Anti-Semitism at the heart of Passion
Review by Joe Allen | March 5, 2004 | Page 9
The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson, starring Jim Caviezel.
MEL GIBSON'S new film The Passion of the Christ opened this week to sold-out audiences around the country. It has been received by mostly favorable reviews, especially from Christian fundamentalists who say the film is their greatest recruiting tool in 2,000 years.
The film chronicles the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from his arrest to his crucifixion on the cross--the central event of Christianity. The film is entirely in the dead languages of Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles.
Great controversy swirled around the film well before it was released, particularly around charges of anti-Semitism that were fuelled by statements made by Gibson's father Hutton, a self-proclaimed holocaust denier. Despite the claims of Gibson, and many movie reviewers, The Passion is a shockingly anti-Semitic film.
It begins with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane contemplating taking on the sins of humanity. He is arrested on the orders of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas after being betrayed by Judas.
Jesus is brought to trial before a religious council in the middle of the night and sentenced to death for claiming to be the Messiah. Caiaphas must then convince the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, to carry out Jesus' crucifixion.
Pilate is portrayed as a conflicted man who doesn't want to carry out the death sentence. But after Caiaphas and the other Jewish priests pay for a mob to gather to demand Jesus' death, Pilate acquiesces to the crowd's demand.
To absolve himself of responsibility of Jesus' death, Pilate washes his hand in front of the bloodthirsty mob. Jesus is forced to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, where the vast majority of the crowd abuses him, until he is nailed to the cross and dies.
Aside from the facts that Jesus was arrested and executed, the rest of this story is myth created by the Roman Catholic Church to ingratiate itself to the Roman Empire. The idea that Pilate--whose decade-long rule as governor of Judea was defined by his cruelty--could be intimidated by a small mob is absurd. All the kings of Judea and the priests of the Temple were appointed by the Romans.
The Passion story, based on the first four gospels of the New Testament, was written with the purpose first of promoting a break with the Judaism and then, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, to absolve the Romans of the death of their Messiah. The Gospel writers also transformed Jesus from a Jewish rebel who threatened Roman power into a benign savior.
Passion plays were for centuries a method of the Catholic Church to whip up anti-Semitism. Gibson's Passion is the same old anti-Semitic fable done with the most advanced Hollywood film techniques and special effects.
Gibson spent $25 million of his own money to make The Passion. He and his father Hutton are "traditional" Catholics--in other words, they oppose the Catholic Church's attempts to modernize in the 1960s, when it abandoned the Latin masses and anti-Semitism that were defining features of Catholicism.
However, it's the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who have embraced Gibson's Passion and turned it into a phenomenon. "It's like the Lord somehow laid in our lap something that could be a great catalyst for spiritual awakening in this nation," said Southern Baptist Convention President Morris Chapman. Gibson held meetings with thousands of fundamentalist pastors across the U.S. to promote the film, and churches have bought thousands of tickets.
But why has the anti-Semitism of the film been dismissed or so muted, particularly from Jewish organizations? The only explanation can be the historic reconciliation between American Christian evangelicals (traditionally anti-Semitic) and Zionists over support for the state of Israel. Many Jewish organizations may be unhappy with the film, but they're not about to publicly criticize their new-found allies.
As I watch Gibson and other pious commentators tells us how important it is for us to see The Passion, I couldn't help but think to myself, what would Jesus say about all of this? "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves."