Jesus Christ Beyond Thunderdome

Gibson's contentious "Passion"


Mel Gibson's upcoming movie The Passion is already stirring up passions more than half a year before its scheduled release—which is not surprising, since it deals with the emotionally charged subject of the crucifixion of Jesus. The intensity of the debate recalls the firestorm sparked by Martin Scorcese's 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

But in a way, The Passion is the anti-Last Temptation. Scorcese's film, which showed Jesus grappling with doubt about his mission and almost succumbing to the temptation of a normal life that included marriage to Mary Magdalene, drew the ire of religious conservatives and Catholics in particular. Gibson's film is being championed by religious conservatives who charge that criticism of The Passion is driven by an antireligious animus. The controversy centers on the film's portrayal of Jews and their role in Jesus' execution. For centuries, the charge that the Jews had Jesus' blood on their hands has been a driving force behind anti-Semitism. In Europe, "passion plays" depicting the suffering and death of Christ often provoked anti-Jewish violence.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council formally repudiated the belief that Jews, past or present, are collectively responsible for "deicide." In recent years, Christians and Jews have worked together to rid passion plays of anti-Semitism. Some worry that after decades of progress, Gibson's movie could be a throwback to the old prejudices.

One reason for these apprehensions is that Gibson belongs to a "traditionalist" Catholic movement which rejects the 1965 reforms; his father, a prominent member of this movement, has been quoted as saying that Vatican II was the result of a Jewish-Masonic plot. Moreover, a favorable early report on the film, based on an interview with Gibson himself, said that the film script had drawn on the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a 19th-century nun who described her purported visions about the last days of Jesus. Among other things, Emmerich claimed that the cross on which Jesus died was built in the Jewish temple on the orders of the high priest. (Only after the Simon Wiesenthal Center called attention to Emmerich's virulent anti-Semitism did a spokesman for Gibson's Icon Productions disavow her work as a source.)

Gibson's defenders argue that the movie is quite different from the script and is being condemned sight unseen. But Gibson hasn't helped his case by limiting the preview screenings almost entirely to friendly audiences of political, cultural, and religious conservatives while denying access to critics, including such respected groups as the Anti-Defamation League. When a representative of the league finally saw the film last week, he stated that in its present form it was likely to fuel hatred and bigotry. Of particular concern is the reaction in countries where such bigotry is already a major problem—including the Arab world.

Few people worry about an outburst of violent anti-Semitism in the United States. But in its own way, the attitude of some champions of "The Passion" is troubling. A few seem positively gleeful about the distress caused by the movie—and quite in-your-face about it. "I want to see any movie that drives the anti-Christian entertainment elite crazy," conservative commentator Laura Ingraham has been quoted as saying. Others, including conservative Jews such as film critic Michael Medved, have blamed the hostile reception of the film on "liberal activists who worry over the ever-increasing influence of religious traditionalism in American life." Medved, who has attended a screening of The Passion, clears the film of charges of anti-Semitism on the rather dubious grounds that it emphasizes Jesus' Jewish identity by giving the part to an actor with Semitic features and having Jesus and the apostles speak their lines in Aramaic, the authentic language of ancient Judea.

Meanwhile, some rhetoric on the right has implied that the controversy is a Jewish assault on a Christian film. The National Association of Evangelicals has warned that, given evangelical Christians' strong support for Israel, Jewish leaders should not "risk alienating two billion Christians over a movie." After criticizing the film, the Anti-Defamation League has received dozens of vile anti-Semitic phone calls and e-mails.

The biblical account of Jesus' life and death should not be sacrificed to political correctness. But the cry of "political correctness" can also become a cover for very real bigotry.