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In The Passion of the Christ , Mel Gibson has created a movie for our times. He has done for Christianity what George W. Bush has achieved for American civil rights and Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are doing for American foreign policy. In a world where power and empire are ever apparent, and where lines are drawn based not on social, political, historical and philosophical understandings but to win the phantom battle of "good" against "evil," Gibson rises to take over theological leadership for the uncompassionate conservative movement.
It is less clear what Gibson has done for Christianity, Judaism, and the Church's attempt to heal longstanding wounds. The Passion is not only an anti-Jewish movie, it is by any definition anti-Christian. History tells us that Jesus was learned in the Talmud, and that his teachings were consistent with Jewish thought and the Jewish prophetic tradition. Yet this movie has nothing to do with his teachings, instead it focuses entirely on Jesus' pain and suffering according to the Book of Gibson.
Gibson claims his movie is historically accurate because it is based on the Gospels, the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. However, the Gospels were never intended to be an historical document, rather their aim was to proselytize and preach. The fact that they were written 70 to 100 years after Jesus' death belies any claim to historical accuracy. Furthermore, given the documented history of Pontius Pilate's brutality, whom many historical scholars believe may have killed upwards of 100,000 Jews during his rule, it is completely understandable that early Christian writers were hesitant to portray the extent of Roman cruelty, instead emphasizing Jewish complicity.
Even so, Gibson takes major liberties with the Gospels by cleansing the 80 page text of virtually all of Jesus' teachings of love, compassion, and justice for the poor, focusing primarily on a line or two from the Book of John on Jesus' torture, which in Gibson's furtive mind turns the Stations of the Cross into the Jesus Chain-Saw Massacre. We see not the revolutionary whose teachings further Jewish principles. Instead moviegoers are forced to witness two hours of brutality and suffering inflicted on his flesh.
The passion play is an age-old Christian tradition that has very different meanings for Christians and Jews. This dramatic reenactment of Christ's crucifixion often performed on Good Friday was a time of dread for Jewish communities for over 1500 years. One recounting of the results of the Passion play in a small Polish town in 1757 helps to illustrate the Jewish experience:
A 15 year old Sabbath gentile employed by a small shtetl disappears and a kangaroo court appointed accuses 12 Jews of committing ritual murder. All were found guilty and sentenced to death by nailing them into individual wooden barrels containing axle grease--intended to stimulate an intense burning--and then rolled into a fire. The "murdered" victim returns sometime later, tired of circus life, surprised to find his employers all dead. The accuser, a gentile countess shows her remorse by pledging the use of her forest for firewood and flour for matzo, in perpetuity. This lasts until the drought of 1927, which is blamed on, (who else?) the Jews, thereby revoking the Countess's pact with the shtetl.*
The blood libel inspired by the Passion play, which still continues in some small towns in Eastern Europe to this day, accuses Jews of drinking the blood of Christians to make Passover matzah and Purim cakes. Additionally, for centuries Jews have been accused of ritual murder, the crucifying of Christian children as a way of showing contempt for Christ, allegations which inspired wave upon wave of ritual slaughter of Jews across Europe. Therefore Easter brought two types of prayers, Christian prayers for the rebirth of Christ, and Jewish prayers that their town would not be targeted for more bloodletting. It is impossible to estimate the resultant harm caused by nearly two millennia of Passion plays and the anti-Jewish sentiments they inspired. But there is no doubt that from the medieval blood libel to the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation to Hitler and Stalin, blaming the Jews for Christ's death has led to the murder of millions of blameless Jews. Time will tell what effect Gibson's cinematic Passion play will have on this generation, particularly in countries already tainted with the stain of anti-Semitic animus.
Throughout history, nation-states and religious institutions have used the darker side of human behavior to inspire fear, demand allegiance and carry out unspeakable agendas. Mel Gibson's emphasis of Christ's suffering seeks to invoke an emotional response over a deliberative one, frenzied obsession over reflection, and blind faith versus active engagement. What a perfect recipe for mollifying an anxious people in a post-9/11 world at a time when the current administration rules by color-coded crisis, human relations are characterized in the most perverse moral terms and civil rights are sacrificed on the altar of safety and security!
In fragile times such as these, building bridges is far more important than erecting fences. Over the past few decades, historians and philosophers have opened a window to the human psyche by revealing that the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Great Flood and many other biblical stories are not just the province of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but reoccur in culture after culture. If we take the time to explore the incredible capacity for love, curiosity, spirituality and compassion contained within the human spirit, demonstrated through the richness of each cultural legacy, religious tradition and ethnic heritage, we might finally realize the hidden wisdom our neighbors have to offer. And when we do, the small-minded government opportunists and the self-avowed spiritual charlatans will be exposed for who they are, and the true goodness of humankind can rise to the top.
A dozen years ago when my Roman Catholic wife and I planned our wedding, we worried that the wide gap in our family traditions might seriously endanger our ability to bring our in-laws into the fold. There were many things that attracted me to my wife, not the least of which was her strong belief in social justice, her concern for the underdog and her love that shined on everyone she met. It was not hard to understand that she had adopted the compassionate lessons of her religious upbringing. For me, raised as a third generation secular Jew, I learned early the importance of taking an interest in the world around me. My grandfather was a Jewish carpenter, but also a labor organizer and a rabble-rouser. My parents took me to see Martin Luther King speak and to anti-Vietnam War rallies as a child. When the priest and the rabbi who officiated at our wedding passed the Bible back and forth to each other, citing passages that emphasized our love and respect, it was impossible for our families to deny the shared values that were innately a part of our very different traditions.
My wife and I reflected on the movie after the trauma of the gore-fest settled. We both agreed that what Mel Gibson had done was cheapen the biblical story, first by turning a spiritual moment in the New Testament into a horror flick. And then, commodifying the whole thing into a financial scheme by selling crucifixion nails, the jewelry of the Virgin Mary, and Aramaic coffee mugs. We agreed that the power of our diverse heritages was in our mutual commitment to justice, charity