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.