Let me start out by saying that I will not be attending The Passion. The Christian fundamentalist community has succeeded in making it a cause celebre. Perhaps the alarm expressed by Jewish leaders who have seen the film and protested its alleged anti-Semitism has even strengthened its support in right-wing Christian circles. At any rate, I will not add a penny to Mel Gibson’s coffers by seeing it, as I feel that he has made a reprehensible contribution to the cause of interreligious enmity.
Since I will not be seeing The Passion, I will not write a review of the film as I would in other cases after seeing a provocative work. But there are still important points to be made about this film by one who has not seen it (and I will be relying in these comments on public statements by many who HAVE seen it).
Many critics I respect have criticized the film. David Denby, in his New Yorker review, Nailed, calls it “one of the cruellest movies in the history of the cinema.
Gibson on the Cross: “More Blood!”
illustration: Gerald Scarfe, New Yorker
Denby’s is an eloquent denunciation of the historical and artistic distortions of which Gibson is guilty. Most tellingly, the critic notes that:
Gibson shows little interest in celebrating the electric charge of hope and redemption that Jesus Christ brought into the world. He largely ignores Jesus’ heart-stopping eloquence, his startling ethical radicalism and personal radiance…
To focus instead entirely on Jesus’ suffering at the hands of the Jews and Romans is a terrible distortion of Jesus message to the world (not just Christians). There is no doubt that the “passion” (that is Jesus’ agony) is a central element of his meaning for Christians. But Jesus was a much more complicated, interesting and eloquent figure than Gibson gives him credit for being. Others who have disliked the film are A.O. Scott in the New York Times (Good and Evil Locked in Violent Showdown) and Jon Meacham in Newsweek (Who Killed Jesus?). Denby praises Meacham’s piece as “patient and thorough” as he reviews the literary and historical sources to examine Gibson’s falsification of the gospels and the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the Seattle Jewish Transcript‘s, Preparing for the Passion, Janis Siegel notes that David Elcott of the American Jewish Committee attended a screening and was deeply distressed by many aspects of the film (see
Gibson Film “A Disturbing Setback to Christian-Jewish Relations”):
Elcott is most disturbed by the inclusion of a highly controversial quote from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew 27:25, a rabid Jewish crowd accepts responsibility for Jesus’ death and proclaims “Let his blood be on us and on our children.”
Execution of Jews during Crusades
credit: Florida Holocaust Museum
Mel Gibson said he would never put the text from Matthew that places the sin of the death of Jesus–the murder of Jesus–on the heads of Jews and their descendants. But the movie that I saw did contain such a reference
In addition, Elcott notes there are other anti-Jewish stereotypes in the movie:
caricatures of Jews, the rabble, the crowd unanimously calling for Jesus’ death, the evil high priest and his henchmen who beat, bruise and strangle Jesus.
The Israeil Policy Forum’s M.J. Rosenberg, in Mel Gibson’s Astonishing Film, also notes the distortion of Pontius Pilate’s role in the movie:
Contrary to the real Gospels, in Gibson’s Gospel, Pontius Pilate is a good guy. Handsome and sensitive (in contrast to the repulsive-looking Jews), he does not want to kill or even imprison Jesus. But the Jewish mob demands death. Finally, Pilate turns to Jesus and asks him what to do. Jesus reassures him that he, Pilate, is not responsible for what is happening. The responsibility lies with “those who brought me here,” he says. The camera then pans to the rapacious Jews. This is all Gibson, remember. It is not the New Testament.
A devout Christian I know says that it doesn’t matter who killed Jesus. For Christianity all that matters is that Jesus died so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. In fact, if Jesus had not died, then Christianity and its believers could never have gained salvation. In effect, she argues that Christians need Jesus to have died.
But what she and all those who support this film neglect to acknowledge is that the question of who killed Jesus is not irrelevant or incidental. For centuries, Christians believed that Jews killed Jesus (the Vatican did not renounce such a belief until 1968!). As recently as the early 20th century (in the Russian blood libel cases), Jews died with the cry “Christ Killer” on the lips of their Christian accusers and murderers. The First and Second Crusades began with the slaughter of thousands of Jews in their German communities because they “killed Christ.”
So to my mind, any movie that stirs up this vile stew once again is treif. I cannot tell you not to see this movie. But if you do, just know that it is a work that reminds Jews of their suffering through the ages at the hands of anti-Semites everywhere. Gibson himself has been entirely defensive, inconsistent and insensitive in attempting to reassure Jews about the content of The Passion and his artistic motives in making it.
