Last summer I visited Lorrach, Germany, a southern Black Forest city from which my father, his parents, and brother fled in order to escape the Nazis in 1938. I spent several hours in the City Hall one day with a helpful archivist who located documents for me, including an order that my grandfather’s medical practice be boycotted because he was Jewish. The archivist shook her head sadly as she showed me a set of haunting photographs from 1940 of the town’s remaining Jews being loaded into trucks. During my vacation, I saw a brief news article on director/actor Mel Gibson’s arrest for drunk driving in Malibu, California, and his now-famous anti-Semitic tirade against a Jewish deputy sheriff. “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” Gibson yelled at the officer.
I expected that when I returned home I would catch up on news coverage that reopened the question of whether this resentment Gibson evidently harbors against Jews comes through in his blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ. After all, his behavior directly contradicted the image Gibson had presented to the public when he argued in 2004 that the film grew from his deep religious impulse-guided by the Holy Ghost, he said. But except for an August 5 column by Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times, I found little analysis of The Passion of the Christ in light of Gibson’s anti-Semitic outburst. After Gibson released his new film, Apocalypto, a violent take on Mayan warfare, the question seemed to be whether his tirade should cost him Oscar votes.
But the real issue is still about the substance of The Passion because the film has shaped the way many Christians imagine the crucifixion of Jesus. Rutten questioned why reporters had not called to account the many prominent religious figures who had vouched for both Gibson’s character and his film-the tactical support behind Gibson as he pursued a public-relations war against scholars and Jewish leaders who criticized The Passion as insensitive to Jews. This support helped Gibson turn the tables on his critics by portraying them as secularist opponents of religious freedom. Gibson argued that his critics were trying to censor him by raising objections to an early version of the script.
I called some of those Rutten mentioned in his column but found they didn’t have much to say. For example, as Rutten pointed out, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver had written in his diocesan newspaper column that “between a decent man and his critics, I’ll choose the decent man every time-until the evidence shows otherwise.” In an October 2004 speech, Chaput took a shot at The Passion’s critics when he remarked on “the paranoia that preceded the release” of Gibson’s film. Like others who vouched for Gibson’s character and sniped at the critics, Chaput-who gave an award to the cast and executives of The Passion-has since put distance between the man and the movie. He now has no comment, but his spokeswoman did release a statement written after Gibson’s arrest. “Archbishop Chaput praised The Passion of the Christ when it was released because of the movie, not the director,” it said. “He wasn’t making a judgment on Gibson and he won’t make that judgment now. Gibson’s movie...still has the same merit that Archbishop Chaput spoke about when the film was released: It brings alive the Gospel accounts of Jesus in a very vivid and effective way. Anti-Semitism, and racial prejudice of any kind, should not have a place in the heart of any Christian or person of good will.”
Rutten also reported that the Rev. William J. Fulco, SJ, a Loyola Marymount University professor who did the Aramaic and Latin translations for the movie, had said at the time that “I would be aghast at any suggestion that Mel is anti-Semitic.” Rutten asked: “And now...?” “Our relationship is such that it’s in the family,” Fulco, who gave more than a hundred interviews about the film in the past, replied when I asked about Gibson. “I’m not in a position to comment.” Carl Anderson, who heads the 1.6 million-member Knights of Columbus, was another prominent supporter. Hosting Gibson at a convention, Anderson declared that he “was making sure The Passion gets a fair hearing.” He told his members that if there was going to be a public debate about The Passion and religious rights, the Knights “would not duck from it.” But when I requested an interview with Anderson in light of Gibson’s Malibu incident, Patrick Korten, vice president for communications at the Knights, said Anderson would not be responding.
Whatever may have transpired in the meantime, Korten said, it didn’t change the value of the film. “It’s a superb movie and a powerful one and a moving one, the kind of movie that changes hearts.” Does character count? It did in the publicity battle over the film, when Gibson said he was driven by his deeply held “traditionalist” Catholic religious beliefs, including the official condemnation of anti-Semitism. But what about now? “As we say in Yiddish, ‘in vino veritas,’” Rabbi James A. Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, quipped when asked about Gibson, later adding, “I think he has very negative feelings towards Jews and Judaism.”
Rudin had played a key role in getting changes made in the virulent depiction of Jews in the Oberammergau Passion Play, the grandparent of all Passion plays. Adolf Hitler had praised the play, which is performed once a decade in a small Bavarian town. Rudin said he told Gibson when he saw him at a screening for Christian pastors that the mob scene in the movie was worse than the one he saw in Oberammergau in 1984, before it was revised. “The Germans at least made changes,” Rudin said. “At least they were open to changes based on scholarship.” In contrast, Gibson’s response to scholars at the screening was, “I don’t have a bunch of letters at the end of my name.” In its review of The Passion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “The scene of the stock frenzied mob uniformly calling for Christ’s crucifixion in Pilate’s courtyard is problematic.”
