Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall

How Christians & Jews Approach the Cross

Last August in Los Angeles, I saw an early, rough edit of Mel Gibson’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. Reviled as anti-Semitic by some who have not even seen it, I judged the version I saw free from explicit anti-Semitism, for three reasons. First, it placed a large onus for the crucifixion on the Romans. Second, it depicted disagreements among the Jewish authorities about Jesus’ punishment, and repeatedly showed Jews who were sympathetic to Jesus. Finally, it omitted the oft-cited phrase from Matthew’s Gospel (“his blood be on us and on our people”), a phrase that has notoriously been used to justify violence against Jews. And it portrayed Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as referring to even those Jewish authorities who had urged his condemnation. Still, my hunch is that some Jews will intensely dislike the film. Historically, the story of Christ’s death and the symbol of the cross are so closely associated with anti-Semitism that many Jews will be understandably repulsed by Gibson’s movie.

Strangely, The Passion has drawn me to a reconsideration and greater appreciation of Marc Chagall’s multiple renditions of the crucifixion. Last October, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art presented a stunning retrospective of Chagall’s paintings. In the period between 1938 (the year of Kristallnacht) and the end of World War II,...

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About the Author

John A. Coleman, SJ, is Casassa Professor of Social Justice at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.