Sunday, March 14, 2004


First, I have to admit to one mistake (possibly two) which I made on the post below this where I gave my initial reaction to Mel Gibson's film. I listed several items from the movie which are not from the Gospels. One was the line Gibson's Jesus speaks to Pilate, "It is he who delivered me to you who has the greater sin" (thus, as I said, blaming Jewish leaders more than Pilate). It actually is from the Gospels. It's from John 19:11.

It's interesting that only one person was able, or cared, to point this mistake out to me. In addition to my blog here, I've mentioned this on a couple of sites. All of us, including scholars, need to constantly brush up on our knowledge. However, Gibson's film really does have so many anti-Jewish elements in it, which are not based on the Gospels, that I will offer another one below as a substitute for this one.

The second possible mistake I am still not sure of at this point. I said that it is Jesus' mother, Mary, who runs to Roman soldiers for help when Jesus is arrested (by Gibson's Jews). A Catholic priest has told me that he thinks it is Mary Magdalene who does this. I've said it was Jesus' mother to others who have seen the film, including an Episcopalian priest, and they had no objection. So I'm really not sure now.

But, as the Catholic priest pointed out, it does not affect my main point: Gibson unrealistically shows a Jewish person appealing to Romans for help and it certainly is not in the Gospels. It contributes to the feeling that Romans are the force for justice while Jews promote injustice. Pilate's accusation to the high priest Caiaphas, "Do you punish people before judging them?", also fosters this impression.

Now for my offer of another distortion Gibson introduces. At the so-called Jewish interrogation of Jesus, Gibson gives Jesus one Jewish defender. This too is definitely not in the Gospels. You might think, But that's a good point for Jews, isn't it? Not the way Gibson does it. The other Jewish leaders immediately shut him up and push him around a bit. He never gets to make his full argument. It serves the purpose of accentuating how vicious the main body of these Gibson Jewish leaders are.

According to the Mishnah, unanimous verdicts for guilt at trials for capital crimes were not allowed. There had to be at least one judge (out of 24) who spoke up in defense of the person (this was perhaps the world's first example of a right to a defense attorney). You can bet that this defender would be allowed to have his say. And how do we know this? You don't have to look any further than the New Testament.

At Acts 5:34-40, Rabban Gamaliel, the leading Pharisee of the day, comes to the aid of Peter and others at their trial. He seems to have his full say and he wins (as Pharisees usually did). No one shuts him up as Gibson's Jewish defender is silenced. So not only has Gibson dishonored Jewish history and culture, he has dishonored the New Testament. (Just to complete the picture a little more, Pharisees help Paul out at Acts 23:6-9, and they warn Jesus about Herod at Luke 13:31.)

I have heard some Christians argue: Are you saying it is impossible for it to have happened the way Gibson has it? Can you say such an interrogation never occurred? That's a mighty strong word "never". And if Gibson's version is one possibility, why can't he show it? Why is it antisemitic to say that some Jews somewhere sometime might have acted badly?

Well, my answer is: Would you use this argument to defend the attempted rape scene in D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), or any of the scenes in this film which show African-Americans behaving badly? (I believe the girl jumps to her death before the rape is accomplished; it's been a while since I've seen it.) Didn't rapes by black men happen sometimes? Why can't Griffith show one such incident? It's not racism to show one black guy acting like a beast, is it?

Would anyone be ashamed to make this argument for "The Birth of a Nation"? Then why make it for "The Passion"?

The parallels between "The Passion" and "Birth" are very strong. Neither is merely a pernicious campaign to smear a particular people. Both have more than one purpose and moments of beauty. Both, by the way, simultaneously generated huge box office and fierce condemnation. Both were partly based on a previous written work which was highly racist. And both revealed a deep gap between those who saw only its aesthetic aspects and were blind to the racist components, and those who were sickened by this blindness.

Grifftih's film tells the touching stories of two white families, one southern, one northern, and the disruption the Civil War causes. One of the most beautiful scenes in all of cinema is when a woman's arm emerges from a doorway and gently, very lovingly, clasps her returning soldier son behind the neck to slowly pull him into the house. How many have wept at the sight of this beautifully composed shot?

