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Mel Gibson's Passion Take 2 - what it means to whom


Mel Gibson's "The Passion" opened on Ash Wednesday. It is clearly an important film in many ways despite the tawdry publicity that accompanied it. It will fast become a part of Western culture, torture scenes, hooked-nosed Jews and all, just as Gone with the Wind is a part of Western culture, with its burning of Atlanta and the legitimizing of the Klan and the Southern Cause. Great cinema is not necessarily edifying.

There are so many different aspects of the controversy that they don't really all fit into one article, so here are my thoughts, or part of them, and bear with me if they aren't quite coherent.

Rashomon - Everyone who witnesses an event, and everyone who views a work of art, necessarily sees things differently, and as Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times notes, others will see passion and beauty where he sees racism and violence. Jews who criticize Mel Gibson's Passion need to understand that for many Christians, Mel Gibson's "The Passion" is simply the beautiful story of Christ's sacrifice for mankind. They truly can't understand the controversy and the fears of their Jewish neighbors.

Free Speech -Mel Gibson has a right to make any sort of film he likes, and people have a right to see it. Of course, others have a right to make films about the horrors of the Inquisition and the excesses of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, and Mel Gibson might object to that. Perhaps Gibson himself should do a movie about the pogroms during the Crusades, which featured enough murder, rape and pillage to satisfy any Gibson movie fan.

Jewish objections -Jews object to this film not because it shows the crucifixion, but because it shows the crucifixion in a way that contradicts Vatican guidelines on portrayal of the crucifixion and is likely to arouse racist sentiment . Jewish groups didn't try to get the film stopped as some anti-Semitic Web sites claim. In fact, the controversy around the film has itself aroused quite a bit of anti-Semitic commentary, and at least one anti-Semitic fan club Web site: Support Mel Gibson .

Jami Bernard of the N.Y. Daily News, insists that "The Passion" is anti-Semitic.

No child should see this movie. Even adults are at risk. Mel Gibson’s ’The Passion of the Christ’ is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie since the German propaganda films of World War Two. It is sickening, much more brutal than any ’Lethal Weapon.'

....[It] feels like a propaganda tool rather than entertainment for a general audience...Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes. Gibson cuts from the hook nose of one bad Jewish character to the hook nose of another in the ensuing scene.

It is not necessary to see the film in order to raise legitimate objections and concerns. "Passion Plays" are a kind of "entertainment" that has traditionally been a vehicle for propagation and instigation of anti-Semitism. "The Jews Killed Christ," a slogan that has inspired many massacres over the years. About a quarter of Americans believed that "The Jews" were responsible for the death of Jesus, according to one poll.

Many Christians know nothing more about Passion plays than the bland history given in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, and posted recently, in a misguided gesture of true ecumenism, by the
United Methodist Church:

History of the Passion play

Passion plays developed during the Middle Ages in Europe. These dramas began in the church with elaborations of parts of the liturgy sung during the Mass on Easter Sunday. Religious liturgy, at the time, included laments of Mary and narrative poems sung or chanted in Latin by the priests. By the 13th Century, the plays were expanded to include dramatizations of the characters and events from the Passion story.

One of the most renowned Passion plays is performed in Oberammergau, Germany. In the 1600's, after months of suffering and death from the plague, the citizens of Oberammergau swore an oath that they would perform the "Play of the Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ" every ten years. In 1634, the first performance was staged. The next performance will be in 2010.

(Source: New Catholic Encyclopedia)

From the above, we would not know that Passion plays have historically been catalyzers and vehicles of anti-Semitism, or that the "renowned" Passion play of Oberammergau, which featured, among other things, "Jews" with horned hats, was in fact a favorite of Adolf Hitler. The Oberammergau play has recently been purged of its worst features, but the basic message of Passion plays lives on thanks to Mel Gibson.

Passion plays are part of the detritus of European anti-Semitism, cultural artifacts that literally demonized Jews and helped to fuel racism, along with stories that Jews poisoned wells and slaughtered Christian children to make matzoth, and public debates in which Christians "proved" that Jews should convert to Christianity. Passion plays incorporated the worst features of the four conflicting gospels, and added to them depictions of Jews as greedy money grubbing devils with horns. Realizing the incendiary nature of these plays, the Vatican issued guidelines for performance of Passion plays , which Mel Gibson's film fails to follow. Notably the guidelines enjoin scriptwriters from selectively choosing from different gospels in order to create an anti-Semitic picture of the last hours of Christ, and to avoid turning the small group of angry onlookers at the crucifixion into a large crowd.

