February 24, 2004
"The Passion" is violent, bloody, and sadistic. Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus's last day -- two hours and six minutes of almost unrelieved savagery and gore -- has to be the most graphic and brutal death ever portrayed on film. It is being described as a masterpiece -- soul-stirring and beautiful. I found it stomach-turning and deeply troubling.
I am not a Christian, but I tried to view "The Passion" the way a Christian might view it. I tried to experience it as a message of God's love and mercy, as a depiction of self-sacrifice so complete and all-embracing as to transform human history. I tried to imagine believing that all that blood -- and "The Passion" is drenched with blood -- was shed to wash away my sins. I tried to understand this grim nightmare as an enactment of mankind's redeemer being tortured and killed, to accept that this was the purpose for which he was born, to feel that I, no less than the howling mob on the screen, was responsible for -- and the beneficiary of -- his death.
I tried -- but I failed.
I failed in part because I am not a Christian, but a believing Jew. I don't believe that Jesus was God come to earth in human form -- I believe that God is One, incorporeal and indivisible. To me, the Passion is not a manifestation of divine love, but a vicious and evil ordeal inflicted on a victim who didn't deserve it. As a Jew, I cannot look at the savage murder of an innocent man as anything but a grievous sin. And as a Jew, I could not watch a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus and not be aware of all the other Jews, scores of thousands of them, who also died on Roman crosses.
Most of the pre-release publicity about "The Passion" has focused on its depiction of the Jews and its potential to fuel antisemitism. But in truth, Gibson's film barely acknowledges that most of its characters are Jewish.
If you didn't know that Jesus of Nazareth was born and died a religious Jew, you certainly wouldn't learn it from "The Passion." Almost nothing in this movie connects him with the Jewish people. He does not refer to himself as a Jew or take part in any recognizable Jewish ritual. His reason for being in Jerusalem was to celebrate Passover, but there is never any mention of that Jewish holiday. When he is glimpsed praying or teaching, it is always outdoors, never in a synagogue. Only once is Jesus identified as a Jew: when Judas, about to betray him, greets him with, "Hail, rabbi."
Many Christians will see other gaping holes in what "The Passion" conveys about its main character. The movie has precious little to say about Jesus's life and ministry. There are a few brief flashbacks; occasionally Jesus utters a familiar line; but on the whole there is nothing that makes clear who this Galilean was, why he attracted a following, or why anyone in Jerusalem would have given him a second thought.
And if there is next to nothing about his life, there is even less about what followed his death. The last few seconds of the movie seem to show Jesus walking away from his tomb, but there are no words of explanation, no context, no answers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for Gibson, what is most important about Jesus is not that he lived and preached, nor that he rose from the dead. All that matters is that he died a bloody and agonizing death.
Is "The Passion" antisemitic? That depends on whether it is antisemitic to re-enact the story told by the Christian Bible. To be sure, there is a good deal in Gibson's movie that is not in the New Testament. In one scene, for example, Judas is driven to commit suicide by a gang of demonic Jewish children. In another, Pontius Pilate, beholding a shackled Jesus who has already been beaten bloody by Jewish guards, chastises the High Priest: "Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?"
But there is no getting around the fact that the parts of "The Passion" that are the most unflattering to Jews -- the bloody-minded and hateful Temple priests, the Judean mob howling for Jesus's death -- come straight out of the Gospels. I shudder at those depictions and reject them as historically false, but I cannot call a Christian antisemitic for believing in the truth of his Bible. I will not smear Gibson as a Jew-hater.
But neither will I pretend that he is unaware of the long and horrid history of Passion plays, or of the millions of Jews who have died at the hands of killers demonizing them as "Christ-killers." It is not unreasonable to worry about the effect of a movie like "The Passion" at a time of surging antisemitism.
Shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII wrote a prayer of atonement for all the Jewish suffering caused in the name of Jesus. Would that Gibson had read it before making this film:
"We realize now that many, many centuries of blindness have dimmed our eyes, so that we no longer see the beauty of Thy Chosen People and no longer recognize in their faces the features of our first-born brother. We realize that our brows are branded with the mark of Cain. Centuries long has Abel lain in blood and tears, because we had forgotten Thy love. Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time."