Personal Jesus

Gibson's film a mirror for critics' views


Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ may well be, to some extent, a Rorschach test onto which different people project their expectations. Where some will see a message of love and redemption, others will see hate and bigotry. Likewise, looking at the brouhaha surrounding the movie, some will see the triumph of courage and faith over the antireligious bias of the cultural elites; others will see a slick and cynical publicity campaign.

I don't presume to judge Gibson's motives in making the movie the way he did. But whatever their intentions, he and his supporters have capitalized splendidly on the public perception that both the film and the filmmaker were under assault from the liberal, secular, elitist media.

Having seen the film, I think it has an anti-Jewish taint—but I can understand completely why some people of good will see no anti-Semitism in it. The Passion does not trade in crude ethnic stereotypes of hook-nosed Jews with yellow teeth. What it does is relentlessly stress the responsibility of the Jewish priests and the Jerusalem mob for the death of Jesus.

The Catholic Church has recommended, after the 1965 reforms of Vatican II (which Gibson's ultra-traditionalist brand of Catholicism rejects), that the material of the gospels be handled with care to avoid potential anti-Semitic pitfalls. Gibson goes beyond the gospels—notably at the end, when the earthquake that follows Jesus' death shatters the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The gospels say that a curtain in the temple was torn in half. In Gibson's version, the walls tremble and one of them splits, columns fall, fires erupt, and the evil priests wander dazed amidst the rubble; Caiaphas burns his hand and looks terrified. No such destruction befalls the palace of Pontius Pilate.

To the vast majority of American Christians, the idea of blaming Jews collectively for the actions of Jesus' persecutors seems absurd. They don't see "the Jews," just a few corrupt leaders and their misguided followers. Yet historically, too often, these images and narratives were interpreted as indicting all Jews for Christ's murder. Some point out that Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are also Jews. But if that solved the problem, anti-Semitism would never have existed in Christendom.

The Passion won't incite anti-Semitism among American audiences, though it may well reinforce anti-Jewish prejudice where it already exists. And it does, even here. (A rabbi who conducted an online chat at The Washington Post's website on the day of the film's release received this lovely question from a reader in Washington, D.C.: "Why are you people harassing Mel Gibson?… Do we have to rewrite William Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice' to satisfy you folk?")

Concerns about reactions abroad, particularly given the recent upswing of anti-Semitism in Europe and the anti-Semitic hysteria cultivated by many governments in the Arab world, are eminently justified.

It is not my place to examine how well The Passion represents Christianity. Many Christians think it does not; a Lutheran friend of mine was particularly put off by the scene in which the crucified thief who mocks Jesus has his eyes plucked out by a raven—which, in her view, completely negates the message of forgiveness. Be that as it may, the notion that anti-Christian secularists waged war on Gibson to stop him from making a movie about the death of Jesus is ridiculous.

Alarm about the movie's portrayal of the Jews was first raised by an interfaith panel of scholars—five Catholics and four Jews—who had read a copy of the script. And they had every cause for alarm. The original script included such extra-scriptural detail as Caiaphas ordering Jesus' cross built on the grounds of the Jewish temple (based on the visions of a notoriously anti-Semitic 19th Century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich).

Originally, the film also gave one of the Jews the line, "His blood be on us and our children." Gibson has told The New Yorker that he wanted to keep it, "But, man, if I included that in there, they'd be coming after me at my house, they'd come kill me." Such comments were unlikely to allay legitimate concerns. By the way, the "blood libel" line is still in the soundtrack, though not in the subtitles.

Claims of antireligious bias among the so-called cultural elites are not unfounded. But there was no bias in this case. The presentation of Gibson as the victim of an anti-Christian witch-hunt is little more than conservative spin—aided, alas, by much of the conservative media.