Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, to be released nationwide on Ash Wednesday, is expected to become the most successful “biblical” film ever made. Advance sales, especially among Evangelical groups cultivated by director, producer, and co-screenwriter Gibson, have been brisk. Whether The Passion becomes the best-known movie version of Christ’s life, or merely an evangelical tool for Christian churches, it has already won the undisputed title of the movie most widely written about before being seen by the public at large.

Jewish leaders, especially Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who sneaked into a preview for pastors in Florida, have expressed serious fears about the film’s potential for provoking anti-Semitic violence. A group of ecumenically inclined Jewish and Catholic scholars, who read an early script of the movie, complained about its historical anachronisms and potential for reanimating the slander of deicide against the Jewish people. Gibson, whose reconversion to the Vatican II-rejecting, Latin Mass-going “traditionalist” Catholicism of his youth appears to be entirely sincere, has aggressively defended his movie. The Academy Award winner is evidently a man of passionate, if occasionally strident, religious conviction. “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film,” Gibson has said. That’s quite an endorsement.

Gibson has understandably been agitated by the charges of anti-Semitism. On occasion he has reacted belligerently, as in his tongue-in-cheek threats (presented in a New Yorker article) against New York Times columnist Frank Rich, a particularly acerbic critic. Gibson and his film, however, have not been without influential defenders. Gibson’s strategy of showing The Passion to select groups, including high-profile conservative Catholics, has paid off (Commonweal was not invited to any preview). In a well-reasoned article in the Weekly Standard (August 25, 2003), Catholic theologian and neoconservative guru Michael Novak called The Passion “the most powerful movie I have ever seen.” Novak wrote that, given the history of Christian violence against Jews, he could understand why Jews might not like the movie. Still, he thought Gibson’s version of Christ’s crucifixion “not divisive or dangerous for Jews.”

William Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has been tireless in his defense of Gibson and in promoting the film. Donohue has demanded that Foxman apologize for suggesting that The Passion will incite churchgoing Christians to attack Jews, and has written an open letter to the Jewish community suggesting that Gibson’s traditional Catholicism is the real reason for the “hullabaloo.” The League is even selling tickets to the movie at subsidized prices.

Donohue has seen the movie twice, calls it “magnificent,” and judges it untainted by anti-Semitism. “Not everyone has, or will agree with this assessment. That’s fine,” he writes in his open letter. “What is not fine is the sheer demagoguery that has accompanied some of the criticism.”

Demagoguery is probably not too strong a word to describe some of the reaction to the movie and to Gibson’s religious background, especially efforts to associate Gibson with the views of his conspiracy-mongering and Holocaust-denying father. Foxman’s worries, for one, seem hyperbolic. Still, the Catholic League has orchestrated demagogic campaigns of its own in response to perceived threats or insults. A few years ago it helped drive the sophisticated and theologically informed TV drama Nothing Sacred, about a young priest’s struggles with his vocation, off the air. The Catholic League erroneously and preposterously claimed the show was anti-Catholic. Donohue mounted a similar attack against the controversial movie Priest, which dramatized the religious and sexual conflicts of a homosexual priest. Given this history, it is more than ironic that Donohue and company are complaining that Gibson hasn’t gotten a fair hearing. Equally curious is the pass given to Gibson’s heterodox brand of Catholicism, which obviously informs his movie. Some Catholic dissenters, it appears, are more equal than others.

Donohue is right on one score: people will disagree both about the film and about whether it, wittingly or unwittingly, embraces anti-Semitism. Many Christians who have seen the movie and are sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community, such as Novak and John Coleman, SJ (see page 12), do not discern any anti-Semitism. Gibson is not always his own best advocate in this regard, however. Asked about the Holocaust in an interview with Peggy Noonan for Reader’s Digest, he suggested that Jews had suffered no more than other groups. Some versions of the film shown to preview audiences included a scene dramatizing Matthew’s verse, “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” the biblical source for the deicide charge against the Jews. Thankfully that scene, it is reported, has been cut from the final version of the movie.

Whether they are defenders or critics, all viewers agree that The Passion offers an unusually powerful, but also brutal and violent, depiction of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. This should not be surprising coming from the director of Braveheart and the star of the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films. Gibson is an intensely physical actor, and appears to be an equally ardent religious believer. Still, as Coleman writes, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which the church did so little to forestall, something more than a devout faith in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross is needed. It is hardly surprising that Jews are made uncomfortable by, even deeply suspicious of, a movie whose dramatic logic and energy focus on the extreme violence of Jesus’ death. Historically, who has been blamed for that death? It was only forty years ago, after all, that the church came to recognize that its supersessionist theology implicitly sanctioned discrimination and worse against those it belatedly embraced as our “elder brothers.”

After the Holocaust, “silence, humility, and waiting together for God” are the best ways for Christians to live the gospel, Coleman writes. The meaning of suffering, even Christ’s suffering, can no longer be proclaimed triumphalistically. The church’s contemporary teachings warn that too literal a reading of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion can misrepresent the essential connection between Judaism and Christianity (see The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus, just published by the United StatesConference of Catholic Bishops). The bishops advise us that in pondering the mystery of the church and the salvation offered to all by Christ, Catholics will inevitably encounter the ongoing “mystery of Israel.” One way to embrace the mystery of the church is to listen to what Jews are saying.

February 17, 2004

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Published in the 2004-02-27 issue: View Contents
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