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The Passion Over The Passion

Posted by Rick · February 26th, 2004 · 2 Comments

I confess to being more than a little baffled about the passion over Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion. I suppose I shouldn’t be. After all, there’s nothing really logical about organized religions anyway. And so you don’t think of me as (too) unfair and biased, that goes for my own choice of religion, as well. It’s an anthropological or sociological or historical or metaphysical — or some combination thereof — accident that any of us ends up with the religion we’ve got anyway.

I mean, do you realio, trulio think you would be zipping down the highway, car emblazoned with “Real Men Love Jesus Even If They Don’t Love Women” or “In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned” or “Christians Aren’t Perfect, But We’re Forgiven, So We Can Act Any Way We Damn Well Please — and Force Our Views on You, Too” if you were born into the Yangshao in 10,000 B.C.E. or even later (well after the supposed birth and death of Jesus) during the T’ang Dynasty? Would George Bush and so many others be saying — in defense of a Constitutional Amendment to abrogate both the Full Faith and Credit Clause and the Equal Protection Clause — that the one-man/one-woman view of marriage was honored and encouraged in all cultures and every religious faith if they’d been born among the polygynous Yanomamo or the polyandrous Jaunsari or any of numerous other polygamous groups (not counting small pockets of traditional Utah/Idaho Mormons)?

But I digress. And I perhaps poke fun a little too harshly. After all, if I wanted to do so, I could easily find as many unflattering things to say about Judaism — but that’s at least partly my point. For isn’t it true that as you read the above, you were concerned (maybe even angry) at your perception that I was anti-Christian? And yet I can sincerely tell you that I am not.

When it comes to The Passion, though, one of the things that puzzles me is the continued “expending [of] energy and credibility” by Michael Medved, among others, about the Jewish reaction to the movie. (Medved has been all over the news about this, but I read the comments that inspired my current blog entry over at Lex Communis, a blog by one of Fresno’s smartest attorneys, Peter Sean Bradley, Esquire.) It’s as though there’s an urgent need to represent the Jewish community as up in arms over the movie. Isn’t there enough market hype promoting the movie without inventing something that doesn’t exist? Won’t enough people go see it to make it profitable without needing to fan the flames? Frankly, I’m in agreement with the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University, when she says,

I don’t know if the film is anti-Jewish. But the response to criticism of the movie smacks of anti-Semitism.

My own post and repeated comments on the topic in which I pointed out what is being said by Jews and Jewish organizations about the movie is largely ignored. And I don’t mean just because my blog is largely ignored, although that’s probably pretty much true, too; it’s a good thing I write as much to learn as I do to educate anyone else or this would all be for nothing! I mean that even the few courageous souls who post responses to my posts seem to largely overlook it when I make a point of saying that I’m completely unaware of any Jews or Jewish organizations which are calling the film anti-semitic.

On the contrary, to my knowledge, the reaction of Jews and Jewish organizations has either been positive or worried about the potential for others to misconstrue the message of the film. As Jim Furst said on a Catholic bulletin board at greenspun.com,

Like many groups who have been viciously persecuted throughout history, the Jewish people are extremely and understandably sensitive about anything that might stir up negative feelings toward them. It was only 60 years ago that millions of European Jews were murdered as part of the “final solution.”
I’m sure this film, which I am very anxious to see, will not cause any problems for any people of the Jewish faith. Their concern is related to the fact that many Christians misunderstood the gospel message,… pinning the death of Jesus on “Jews” rather than on mankind. The passion narratives took place among Jesus’own people, fellow Jews. They were the people of the time and place where Jesus taught. They represent all of us. We are the people who would have accepted or rejected Christ if we were there at the time. The first Christians were Jews. Jewish Christians. Over time, as the religion moved away from Jerusalem, and spread through out the empire, Christians began to see themselves as separate from Jews which has ultimately lead to the conception that it was these “other” people,…”The Jews that killed Christ.” This misconception has often been used as the basis for persecutions with horrifying results.

It should be noted that it would have most likely been the Sanhedrin, an elite sect of influentials(temple priests) who may have had enough power to be complicit in what was actually a Roman form of execution. The “everyman” of Judea had little if any real power.