There are Christians who have cried, or come close to tears, during parts of Gibson's film. Like "Birth", it is the mother and son scenes that are the most endearing. Mary is a deeply felt character (she and Pilate are the only two rounded human beings). She is the only redeeming part of the film for me and others. I have heard that Jim Caviezel (who plays Jesus) has said in interviews that he sees the film as a love story between a mother and a son.

If you have seen the film, you might think that is an odd thing for Caviezel to say. But it is perfectly understandable. For him as an actor, he has to find a positive strand in the story. Most actors do that. You cannot a play a murderer or any villain unless you find something likeable in the character to latch onto. The same is true if you play someone who is primarily a victim.

Imagine Caviezel's dilemma when he first read the script: "Okay. Page 1, praying in the Garden. Page 2, more praying. Page 3, punched in the face. Then, let's see, more punches, punches, punches. Bloodied. Dangling from a bridge. Page 10, begins to turn into a bloody pulp. More blood. More pulp. Bloody, bloody, bloody. Agony, agony, agony. Page 50, one hell of a bloody pulp. Nothing but pain. Page 100, beyond bloody pulp. Twenty pages to go." You see his problem? Then he flips through it and finds, say on p. 75, a flashback, Jesus and Mary kidding around about a table he is making. Ah, some relief.

But leave the warm, kind-hearted scenes in both films aside and what do you have? They both give strong doses of caricaturing a people and its culture as the source of evil. As I remember, "Birth" shows us nothing good about blacks. We learn nothing positive about their culture. They are dragging down the white culture which only the Ku Klux Klan can save.

When a black man (played by a white man in blackface) attempts to rape a white woman (more of a girl, actually), you are left with the distinct impression that most black men might do such a thing. It's a race that tries to rape her and drives her to her death, not just one man. After the girl leaps to her doom, he is shot and lynched, and a cross is dipped in his blood -- the burning cross that would become a KKK symbol. Nobody leaves Griffith's film thinking "What a great culture those blacks have."

And no one leaves Gibson's film thinking, "Boy! Judaism! What a great religion! What an interesting culture those Jews had. And how about that Jesus! What a great Jewish guy. Now I can see where he got his values from." We learn absolutely nothing about the meaning and worth of 1st century Jewish culture. There is nothing good about Judaism that you could take away with you from this film.

At best, Judaism and its values are nonentities here. They don't exist. The Jewish natives are like the natives in old Hollywood movies. They are just there for background. They have no soul or anything worthwhile about them.

But I think that much in "The Passion" is actually geared to making you feel that Jewish society or religion raped Jesus, not just a handful of Jewish leaders. Gibson gives no reason to think that his Jewish leaders don't represent the entire Jewish society for him. There is nothing -- incredibly nothing -- to rescue Judaism from the dark, vicious way it is portrayed here. It is all ugliness.

So I've heard some Christians object that this is not so. There are good Jews in this film. Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, a young disciple of Jesus who stays close to the women, the young girl (Veronica from Christian legend?) who brings Jesus a cloth to wipe his face. But the truth is that, for most Christians, these characters are not really Jews. They are Christians or proto-Christians. Certainly for Gibson, mother Mary (who is called mother twice in the film by others besides Jesus) is the world's first Christian, adoring her son's blood.

Jews as Jews, fully independent of Jesus and his group, are only ugly. No wonder Mary (whichever one it was) runs to Romans in a time of need. Who, really, would want to associate with these Jews? All they do is snarl. The one exception might be Simon, who carries the cross for Jesus for a while, but even he might be an incipient Christian more than a Jew.

There have been bad Passion Plays before and there will be again. Gibson's is closer to the medieval variety than any film about Jesus I have ever seen. (The scholars who expressed their misgivings before the film was released, based on reading a script, were right about this and many other points.) What shocks me more than Gibson is that there are a lot of Christians who share his vision.

I know it's not all. Many Christians have objected to the film. A correspondent has informed me that Catholic schools in South Australia have circulated an email saying that the film has no educational value. And many Christian writers, such as James Carroll, have criticized Gibson for presenting such a distorted picture of both Jewish and Christian values.

There is one good thing. Though I doubt it was his intention, Gibson has created a great debate and a chance to air out a lot of issues that usually remain hidden. Hopefully, we'll all breathe a lot easier one day.

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