NOVEMBER 6, 2003
Kinder, Gentler Passion
Mel Gibson's upcoming film "The Passion of Christ" (formerly "The Passion") portrays the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus, opening with a quote from the prophet Isaiah and an image of Jesus crushing a snake beneath his heel. Gibson believes that the world is a battlefield for the cosmic forces of good and evil, and he sees his film as a weapon in that war. Both Jewish and Catholic groups have raised concerns that Jewish casualties will result, especially if the movie presents the old Christian charge of "collective guilt" -- the idea that all Jews, in all generations, are personally responsible for the death of Jesus. In hopes of preventing violent responses, academics have come forward as advocates of a kinder, gentler Passion.
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who routinely receives mail praising Palestinian bombers as avengers of Christ, has said, "We fully understand that the crucifixion is central to the belief of more than a billion Christians and in no way do we want to impede Mr. Gibson's right to make a film." Yet he would like "experts in the field to help ensure that the Jewish people are not yet again falsely singled out as being responsible for the death of Jesus." But what field? And who's an expert?
Gibson, who insisted on Aramaic and Latin dialogue with subtitles, presents his project as an "accurate" representation of the execution of Jesus, but academics disagree. Gibson, a member of a Catholic Traditionalist movement, which rejects Vatican II, says he "was just directing traffic" on the film, attributing the real directing credit to the Holy Ghost. As such, academic historians can hold no authority over Gibson's interpretation of scripture. An "accurate" account of the Passion, for Gibson, must be based in faith, not scholarship, in Church tradition, not secular history.
Writing in the September 15th New Yorker, Peter Boyer quotes Boston University's Paula Fredriksen as saying, "He doesn't even have a Ph.D. on his staff." Gibson, in turn, claims that academics like Fredriksen "pervert" readings of the scriptures. Boyer points to one of the ways Gibson diverges from the guidelines for dramatizing the Passion articulated by the American Catholic Bishops Conference. In Gibson's film, the men crucified next to Jesus are criminals. Usually "thieves" or "robbers" in English, the original Greek is "plunderers." But the Bishops Conference, with their own political agenda, insists on "insurgents."
Gibson calls this "revisionist bull---t." "Judas is always some kind of friend of some freedom fighter named Barabbas." Gibson feels his academic critics are claiming he doesn't have the "right to interpret the Gospels myself, because I don't have a bunch of letters after my name. But they are for children, these Gospels. They're for children, they're for old people, they're for everybody in between.'"
But those who call for the intervention of scholars are looking, foremost, for these scholars to exert ethical authority. The plea is for those with eyes for details and ramifications to give guidance to Gibson; that those committed to a diverse society will lend Gibson some of their "sensitivity" to the nuances of this potential powder keg.
However his film may distort history, it in no way flinches when it comes to the basic claims of Christianity -- that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and that the New Testament Christian "fulfills" and supercedes the Hebrew Bible. And the stark truth is that these claims are enough to generate anti-Semitic responses.
Not only must Christians denounce blatant Jew-hatred, such as the idea of collective guilt, but Christians must also own up to their tradition's exclusionary stance in regard to Judaism, not mask it in faux-universalism. Inter-religious dialogue must begin with recognition of -- and respect for -- difference. Presenting Jesus solely as a wise man and social activist only side-steps the exclusionary nature of the Christian faith claim, and thus presents a more subtle and pervasive obstacle to Christian-Jewish relations.
"The Passion" is scheduled for release over Passover and Easter. One way Christian congregations could show their respect for, and solidarity with, their Jewish counterparts is not to hold "Christian seders" this Lenten season and not to continue to seize and re-interpret Jewish symbols. Rather, Jews and Christians must celebrate their own unique traditions and beliefs -- this is the root of functioning diversity. Like fences, good theologies make good neighbors.
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His work focuses on contemporary fiction and traditional Jewish theories of language and textuality.