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Deicide and The Passion

By Jeff Snyder
web posted September 22, 2003

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and various religious scholars have expressed grave concern that Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion, a portrayal of the final 12 hours of Christ's life based on the Gospels will, if released in its present form, increase anti-Semitism throughout the world because of the manner in which it portrays Jews. The controversy has generated lots of news coverage and articles, despite the fact that almost no one who is criticizing the film has actually seen it. When fundamentalist Christian groups criticized The Last Temptation of Christ years ago without having seen the film, this was taken as a sign of their intolerance, narrow-mindedness and overall nuttiness. So far, however, the news reports of criticisms of Mr. Gibson's film by people who have not seen the movie are reported, and seemingly supposed to be taken, with utmost seriousness.

The Charges Against the Film

Mel Gibson, right, directs Jim Caviezel, center, and Caviezel's unidentified double, left, on the set of The Passion in this January 24, 2003 photo
Mel Gibson, right, directs Jim Caviezel, center, and Caviezel's unidentified double, left, on the set of The Passion in this January 24, 2003 photo

Criticisms of Mr. Gibson's film gained momentum when one of the members of an ad hoc group of religious scholars that had obtained a stolen copy of an early version of the film's script (that does not correspond to the final film) expressed some of the group's concerns in a news report that ran in the April 22 Los Angeles Times. That article quoted Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of the ADL's Interfaith Affairs, essentially warning Gibson that if he didn't pay attention to the scholars group, the controversy would heat up.

The group prepared a report containing extensive criticisms of the film, and submitted it (unsolicited) to Gibson's production company in May. A copy of the report found its way to The Jewish Week in June, which then reported that the group, consisting of "nine prominent Catholic and Jewish scholars at major universities across the country" had concluded that "[v]iewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theater with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-hungry Jews simply had an implacable hatred of Jesus." This fueled numerous other news reports.

On August 10, Rabbi Korn attended a private screening of Mr. Gibson's film in Houston. The next day the ADL issued a press release voicing concerns that, in its present form, the movie "‘will fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism,' by enforcing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus." The press release states that the film contains a number of "troubling themes and images, all raising the specter of ‘deicide,' or Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus," and expresses hope that Mr. Gibson and his production company will consider modifying the movie so that it is "historically accurate, theologically sound and free of any anti-Semitic message." On the following day, although containing no indication that anyone in the organization had seen the film, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a press release urging Mr. Gibson to make the changes to his film suggested by the Ad Hoc Scholars Group.

According to at least one news report, the Ad Hoc Scholars Group's central complaint seemed to be that merely making a graphic presentation of the crucifixion could "reawaken" anti-Semitic attitudes. Since letting people see and understand exactly what Christ suffered seems to be a key, if not the central, point of Mr. Gibson's film, if that is the basis of the group's criticism, there is little short of gutting the film and Mr. Gibson's artistic and religious purpose that could satisfy the group.

In fact, a wholesale revision of the film and revision of the gospel story seems precisely what the group seeks. In an extensive article on the controversy over The Passion appearing in the September 15 edition of The New Yorker, Peter J. Boyer sheds light on the history of the group and its actions. The group was formed when, after reading a March 9 New York Times article about the church Mr. Gibson was building which raised the specter that Mr. Gibson's film might provide a vehicle for the propagation of paleo-conservative, pre-Vatican II views, Dr. Eugene Fisher, a leading Catholic ecumenist, spoke about his concerns with his friend Abraham Foxman, head of the ADL. Together, they agreed to convene a small ad-hoc group of colleagues with the purpose of offering Mr. Gibson their help in making his film in a manner that would conform with contemporary understandings of the trial and crucifixion of Christ and post-Vatican II standards for the production of dramatic depictions of the Passion. After making efforts to contact Icon Productions (Mr. Gibson's production company) in March, one of the members of the group arrived home one day to find a copy of the film's script in an unmarked manila envelope, which he distributed to the other members. The group read this script and prepared a report, finding numerous problems "embedded throughout the script" and concluding that "the steps need to correct these difficulties will require major revisions" to the film.

Although Mr. Gibson has from the beginning insisted that he is endeavoring to make a movie that is faithful to the Gospels, Mr. Boyer's New Yorker article makes it clear that that is precisely what the group finds troubling. He quotes a group of Catholic ecumenical scholars as stating that "One cannot assume that by simply conforming to the New Testament, that antisemitism will not be promoted. . . . After all, for centuries sermons and passion plays based on the New Testament have incited Christian animosity and violence toward Jews." This is actually a horrifying statement. One would hope that Catholics and all Christians would be shocked by the suggestion that anti-Semitism springs forth as a near automatic and somehow "natural" response from a literal reading and telling of the Gospels. Mr. Boyer also cites an example of one of the recommended changes -- that the two thieves crucified with Christ be referred to as "insurgents," despite the fact that the original Greek does not support that interpretation. Evidently such efforts are thought necessary to subtly direct people's minds away from thoughts about Jewish culpability to Roman political concerns over a potential revolt in the province. However, at bottom such revisionism betrays a profound lack of trust in the Gospels and a cynical, distressing lack of faith in the ability of the Church to bring Christ's message to its members.

