixion. Several people who saw the film last month said the version they saw had that portrayal. The scholars said that section distorts the fact that the Romans were the occupying power and that the Jewish authorities were their agents.
Mr. Lauer, marketing director for Icon, said Mr. Gibson's rendering was not anti-Semitic, but simply followed the New Testament. "There are some sympathetic to Christ and some who clearly want to get rid of this guy," he said. "And that's clearly scriptural. You can't get away from the fact that there are some Jews who wanted this guy dead."
The script that the scholars read was dated October 2002, when, Mr. Lauer acknowledged, filming began. But scripts often change after shooting starts, he added.
Icon threatened to sue the scholars and the bishops' conference. The bishops soon apologized and said it had neither authorized the scholars' panel nor the report.
Mr. Gibson has sought to mend fences with the bishops. He met recently in Washington with officials of the conference and has shown the film to Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Francis George of Chicago, as well as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.
But the scholars and the Anti-Defamation League have not backed down. They are pressing Mr. Gibson to show them the rough cut that he has been screening.
The national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman, said, "If you say this is not anti-Semitic and this is a work of love and reconciliation, why are you afraid to show it to us?"
"There is no way on God's green earth," Mr. Lauer said, "that any of those people will be invited to a screening. They have shown themselves to be dishonorable."
People who have seen the movie say it is brutally graphic, dwelling at length on a scourging scene that renders Jesus a bloody piece of flesh before he is even nailed to the Cross. He is beaten with a leather strap studded with metal points that, when slapped across a tabletop, stick in the wood like spikes.
Roman soldiers administer the beating in the film, Mr. Hudson, the Catholic publisher, said. "By the time the Romans get through with him," Mr. Hudson said, "you've forgotten what the Jews might have done."
Mr. Gibson's vision "pays tribute to Judaism," Mr. Lauer said, by underscoring Christianity's roots. The controversy, he added, has built a considerable buzz about the movie. "You can't buy that kind of publicity," he said.
Also, I, ehrm. Wrote another M&C drabble. But hey, new challenge! Someone must be sick or injured. Gee, hurt/comfort? *g* mandc100: "Support".