Jews did not use crucifixtion as a form punishment. Still many even today blame “them” for Jesus death. This is why I believe some Jews are anxious about this film.
(Editor’s Note: All spelling and punctuation is as in the original.)

And I think that pretty much sums up what I’ve known about the reaction of a few Jews and Jewish organizations which are nevertheless being represented in the press as “expending energy and credibility in denouncing it.”

In fact, now that the film has been released to the general public, the views of Jews who have seen it are varied, just as are the views of the general public. The Seattle Times Entertainment & Arts section has comments from the public, including these two from a social worker who is a Jew and another from a rabbi:

The film spreads the culpability (for Jesus’ crucifixion) quite evenly between some of the Jews and some of their Roman occupiers. Many Jews and Romans are portrayed in a positive light, including the Jewish heroes of the film, Jesus, Mary and the Apostles.

I did not find the film to be anti-Semitic. It makes clear that all that is happening is by Jesus’ choice and by God’s choice…. Michael Behar, Seattle

I feel more strongly than I thought that the film will fuel anti-Semitic views in America, and anti-Semitic violence abroad.

Certainly, the film was crafted beautifully, acted well and shot well, but an aesthetic appreciation cannot mute or soften the way in which this film will negatively impact interfaith relations. It must be used as a tool to promote better understanding by Jews of Christianity, and by Christians of Jewish history and suffering deriving from biblical accounts.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner, Bellevue

Rabbi Weiner’s comments come the closest of any that I’ve seen so far to accusing Mel Gibson’s film of being anti-semitic. Rabbi Weiner, however, does not say the film is anti-semitic. He says that he believes it “will fuel anti-semitic views in America.” And well it may. It does, after all, portray in a graphic manner one view of the persecution, prosecution and execution of a religious leader to whom the majority of Americans pay lip service. Those people, however, for whom the message of Jesus holds true meaning are no threat to Jews — and never have been. Those for whom the message has never deserved more than the homage of the lips are a problem for all Americans, not just Jews. The even smaller subgroup of these people which inclines towards anger and hatred of Jews need no real excuse to be anti-semitic; it is unjust to blame Gibson’s movie for their actions merely because they result from watching the movie.

It would be a different issue, I think, if there were evidence that Gibson’s movie was deliberately intended by Gibson to inspire these feelings. Certainly anyone who sets out to inspire others to anti-semitism is himself (or herself; let’s be fair) a reprehensibly poor excuse for a human being. And certainly there are people who claim to have evidence that Gibson is anti-semitic. Gibson himself denies that he is:

Gibson insisted on Primetime he is no anti-Semite, and that anti-Semitism is “un-Christian” and a sin that “goes against the tenets of my faith.”

When asked who killed Jesus, Gibson said, “The big answer is, we all did. I’ll be the first in the culpability stakes here.”

But whether or not Gibson is or proclaims to be anti-semitic, that doesn’t change the fact that Jews and Jewish organizations — especially prior to the release of the film — were merely expressing concerns based upon vivid historical recollections of the largely-Catholic passion plays of old and memories of the blood libel. As one anonymous poster over at Attaboy wrote in a comment titled “Lets [sic] Examine the Other Side of the Coin”,

I think if you were to actually research the history of that [sic] envelopes the Gibson controversy, the criticism of the movie might be more meaningful to your 21st century sensibilities.

And then along comes Gibson, who is not just a Catholic, but a Traditional Catholic. His production of a movie called The Passion and relating to the same topic as the old passion plays, not surprisingly, raised some Jewish eyebrows. Being concerned that a passion movie based on Traditional Catholic (big “T”, big “C”) teachings might be or inspire the same anti-semitic thoughts, feelings and activities of traditional catholic (small “t”, small “c”) passion plays really shouldn’t be that difficult a concept to understand.

To express this concern for what might be is no more to say that the thing is a certain thing just because it’s a movie about Jesus than at any other time. When someone hears that a man’s wife has gone unexpectedly missing and she is later found dead, many people (including, but not limited to, the police) begin to wonder if the man did it. But wondering about such a thing is a far cry from arresting and charging such a man with murder. Or — to use a simile close enough almost to be an analogy — anyone who has been bitten in the past by angry, barking dogs may become fearful when upon seeing a barking dog, whether it is angry or not. But this is a far cry from saying the newly-confronted barking dog actually bites.