Jacqueline Champana says
I agree with everything you said. As far as I’m concerned, Mel Gibson is a product of his father who as we all know is a virulent anti-semite. If anything, he is a narrow minded, un-evolved individual who would like us all to go back to the middle ages. As a Jew, I will not see this movie. Just seeing all the trailers on TV is more than enough for me. He will not get a penny from me or anyone in my family. May Mel’s insensitivity to the extreme pain and suffering this subject has caused to Jewish people for centuries and what his Passion movie could very conceivably cause to Jews today, especially in Europe, give him many many sleepless nights. May our future suffering and blood be on Mel Gibson’s head.
Lawrence of Cyberia says
Thanks for posting this, Richard. I too decline to give Mel Gibson my $10 to go and see his remake of a mediaeval passion play. IMHO, there is so much wrong with this movie, on so many levels, that I find it difficult to know where to start – so I’m glad you did.
The first thing that struck me is what a marketing genius Mel Gibson has turned out to be. Six months ago, “The Passion” was an esoteric pet project, financed with his own money, which nobody was interested in and which was probably going to cost him a huge loss. Now, after a little Holocaust minimization, and whipping up of evangelical Christian frenzy, he’s got a winner. What a cynical manipulation of all sorts of dangerous passions. I can’t see any good coming out of this, only dissension and hostility and controversy which, bearing in mind Gibson’s own reported religious beliefs, might sadly be perfectly fine with him.
WADR, I wouldn’t really share Jacqueline C’s concern that this is going to cause problems particularly for Jews in Europe. It seems to me that the current anti-Semitism in Europe – primarily in France – arises out of an unassimiliated underclass of overwhelmingly young first- and second-generation immigrants from North Africa, whose hostility to “the Jews” comes from seeing them not through in the historical European perspective of “Christ killers” but through the prism of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I don’t think they are likely to be particularly inflamed one way or another by Gibson’s resurrecting the “the Jews killed Jesus” canard.
(A lot of the rest of what we in the US call European “anti-semitism” is, in my experience not classic anti-Semitism at all, but criticism of the political policies of the Israeli (Sharon) government vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The “criticism of Israel = anti-Semitism” argument simply doesn’t cut much ice over there, and the result is that mainstream debate on Israel/Palestine is of a depth and a vigor that is unheard of here, unless you make a point of seeking out serious debate on Israel.)
The rest of “Christian” Europe is in many ways a post-religious society, in which religion is a personal, private affair, and which finds it truly odd and more than a little scary that the most powerful nation on earth is led by a born-again believer who thinks God talks to him. So I think that many Europeans are going to look upon “The Passion” as just another odd example of the fundamentalist, evangelical nuttiness that seems to have so many American Christians in its grip right now. I think a society like post-war Europe – that has begun to think of it religious heritage in mythological rather than literal terms – is not for the most part likely to look at this movie as history and think “the Jews killed Jesus”.
I think if there are repercussions for the Jewish community (and sadly I fear that there might be) it is going to be primarily right here at home, from the fundamentalist Protestants that Gibson has cynically aimed his movie at. (Which in itself is an extreme irony, bearing in mind that Gibson is a traditionalist, pre-Vatican II, Catholic, who believes that fundamentalist Protestants are going to burn in Hell. How cynical can you get, just to make a buck?).
The problem in marketing a bloodfest like “The Passion” to US Christian fundamentalists is that, well, they’re fundamentalists! They read their scriptures literally – or at least the parts that suit them (I notice that they’re much more interested in literal readings of verses against homosexuality than the ones against divorce, for example) – and many of them think they are reading actual history. Which they are not. The Christian Gospels arise out of a specific context, when the early Christians were engaged in a bitter polemic against those Jews who, unlike themselves, did not believe that Jesus was moshiach. They come from a time when Christianity was breaking with a Judaism which didn’t accept its belief about who Jesus was, and was turning instead to the Gentile world for converts. Hence a Gospel portrayal that maximizes Jewish “guilt” and minimizes Roman responsibility (which historically, bearing in mind the comparative power of the Roman procurator and the occupied Jews, is surely getting it backwards).
I think the Gospels probably say more about the state of the debate between the Early Church and the Judaism it was breaking away from than they do about the historical events that surrounded the death of Jesus a generation before. To take the scriptural narrative out of the context that gave rise to it, and market it to an audience that believes it is watching real history about “the Jews” is, I think, a horribly dangerous thing to do. You don’t have to be a historian to know why, and I can’t ascribe to Mel Gibson any charitable motives for doing it.