Mr. Gibson has for the most part kept himself out of the fray but early on responded generally to the fears about his film by pointing out that "Jesus himself was a Jew, his mother was a Jew, and so were his 12 apostles." As noted by Rev. Michael Reilly in an article discussing Gibson's movie for Newsmax.com, "some of the villains and all of the heroes in the movie are Jews." In Mr. Boyer's New Yorker article, Mr. Gibson states that his critics are looking at the movie with only one eye, blind to the sympathetic Jews in the film and seeing only what they want to see -- for example, not seeing that a Jew helps takes Christ's body down from the Cross. He notes that he will be leaving subtitles in, because it's necessary in order to point out all of the sympathetic characters. He also resents the revisionism he finds in the ad hoc scholars group's efforts to sanitize his movie. "It was like they were more or less saying I have no right to interpret the Gospels myself because I don't have a bunch of letter after my name. . . . Just get an academic on board if you want to pervert something!"

Censorship The Wrong Approach

Now it is certainly possible that a film can employ words and imagery to stigmatize an entire people and inflame passions. One need only consider D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation, and its manipulative use of vicious African-American stereotypes, to know that films can, indeed, convey such ideas. However, no one appears to be suggesting that the rough cut that Mr. Gibson is now privately screening bears any resemblance to films of this sort, or even leveling the charge that the movie is anti-Semitic. Indeed, it would be impossible at this point to do so, since nearly everyone who is criticizing the film has not seen it. And in fact, according to Mr. Boyer's New Yorker article, ADL head Abraham Foxman denies that the film is per se anti-Semitic. The brouhaha thus seems to center almost entirely on "concerns" that the film might provide "fuel" for anti-Semitism because it contains "troubling themes and images," or that the movie might "reawaken" anti-Semitism by its very graphic depiction of the crucifixion, following its portrayal of certain Jews who played a role in the trial of the man Christians call their Lord and Savior.

Unfortunately for everyone on both sides of this debate, people who hate will never be found wanting in religious or moral justifications for it. The methodology proposed in criticisms of Mr. Gibson's movie -- idea and image sanitization -- is a dangerous and ultimately futile approach to the problem of hate. i People who have an agenda need only the slimmest of pretexts and flimsiest of "factual support" as a basis and justification. No detail is too miniscule or insignificant, no information of too dubious reliability, to provide all the support they need. See, for example, the quality of the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that purportedly posed an imminent danger to the United States used as justification to commence the current war on Iraq. In fact, it may be fairly argued that any form the movie takes -- no matter how vetted by committees of religious scholars -- will be sufficient to goad anti-Semites. This is evident from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's own press release urging Mr. Gibson to change his film in accordance with suggestions of the Ad Hoc Scholars Group report. Although the Center apparently did not realize it, the Center seriously compromised the case for claiming that image sanitization will control anti-Semitic passions when it reported, in the same press release, that the Center had already received "an unprecedented wave of hate mail" solely in response to the controversy over the movie, i.e., from people, obviously, who could not have not seen the movie. Clearly, these people don't need a reason, they just need a pretext. Insuring a fair presentation of facts and images -- or even one biased to lead their minds in the opposite direction -- is not going to stop them or curb their hate. ii

To the extent that Mr. Gibson's movie does not actually employ stereotypes, imagery or falsehoods to create a malign group characterization or anti-Semitic theme, and people are merely "concerned" that others will seize upon it as "fuel" for hatred because "troubling images" might lead some to conclude the existence of "collective guilt," or spur anti-Semites on with rekindled zeal, calls for changing the movie are no more than censorship, a demand that the artist censor himself because of fears that his work will be dangerously misunderstood, iii or misused by persons seeking justification, elevation and respectability for their vile passions.

Not having seen Mr. Gibson's movie or final script, I am in no position to extol, defend or excoriate any of its features. This is a debate that will simply go on until full public release provides the opportunity for everyone to judge the movie's merits by reference to specific content, ending the current fervid speculation about hypothetical or possible reactions to unseen images and content.

However, the interim is not being used well. On the one hand we have calls for censorship and revision -- implicitly revisionism of the Gospels themselves -- and pleas that the film reflect the ideas or theology of this or that group, rather than those of the artist. On the other hand, the various preemptive defenses against possible anti-Semitic reactions to The Passion that have thus far been advanced do not really get to the heart of the controversy:

- guilt is an ethical/moral concept that applies only to individuals, pertaining as it does only to individual choice (that alone which an individual has some control over, his own action), not to entire peoples or races;

- looking at a people as a whole, there are both good and bad;

- Pilate was a Roman, crucifixion was a Roman method of execution and it was Romans who actually put Christ to death. iv

Instead of wringing hands over the possibility that Mr. Gibson's movie will inflame anti-Semitic passions and issuing calls for its revision, a far more productive approach would be to confront the feared problem directly. Instead of running as fast as we can from the question of deicide and responsibility for Christ's death, why not use the time to actually discuss it. If worries abound that Mr. Gibson's theology is not completely spot on, then discuss theology -- now. If certain men claim to be Christians while hating others, then the controversy is an opportunity to remind them of the example and commandment of the one they nominally call Lord, but do not follow. Each of these approaches has the very great merit of fixing attention where it belongs -- on oneself.

Although raised in the Lutheran Church and converting later in life to Orthodox Christianity, God knows I'm no Christian. Nor am I a religious scholar, let alone one offering consulting services to artists to assist them in shaping their visions so that their works do not produce or exacerbate bad mental states. However, I know something of what others who have spent a lifetime thinking about the Gospels -- in their unrevised and unsanitized form -- have said. The notion that anti-Semitism springs forth from a "natural" or "literal" reading of this story is so outrageous that it deserves to be addressed and countered in the strongest possible terms. The notion that deicide is a subject so fraught with danger that we must subtly redirect men's minds away from it lest they be consumed with hate is equally cowardly. These charges, implicit in greater or less degree in the criticisms of Mr. Gibson's film, cry out to be addressed. Let us look at the work of one man who spent a good deal of time contemplating the significance of why men killed the "son of Man."

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