The Problem with The Passion

When Hollywood Plays with Hate and History

Seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was a profound experience. I left the theater with very mixed feelings.

The film reflects Jesus’ willingness to embrace his own humanity to the degree that he would endure the worst that human cruelty has to offer. It reminded me in a very powerful way of what I already knew: that Jesus lived and loved so radically that the powers of his time had to stop him.

It also left me with a deep unease. There is material in this film for the believer’s reflection, but the hateful portrayal of a group of people who have already borne so much of the world’s hate may render that material polluted at best.

The Passion in the past
It is important to keep in mind that this movie should not be viewed as historical, as documentary, or as “the truth.” It is one man’s artistic rendering of the suffering and death of Jesus.

The height of devotion to Christ’s Passion came in the Middle Ages, a time when people in Europe were suffering terribly from war, crushing poverty, and the plague. A beaten down redeemer spoke to them. Yet the image of a savior who suffered in his physical body is powerful and moving even today.

Both then and now, however, the story has been used to incite hatred against the Jews. Medieval Passion Plays were notorious both for their blatant scapegoating of the Jewish people for Jesus’ death, and for the terrible attacks of Christians on Jews that happened afterwards.

The Passion and history
Mel Gibson’s film the Passion is based on a composite of Gospel accounts, but it also draws from the writings of 18th century German mystic and visionary Sister Ann Catherine Emmerich. Her writings, unfortunately typical of her time and place in history, depict the Jews as hateful and despicable people.

Whether by default or by design, Gibson’s caricaturish portrayal of the Jewish leadership (and the crowds) in the movie is also inaccurate and inflammatory, particularly when taking into account, in contrast, the sympathetic portrayal of the Roman leadership. It bears keeping in mind:

* The temple priests’ garments are embellished with gold?such riches were not allowed under Roman rule.

* The high priest Caiaphas makes a great Hollywood villain, but Mel Gibson gave him a much more bigger role than any of the Gospel writers. The idea of the high priest casting insults at the foot of the Cross might be good movie-making but is not at all biblical.

* The historical fact is that this high priest was appointed by Pilate, served at his pleasure, and could be removed at any moment.

* Pontius Pilate was removed from his post shortly after Jesus’ death because he was too ruthless (see Luke 13:1-3), quite a distinction in the Roman Empire.

* The infamous blood curse against the Jews (Matthew 27:25) was removed from the film’s subtitles, but it remains in the Aramaic of the high priest. Christians do not see these words, but Hebrew-speaking Jews will hear them.

Gospel-inspired but anti-Semitic?
Mel Gibson told a national TV audience on February 16 that “the Jews’ real complaint isn’t with my film but with the Gospels.” There’s plenty of material for people of faith to have a real complaint with in Gibson’s movie, but there’s also a grain of truth in what he says.

The Gospels reflect the time they were written in. Not news stories or historical accounts, the Gospels are writings for particular communities of faith written in a time of great change and conflict within Judaism. Christianity began, of course, as a movement within Judaism, a movement breaking away at the time of their writing?and not without ferocious disagreement on both sides.

So, take a family argument, write it down, wait 2000 years, and see what you get.

Thanks a lot, Mel
The complaint, then, is that to make this film in this way, when global anti-Semitism is on the rise, and relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews are strained to the breaking point, is irresponsible, and some might say, unconscionable.

The fear is that we are about to witness, thanks in part to this film, a new wave of hatred and blame directed at the Jewish people around the world.