I’m not an early responder to stories, especially when there’s still a question as to precisely what happened. But this one has gotten pretty clear, and I think there are some things that need to be said. Before I do that, however, as a starting point, you might try looking at this: Arresting deputy didnt want to defame Gibson (AP news story via MSNBC). This brings up the simple question of whether celebrities are treated differently than ordinary people. Of course they are. The situation is different. If I got arrested for drunk driving (as a teatotaller, that’s unlikely) only a few people would be interested. No reporters would camp outside the police station, and nobody inside would be particularly interested in protecting my good name. For the contrast, behold Mel Gibson.
But that’s an old story, repeated in the case of one celebrity after another. So I move on to what I think is a more important story–Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks, and their relationship to The Passion of the Christ (the movie) and the passion of Jesus (the historical event). In all the debate over the historical Jesus, the movie, and anti-Semitism in connection with both, I think many important things have been left unsaid and undone.
The debate often centered around whether Mel Gibson was anti-Semitic. That question has unfortunately been answered to some extent. I know the excuse is that he was drunk, but I doubt that one becomes angry at that specific of a group when intoxicated if there was not resentment there before. It is quite likely that sobriety covered up reality in this case, as it often does. It’s easier to put on a mask and maintain it when you are sober than when you are drunk. With regard to Gibson’s actions, let me just refer you to the article by Michael Ventre on MSNBC, titled In any language, Gibson is a real schmuck. It sounds rough, but I can’t find anything to disagree with there. It’s a good read, adding a bit of humor to a tough statement.
Is Mel Gibson’s apology sufficient? That’s not really for me to say. I’m a Christian, and though I think his actions have been hurtful to Christians, we are not the ones primarily demeaned by these actions. If I were in the position of deciding to forgive or not fogive, I think I would ask for something more, some form of action. In particular, I think there needs to be some public dialog on the nature of the crucifixion and what it means in relationships between Christians and Jews.
But then we get back to what I believe are more important questions. Was the movie, Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Did it reflect an anti-Semitism that goes deeper in Christian theology. Did Mel Gibson’s anger go into the movie itself and underline any such sentiment?
I discussed some of these issues when I first viewed the movie, in an article titled A Passion for the Passion. In that article I do note the excessive emphasis on the violent aspects in the movie. I think to a large extent that element was informed by the Catholic tradition and the emphasis on suffering. But other than those aspects which I mentioned in that earlier article, the nature of this movie was established by its approach to the source documents. It took a harmonizing approach, which means that it simply combines the events in the four canonical gospels into a sequence and uses them all. Such an approach, I believe, presented in a modern context, or in any context other than the one in which the story happened, can easily be seen as anti-Semitic.
I’m concerned about the phrase I used “can easily be seen.” What I mean here is that we have a story that, if understood in one way, can lead to anger against the Jews, and if seen another way, can be a deeply spiritual experience. I think you can see this conflict if you read my previous essay, and look at my response and my wife’s response. She is looking at Jesus her savior in the story. I’m concerned with history. It’s easy, especially when looking at history, to read the story in order to find someone to blame.
If you read or view the story with that viewpoint, the story itself provides you with a target–the Jews. Now I’m probably going to anger many of my Christian readers. Yes, I do believe that simply telling the story of the crucifixion, as told in the gospels, and doing so in a modern setting often gives an anti-Semitic message. The Jews killed Jesus. That message has been brought by passion plays, Good Friday sermons, books, and movies ever since.
There are two reasons it works this way. First, as Christians we have learned to read the Bible as God’s word, but to ignore the human element. Read similarly, Numbers 31 would make the Jews genocidal maniacs. Of course, Numbers 31 is not central to the Jewish faith as the crucifixion is to Christians, and reading Numbers 31 in that way would be horribly wrong. But reading the gospels without considering the human element is also horribly wrong. Because the passion is central to Christianity, getting it wrong is horribly dangerous as well. Second, as Christians, and more importantly as human beings, we come to scripture with our hate, our anger, our unfairness, and our fear. If we have a fear, we seek a target to blame for it. Passion plays in the middle ages were a dangerous match struck to simmering hatred of downtrodden people. It seemed to them to justify attacking the Jews as the source of their problems. It didn’t matter whether or not any of their foundation was true; all that mattered was that they had someone to blame.
That attitude is alive and well today and is being fostered by our politicians, unfortunately many of them Christians. There is an effort to make a Christian majority look and feel like a downtrodden minority. I observed the results in discussions of the movie, The Passion of the Christ. How could they take away our rights to express our faith? How could they call our central story hateful? We’ll show them! We’ll show our movie anyhow! Damn all those liberals (and Jews, though it was much less acceptable to say so). What about how it makes Jews feel? That doesn’t matter! We have our rights!
