NYACK, NY - March 19 - Every Good Friday in parts of the rural Philippines, flagellants beat themselves, and are mercilessly beaten, with whips and boards filled with barbs and nails, hour upon hour. For these "folk" Christians, Good Friday and ritualized violence go together.
Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Passion of Christ is the flagellant's dream: Unending torture and torment, blood and gore. If this is redemption, then it is redemption through the most gratuitous violence conjured by the most fevered imagination. More importantly, the graphic and relentless cruelty pushes everything important about Christ to the margins. Nowhere does the movie encourage reflection on the life and teachings of Jesus, on his example to the world, on the meaning of his resurrection.
If "The Passion" is the flagellant's dream, it is also the anti-Semite's bountiful gift. It's not that Gibson has invented any new vilification to hurl against Jews. Rather, by basing his interpretation on the most anti-Jewish verses of the Gospels (and by using special effects to flesh out the sparse Gospel descriptions with lurid detail,) Gibson has highlighted both the troubling presence of Jew hatred in the New Testament and the ubiquitous "Christ killer" calumny in Christianity's history. At the same time, he ahistorically depicts a benevolent and conscience-stricken Pontius Pilate, reluctant to do what was routinely done to thousands of religious or political agitators during the Roman occupation of Judea. From a Jewish perspective, we cannot say we found the film any more anti-Semitic than the Gospel of Matthew or John, or the Good Friday litany about "perfidious Jews," or a typical European Passion Play, or the infamous "blood libel saints" - those dozens of children over the centuries who were the supposed victims of Jewish lust for Christian blood. (The Russian Orthodox Church of Belarus canonized a blood libel child saint as recently as the 20th century.) At the same time, the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, as well as the World Council of Churches, denominational leaders and interfaith dialogue and experience, have done much to move the Christian world beyond centuries of shameful hatred and persecution of Jews.
Literalists like Mel Gibson, who go to ancient texts but ignore the political and historical context in which they were written; who dust off and exhibit ancient calumnies but ignore what careful study and history have taught us, create untold mischief. Gibson's movie is singularly unhelpful at this time in history, when religious zealotry, intolerance and violence are a threat to civil society in many countries, including our own. In blatantly anti-Semitic countries, the film could be downright dangerous. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, the answer to Gibson's portrayal of Christ is Jesus himself. Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all one's heart, mind and strength and that the second was to love one's neighbor as oneself. He taught us to show compassion to the poor, the widow and the orphan. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He called on his followers to be peacemakers, to forgive, and to overcome evil with good. His life, his example, his sacrifice and his risen Spirit are the very antithesis of the gory violence celebrated in this movie.
LINKS TO OTHER ARTICLES
An obscene portrayal of Christ's Passion
James Carroll in the Boston Globe http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0224-01.htm
The Passion of the Christ and George Bush's America
Rick Salutin in the Toronto Globe and Mail http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0227-04.htm
"Passion": A Step Back for Jews and Christians
Rabbi Michael Lerner http://www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14069_1.html
"Walking the Via Dolorosa with Mel Gibson"
Mark Stanger http://www.thewitness.org/agw/stanger021104.html
Three Takes on 'The Passion of the Christ'
Bruce N. Fisk http://www.beliefnet.com/story/139/story_13978_1.html