While it did not find a broad anti-Jewish theme in the film, the USCCB reviewer expressed a view similar to Rudin’s concerning the relationship between Jewish authorities and Pilate. Caiaphas and other Jewish leaders “come across as almost monolithically malevolent,” it noted. They have an “exaggerated” influence on an “overly sympathetic” Pilate, who comes across as “almost gentle with Jesus, even offering his prisoner a drink.” This portrayal “does not mesh with the Pilate of history remembered by the ancient historians as a ruthless and inflexible brute responsible for ordering the execution of hundreds of Jewish rabble-rousers without hesitation.”
Some of these points parallel ones made by Sr. Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary and other scholars who ran afoul of Gibson when they issued a report on the film. Their major points included that “the script contained significant historical errors” and that “Jesus’ opponents were one-dimensional ‘bad guys.’” They concluded that “The Passion of the Christ violated many significant Catholic teaching documents about interpreting the Passion and death of Jesus.” As Boys and others pointed out at the time, Gibson had injected nonbiblical elements drawn from writings attributed to Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a German nun. Emmerich was beatified in 2004, but only after she was disassociated from most of the writings she purportedly dictated to the German poet Clemens Brentano. These writings are virulently anti-Semitic, according to Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. The writings portray most Jewish characters “as exaggeratedly and demonically wicked. They mention the blood libel (Jews killing Christian children to make Passover matzah), and present racist descriptions of hooked-nosed Jews,” he has written.
Although I had followed the many warning signs that the movie might be objectionable, I found it moving and spiritually edifying when I saw it during Lent in 2004. I liked the way Gibson captured the relationship between Jesus and Mary, and the way he presented the walk-on role of Simon of Cyrene. Raised Catholic (my father is a convert to Catholicism), I could see why many Christians had applauded the director. Still, I was uneasy that Gibson seemed to have gone out of his way to exonerate Pilate and make any Jews who did not support Jesus as sinister as possible. That portrayal became increasingly troubling when I heard of Gibson’s raw anti-Semitic remarks just after I had spent the better part of a week trying to imagine what Germany was like for my family during the 1930s. Gibson’s “barrage” of comments, condensed in the police report, struck me as going beyond the ethnic name-calling that sometimes accompanies a drunken fracas. It seemed to indicate a paranoid fear that someone with authority over him might be Jewish.
His statement that Jews were responsible for all wars resembled justifications used by the Germans in the 1930s for anti-Jewish laws. (Gibson says the Israeli invasion of Lebanon last summer was on his mind.) Beyond being insensitive to Jewish concerns during the run-up to The Passion, Gibson was aggressive in his choice of words. In an interview with the New Yorker, he recounted his reluctant decision to change the scene in which the high priest Caiaphas says, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” a quote the Gospel of Matthew attributes to “the whole people” present before Pilate. Said Gibson: “It happened; it was said. But, man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.”
Gibson put himself in the place he imagines for Pilate-and cast his critics in the role of those who demanded Jesus’ death. Even in his apologies, Gibson continued to play the victim. When Diane Sawyer interviewed him in October, Gibson said he was “ashamed” of his anti-Semitic rant, but implied that it stemmed from understandable resentment. “Even before anyone saw a frame of film for an entire year, I was subjected to a pretty brutal sort of public beating,” he said. “And during the course of that, I think I probably had my rights violated in many different ways as an American, you know, as an artist, as a Christian, as, just as a human being.” Boys said she remains disappointed that members of the Catholic hierarchy embraced Gibson during the debate over the film. “I think that the incident shows that what the church says on paper about its relationship with the Jewish people is not something that’s been internalized by, in my opinion, people who should know about it,” she said. I think that at least some of the church’s teachings in the Second Vatican Council’s groundbreaking document Nostra aetate (1965), which affirmed God’s covenant with the Jewish people and condemned anti-Semitism, have been reflected in street-level interactions between Catholics and Jews. When I was a boy, I noticed that the exterior of a candy store in my Brooklyn neighborhood was marked with graffiti consisting of small black swastikas, crosses, and the phrase “Christ killers.” The graffiti, located on a brick wall just off an avenue running between distinctly Jewish and Catholic residential areas, made enough of an impression then-a few years before Nostra aetate-that I remember it still. Today such graffiti would be denounced.
But the church’s history of anti-Semitic teaching was disavowed only a few decades ago, and it still matters how Jews are portrayed in a definitive film version of the Passion. Forgiving Gibson doesn’t mean that new information relevant to the controversy surrounding The Passion should go ignored. It’s not easy to probe someone’s convictions and prejudices. A staple of college journalism courses is to tell students never to write what someone “believes,” since there is no way to know. We only know what someone says. But now we do know more about what Mel Gibson has to say.