The Jews and Jewish organizations of which I’m aware and which have been quoted by Medved (himself a Jew who doesn’t find the film anti-semitic, but apparently thinks all Jewish organizations do) and other writers did just this same thing. Before seeing the film, they expressed a concern that it might be anti-semtiic or inspire anti-semitic acts; having seen the film, some worry that it will inspire anti-semitic acts, although I haven’t heard any say the film itself is anti-semitic.

Speaking only for myself, I also worry about the possibility. I still remember a conversation with my non-Jewish girlfriend (now my Judaiphilic-wife) about how I understood the problems of racism and prejudice because of my experiences. Years later she related to friends, “I thought he was a fruitcake. I thought, ‘This white male thinks he knows what this is like?'” Yet today she tells her own stories about experiences with anti-semitism; some of them being observations of things she’s seen happen to me over the last ten years and some of them being about things which happened to her when people reacted to “Jewish comments” she’d made. Make no mistake: anti-semitism isn’t dead.

Worrying about a possibility, though, is not the same as saying that the possibility is a reality. A fortiori, worrying that The Passion might inspire anti-semitism is not the same as saying the film is anti-semitic.

And Jews are not alone in their concern for the impact of Christianity on them and their families. Even the Almight G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has had to contend with it:

A man in a synagogue said, “Rabbi, what should I do? My son has converted to Christianity.”
“I don’t know,” answers the rabbi. “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll ask advice from G-d.”

The man comes back the next day.

“I can’t help you,” says the rabbi. “G-d told me he has the same problem.”

Categories: Religion


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bob // Mar 1, 2004 at 8:31 am

    Perhaps a different view from a Christian…

    To be very honest, I do not know how I stand on same sex marriages. I know too many ‘gay’ people who are more ‘Christian’ than the ‘Christians’ that accuse them of horrible sin.

    Besides the obvious, obnoxious ‘Christians’ who wear t shirts and make headlines, what offends me is the ‘for us or against us’ mentality of this issue.

    There are those who are considered liberal in my faith who ask me where I stand. When I say I am not sure I am told that I am wrong. I am told that this issue is about rights and my indecision is simply wrong.

    The same conversation will happen ten miutes later with a conservative member.

    I am offended at the premise that I have to declare my position to anyone. I am offended at those who believe that I MUST have a position, declare it, and agree with them. I am offended that my faith has turned into a Gallup poll and the Bible is spun to support any position.

    I will stand by this position, that the arms of Christ are, always were, and always will be large enough to hold all people. If homosexuality is a sin in His eyes then those who practice it will have to explain themselves, just like those who practice adultery will have to explain themselves.

    The purity and sanity of this religion used to be based on a relationship between you and Christ. Between a common human and the Son of God. If you think about it, it’s a remarkable and hopeful idea, that the Creator would care about each individual creation personally.

    Nowhere in this Master plan is there time or energy for anything but taking care of each other and making the relationship to Christ stronger. Nowhere do we stone the heretics, behead the sinners or kill our enemies.

    The example we were given is not that of an action hero but an active spirit. That spirit engages the world but does not feel compelled to follow the world or worldly kingdoms. Our spirit is guided by love and respect.

    As a Christian, my focus is more on bringing peace and respect than hate and division.

    I cry when I see my faith in the headlines because I have so little faith that the press will report accurately and that the ‘Christians’ in the article are really ‘Christians’ to begin with.

    Christ would not picket a gay man’s funeral and certainly would not ask any of his followers to.

    ALL Christians need to shut up and point their energy to Christ. Let Him solve it, by His means to His satisfaction.

    Thanks for letting me vent!

  • 2 Rick // Mar 5, 2004 at 10:33 am

    Now that more people are seeing and blogging about Mel Gibson’s, “The Passion,” some of you may wish to read this (Christian theological) blog discussion about it:


    I thought about doing a blog entry about this, but I’m starting to feel too much like a Christian evangelist — which is definitely not a good way for a Jewboy like me to be feeling.

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