More Passion passions


Everyone may be tired of the controversy over The Passion of the Christ by now, but I will, nonetheless, link my latest Boston Globe column (not posted on the Reason site this week), Demonizing Critics of The Passion. My main focus here is not so much the movie itself as the notion, assiduously promoted by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity et al. that all criticism of The Passion comes from some left-wing cabal of "secularists."

By the way, here is another critique of the film by a politically conservative Catholic, University of San Diego law professor Tom Smith, on the blog The Right Coast.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Protestant and Catholic churches have issued a joint statement with Jewish leaders deploring the "overly negative portrayal" of Jews in The Passion and warning that the film might "revive anti-Semitic prejudices." Obviously, this has not happened in the United States; but I think there are still valid concerns about it becoming an anti-Semitic propaganda tool in certain parts of the world.

I don't mean to belabor the issue of anti-Semitism. I think some of the charges against the movie have been a stretch (in The New Republic, for instance, Leon Wieseltier saw anti-Semitism in the fact that Caiaphas has a gravelly voice and a gray beard), but a lot of the details add up: The fact that when we first see Caiaphas, he's haggling with Judas over money; the fact that Satan is seen moving among the crowd of Jews (but not the Romans); Gibson's selection of the gospel lines that emphasize the guilt of the Jews; the fact that after Jesus' death, an earthquake shatters the Jewish temple while leaving the Roman governor's palace intact (which suggests that the Jews are cursed by God—an implication that the Catholic Church specifically warns to avoid in passion play performances).

UPDATED TO ADD: Another rarely mentioned element of Gibson's narrative that accentuates the negative in the portrayal of the Jews is his treatment of Barrabas, the condemned man released in Jesus' stead at the crowd's request. In the gospels, Barrabas is described as a man who had committed murder during a riot—most likely, an anti-Roman street agitator who may well have had the sympathies of the Jerusalem crowd for political reasons. In The Passion, Pilate describes him as "a notorious murderer," and he looks grotesque—a sneering, snarling, physically hideous gargoyle who, for all we know, could be the Hillside Strangler of ancient Judea. How damning, then, that the priests and the crowd would rather let this creature loose than release Jesus.

I do want to respond to an argument that I've seen in many places, and that quite frankly drives me up the wall: "How can this film be anti-Semitic when all the good guys—Jesus, his mother, the apostles—are Jews?" By this logic, of course, Christian anti-Semitism could not have existed. I am not saying that anti-Semitism is inherent in Christianity, but surely no one can deny that there was plenty of it in Christian history. The gospels, Matthew and John in particular, do contain a strong streak of hostility toward those Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, and at times in the history of Europe this hostility turned to virulent hate. Perhaps part of the reason many people sincerely misunderstand this issue is that after Nazism and the Holocaust, we tend to think of anti-Semitism as a purely racial prejudice; for most of history, however, it was a form of religious bigotry that conspicuously exempted Jewish followers of Christ.