And in the story the situation in which it is told feeds into that. Christians, who saw themselves as a faction of Judaism, were fighting a battle with other factions. In the end, Christianity separated from Judaism, but it was not clean or nice along the way. Part of that process was an effort to distinguish Christians from Jews once it became dangerous to be a Jew, and to ingratiate oneself with the Romans. Thus the focus shifted, and we hear a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the Jewish leadership, and a reduction of the emphasis on the Romans. In the Roman Empire, under persecution, that was a very human thing to do. But when that emphasis was carried forward in the literature to a time when Jews and Christians were so separate, and the Roman Empire was no longer a force, it became anti-Semitism. It wasn’t some kind of inexplicable accident that the passion plays became an occasion of pogroms, or that the charge of deicide arose; it was a natural result of letting history and people take its course.
Now as I’ve written before, one course of action is to revise the history, and place the blame for the crucifixion on the Romans. My assessment of the history is that such a revision, or better reassessment, is historically appropriate. I doubt that the Romans were at all hesitant to have Jesus crucified, I don’t think Pilate’s hesitancy is all that convincing, and I think any Jewish leaders who were involved were Roman collaborators, and not representative of the Jewish people. You don’t even have to change the facts of the story to see it this way. Just replace instances of Jewish leaders or “the Jews” with “Jews who were Roman collaborators” and you get the picture. It only needed to be a shift of emphasis to tell the new story.
My concern, however, is that in doing this historical revision we let ourselves off the hook. We imply that if “the Jews” had done what was portrayed in the gospels, precisely as portrayed, with precisely that evidence, it might then be OK to hate the Jews, to declare them guilty of the blood of Jesus. But even if any number of Jews at any time had declared themselves and their children guilty of killing an innocent man, it would not justify us accepting that verdict now. Christians believe in a God who will cross the gap between the infinite and the finite in order to let us know how much he loves us. If we believe that we should be out waving our arms and screaming “No!” to any such suggestion.
The fact that we can say that it doesn’t matter how others feel about it, this is our story and we’re going to tell it our way suggests that we haven’t been listening to the real story. The incarnation may be our story to tell, but it’s not our story to keep. It’s not a myth that makes us better than everyone else. It’s a story that tells us that “better than” and “worse than” are barriers to be destroyed, not goals to be achieved.
However you read the gospels historically, if you are reading them in such a way as to allow you to hate, you’re reading them spiritually wrong.
Allow me to quote my earlier article:
For me the incarnation has always been the deepest and most important doctrine of Christianity. Jesus represents God transcending the gap between infinite and finite, stepping down to let us know who God is and to show us that God cares enough to cross that infinite gap.
But we can’t really understand that passage. In addition, Jesus accepts the lowest position and even dies the lowest form of death, thus crossing the largest gap we have within our human realm. In spite of any technical flaws I may have noticed, despite any flaws in author, director, actors or script, that was my primary impression on watching this movie. “Infinite God stooped to this!”
If we can comprehend even a small part of that gap crossing event at the core of our faith, perhaps we can learn that any distance that separates us from our brothers and sisters, from other human beings of any persuasion, is just a tiny step compared to what God undertook to bridge in the incarnation. It should send us out with a new determination to seek understanding and reconciliation.
If we come out with a new understanding of the love of God that will reach out across any barrier and destroy any wall that divides us, then we will have heard the message of the Christ’s passion.
The doctrine of the incarnation has gotten lost in a game of historical blame. Jesus wanted to forgive those Romans who did it and any collaborators who helped. Jesus laid down his rights on behalf of people who hated him. Look how our human fear and hatred has turned it into a story of anger and hatred instead of one of love and forgiveness; of intolerance instead of acceptance.
I do feel that my earlier essay on the passion was too gentle. By failing to emphasize what Jesus aimed to accomplish, the movie encourages people to see the passion in the wrong light. You can see it in a good light, but the way the story is told makes it harder. But nonetheless I’m still glad this movie was made, because it has given us an occasion to talk and to re-examine ourselves. If we, as Christians simply paper over Gibson’s actions, and give him a free pass, or if we regard his actions as just an aberration, then we will all lose. You won’t save the story of the passion by whitewashing one person who told it. If we’re willing to ask why the story offends others, and then work on those issues, then perhaps we can take action to make a better world.
How can it be that a story about emptying oneself, about giving up all rights including the right to life, can become a story about how I’m superior because of it?