Blood and guts - Critics agree The Passion is a very violent movie . Those who think the story of Christ should be glorious may find that this movie is just gorious. Time Magazine is calling it "The Goriest Story every told." It is interesting that many groups who are convinced that media violence inspires real-life violence are recommending this film so warmly. It will be horrifying if the movie inspires wackos to start experimenting with crucifixion and other tortures. One blogger wrote:

What Would Jesus Direct? Oh, I could go on and on about why I'm furious with Mel Gibson today, but I'll try to keep it short. "The Passion of the Christ" is revolting and riveting at the same time. There is so much explicit violence -- no matter what you feel about the basic story, what you are seeing is a human body being torn slowly apart, with clubs, fists, ropes and scourges -- and it is so relentless in the blood and shredded skin and torn scalp and dislocated joints that it literally forces you to withdraw. Okay, maybe not you, but me. To me, Gibson's use of violent torture scenes was overtly orgiastic -- ironically warping the "passion" of the title.

Australian critic Stephen Crittenden said after viewing the film:

I think this is Mad Max for Christians.

This is Mel Gibson catering to the kind of -- his sense of the ruling aesthetic at the moment, which is violent.

And I think by overemphasising the violence, by overemphasising the violence to the degree that he has, he's lost the spirituality in the story, he's lot the great sort of human dramatic moments.

David Denby of The New Yorker wrote:

The movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony. ... Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus' message of love into one of hate.

Historical Truth - Historical truth is a problematic concept. In history, especially religious history, what is "true" is what people believe to be true. That is what matters. Historical novels and movies often create "historical truth" that is believed by more people than the real version. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is known to many more people than the actual Caesar.

Mel Gibson's rendering of the crucifixion of Jesus is NOT historical truth , nor Gospel truth, but a pastiche that relies on different parts of the New Testament, and . the imagination of an 18th century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich and Hollywood improvisation. Roman soldiers in Palestine did not speak Latin, but rather, most likely, spoke Greek.

Cheap Publicity - Mel Gibson is not a martyred saint who spent his last dime to make the film. Despite the nature of the subject and the fact that the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, the film is selling well thanks to the controversy, part of which was generated quite skillfully by Gibson himself. Decide for yourself if faked quotes from the Pope, and popularizing Holocaust denial by Hutton Gibson, Mel's father, are legitimate ways of promoting a film of this sort, or whether perhaps, it is time to drive the money changers from the temple again. In an interview on WSNR radio in New York , Gibson's father repeated the Holocaust denial drivel that he had mouthed in an earlier interview:

And (the Holocaust) it’s all - maybe not all fiction - but most of it is. For instance the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz would not do the job. Do you know what it takes to get rid of a dead body? To cremate it? It takes a liter of petrol and 20 minutes – now six million of them? They (the Germans) did not have the gas to do it. That’s why they lost the war. Regarding the gas chamber, the gas was going the wrong way.

Those sort of remarks, together with the dubious Papal "quote," have characterized publicity about the film from the start. Mel Gibson defended his father, alternately denying his views on different days, but saying "leave it alone, he's my father" and saying on other days that he agrees with his father, as the mood, or the holy spirit moved him. If Gibson wanted to shield his father, why didn't simply ask his father to not give interviews? Either he believes what his father is putting down, or he figures that any publicity is good publicity.

The Pope and the Passion - The persistence of the rumors that the Pope approved of "The Passion" is a credit to the genius of Mel's publicity people. It doesn't seem likely that the Pope really did say, "It is as it was." The Pope is not Yoda after all. Here is what the Pope's closest aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz said:

"I said clearly to McEveety that the Holy Father made no declaration. I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no declaration to anyone."

But even supposing he did say it, and then decided that it is not an appropriate thing to say ex cathedra because the Pope should not be endorsing soft drinks or sneakers or movies, isn't it the duty of a believing Catholic, as Gibson says he is, to honor the Papal office? If the Pope's spills chocolate milk on his robe, is Mel Gibson's publicity agent going to splash the pictures on the front page of Variety? Is this the expression of Mel Gibson's faith that he so fearlessly defends from the onslaughts of the Anti-Defamation League and the Wiesenthal Center?

Christian Zionists and the Passion - Some Jews were also aghast at another aspect of "The Passion" controversy which is not Mel Gibson's fault, but their own. Right-wing Zionists who basked in the support of Evangelical Christians were quite unhappy that the same Christians support "The Passion" with a passion. Pat Robertson's Web site features a " puff piece interview with James Caviezel that gushes "The making of The Passion of The Christ was filled with obstacles and miracles. No one knows this better than actor Jim Caviezel who played Christ in the movie." On Worldnetdaily, Zionist Arab commentator Joseph Farrah wanted to know why Jews were passionately bashing "The Passion" and defending Mahmoud Abbas, who was Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority at the time. It is not surprising that Evangelical Christian Zionists are so insensitive to the fears of their Jewish "friends." After all, many of them believe that God's Plan for Hebrew People is to gather them all in Israel so that Judgement Day may come about, after which, or perhaps before, all the Jews will be converted to Christianity. After all, between the farmer and the pet calf that has been fattened for the sacrifice, there must eventually come a parting of the ways.

Christian Fundamentalism - Mel Gibson and his Holocaust denying father represent a conservative Catholic view. Papa Gibson believes that all the Popes since the 1950s have been anti-Popes or worse, and that the Vatican is in the hands of evildoers. He is against evolution, contraception and, apparently anything that has happened in Christianity since they did away with the auto da fe. If this film had an agenda beyond making lots of money and good cinema entertainment, it was not propagation of anti-Semitism, but rather propagation of conservative Catholicism. Mel Gibson believes in "old time religion." He stated that his Protestant wife is probably going to Hell. " There is no salvation for those outside the Church, I believe it,” Gibson said. He rejects the reforms of Vatican 2 and favors masses celebrated in Latin rather than in the vulgate. Implicitly, he must join his father in rejecting the guidance of Nostra Aetate regarding relations with Jews and others and care in not blaming "the Jews" for the crucifixion of Jesus. "The Passion" is the result of applying a portion of traditional Christian beliefs to the story of Christ. As noted by Kenneth L. Woodward , the resulting image of Jesus is not one that is familiar to liberal Protestants. It is real Old Time Religion. It could have been worse, since traditional passion plays were quite a bit worse. This should cause some reflection among self-righteous Christians and Jews who insist that Islam is inherently "racist" and use quotes from the Qur'an and Hadiths to prove it. The writings of Tertullian and Origen about Jews, as well as some of the portrayals of Jews in the Gospels, are none too flattering.

The scariest part about "The Passion" is not necessarily the film itself. The film hopefully won't provoke too many pogroms. Rather, the danger of this film is that it is apparently a vehicle for a conservative philosophy of Christianity that is every bit as uncompromising and un-liberal and un-ecumenical as the worst teachings of the Islamists. Jami Bernard's reference to the Nazi films was a propos. Not since Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" has any film had so much potential for stirring up political evil.

Mel Gibson is a superstar. Just as Jane Fonda used her popularity so effectively to make anti-Vietnam war sentiment so effective, Gibson is using his popularity and talent to popularize a view of religion that has brought a great deal of suffering to the world in the past, a view that many had hoped was on its way to oblivion after Vatican II. Like all fundamentalist views, it gains legitimacy by leveraging on widely held religious views that people are taught in infancy, getting a free ride for political viewpoints using "moral" arguments. In Iran, you can't be against the Ayatollah because that would be going against Allah. In America, you can't be against Gibson and Gibson's father and Hutton Gibson's Holocaust denial because then you are going against "faith," and everyone is for faith, right?

And that is the "take away lesson" for us Middle East folks.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000204.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 8 comments

You are Jewish, right? I am not religious. I am a historian and a liberal. You cannot discount the fact that films are not accurate-Ten Commandments, Prince of Egypt, Life is Beautiful, should i go on? So what is the big deal with this film? Are you scared that in modern day America, as much as Jews have fought for their rights and have so much influence there would be a backlash here? Give me a break. Jews were partly responsible for Christ's death just as the Nazis deserved to be executed for the Holocaust, but not all Jews deserve the blame and not all Germans were Nazis. All you have done by your accusations is inflame and solidify Christians and make people see the film. That is the best type of propaganda the Jewish people could have given Gibson and he is thrilled I am sure. You really blew it.

Posted by carlos @ 02/26/2004 04:02 PM CST

Who is "you"? Man, it will never stop, never!

Posted by MinusTheJihad @ 02/27/2004 12:36 AM CST

"...but not all Jews deserve the blame..."

Exactly, and since there are so many uneducated people who are not familiar with the history of the world, there is a great chance of flaming anti semitism and racist activities.

So please do tell me, if you are such a concerned and understanding Christian, why would you even want to take the risk of inflaming haterate?

Posted by EK @ 02/27/2004 01:54 AM CST

This movie is not true to scripture and instead is based on the writings of an 18th century German nun.


As for Mr. Gibson, I think what Jesus said in Matthew applies to him, as he took a message of hope and redemption and turned it into a bloody action movie:

Mat 7:15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Mat 7:16 Ye shall know them by their fruits.

Mat 7:17 ... but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

Mat 7:20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Posted by Karen @ 02/27/2004 02:17 AM CST

I don't see why the crucifixion of Christ should give rise to Anti-semitism. It goes against all logic. If Christians believe God had a plan to wash away the sins of the world with the blood of his son, whoever crucified him did all the Christians a massive favour by being so instrumental in God's plan, be it Romans, Jews or Martians that crucified him.

Posted by Witheld @ 03/03/2004 12:54 PM CST

Okay, I'm convinced, I'll go and see the movie and then make up my mind. I fell into this site while investigating the promised Biblical borders of Israel and suddenly got hustled into seeing a movie.

I'm not sure what the deal is. Isn't it generally agreed that the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem at the time agreed that Jesus was not the Messiah, was a dangerous heretic, and should be turned over to the Romans for disposal. I don't have a clue what this has to do with any living Jews or people who live in Rome. What the heck is going on here? You seem to suggest that somebody thinks that there are living Jews somewhere that were involved in turning Christ over to the Romans for crucifiction. I assume you are from some exotic foreign land, but this anti-Semitic stuff just doesn't have a current audience here in the U.S. Perhaps you've confused this country with Nazi Germany, Red China, or the USSR. Are you sure that English is the language of your enemy? Well I don't know; you've convinced me to pony up the cash to take my wife to see this movie, but I still thinking you're hustling the film for Mel Gibson.

Posted by John Nitrox @ 03/08/2004 09:21 AM CST

We cannot blame all of the jews for something that happened 2004 years ago. This is like blaming all whites for slavery.
Jesus Christ's message is of love and forgivness. Rabbis and other people are trying to take away our
rights to free speech and free expression. No we cannot change history but we cannot repeat it either. We forgive but never forget either.

Posted by Mick Jaggerd @ 03/08/2004 10:02 AM CST

Protestants may have become accustomed to a more sanitized Christianity since the Great Reformation of the 16th century (which stripped it of many of its symbols), so they may have cause to react to the violence in the movie, but it is surprising to see Americans in general react so strongly to violence (given the meaningless blood and gore of Hollywood horror movies they have since become desensitized to!) To his credit Mel Gibson attempts to bring reality back to the Passion of Christ and does a beautiful and masterful job.

This portrayal of the Passion account taken from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke is impressively authentic. Yes, the Romans might have spoken Greek, and Pontius Pilot may have been a lot less sympathetic than portrayed, but these things did not take away from the essential story and its meaning. Adding to the film's credibility Mel's real life embellishments and artistic impressions are measured and tasteful.

The problem with portraying only a segment of Jesus' life out of context is that you run the risk of having the audience misconstrue its inherent meaning, particularly those individuals not familiar with the 'gospel’ message. The overwhelming violence of the portrayal could distract some from its ultimate purpose, and this is where more scripture and reflection on the life and message of Jesus may have been helpful. Also by leaving out the entrance of Christ into humanity (the Incarnation) and stopping short after his glorious Resurrection you are left with a focus on the ‘theology of atonement’ (payment for sins) possibly seen more as an end in itself rather than a means to an end and thus you could miss the message of its resultant promise of a new eternal reality. You might wonder about the need for this payment and miss its outcome - defeat of death, suffering, and all that is evil. You might see a victim instead of a glorious victorious king. What is surely unmistakable though in this rendition is the extent of Christ’s suffering, forgiveness and His willing sacrifice for the love and redemption of mankind.

The argument over who killed Jesus some 2000 years ago is irrelevant. He offered himself as a sacrifice, a lamb before the slaughter, for the payment of the sins of the world. The powers that existed at that time in Jerusalem happened to be Jewish authorities under Roman rule, but His destiny was preordained and His prophecies fulfilled, as recorded in the gospel accounts. The High Priests rejected his claims because he was a threat to their existing order and expectations. He was not what they wanted in a Messiah. Indeed we have all rejected him at some point, thus we are all guilty. This is history and theology reflecting human nature.

I applaud Gibson for a courageous and powerful work of art that also raises issues of truth, justice and salvation. It cannot but provoke questions, start dialogue and perhaps touch many a soul with the true passion of Christ.

Posted by Brita Rose, NY @ 03/11/2004 12:12 AM CST

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