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The Christ–The Controversy

To see the preview of Mel Gibson’s new film “The Passion of the Christ,” it wasn’t enough to be a film critic; the studio, Icon, had suspended screenings for ordinary journalists by the time I asked for a ticket. Instead, I had to take a back door—using my Catholic connections to score a seat at one of the film’s many church-based screenings, designed to build word of mouth among pastors and their congregations. I traveled from New York City to Darien, Connecticut, to a shiny new non-denominational Christian fellowship. My name wasn’t on the list, so I had to speak with an executive from Icon. A gracious and beautiful woman, she was beside herself trying to keep the event free of hostile press. She asked me a few questions, none of which seemed to come to the point, then finally posed the crucial one: “Are you a believer?”

I said, “Absolutely.” She looked relieved but went on to explain: “It’s just that ever since Mr. Abraham Foxman snuck in to one of our screenings, we’ve had to be very careful …” she said, then paused in thought. “You know, now that he has seen it, I think it will start to work on his heart. Let’s pray that he has a spiritual awakening because of the film. That’s why it was made.”

“The Passion of the Christ” has been the target of an extraordinary campaign of attempted prior censorship on the part of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. But for all the furious denunciations the film has garnered from professional anti-anti-Semites, Jewish people who see “The Passion” are certain to exhibit more fair-mindedness than their self-appointed spokesmen. Those who bestir themselves to view such an aggressively Christian movie will probably not be too surprised to see that it presents the death of Christ from, well … a Christian perspective. Likewise, it’s impressive how many Jews in America and Israel expend themselves in pursuing a genuine, fair peace settlement with Palestinians—even as suicide bombers target Jewish civilians.

But the leaders of some Jewish groups will certainly complain—as some Catholic organizations screamed outrage at such movies as “Priest” and “The Boys of St. Vincent’s,” which depicted problems of homosexuality and pedophilia among the clergy. (Then events caught up with them, and real news reports of Church scandals made the films seem pale by comparison.) In doing so, Foxman and his associates will be making a great strategic mistake—sparking and fanning anti-Semitic resentment where it needn’t exist.

There is nothing in “The Passion” regarding the Jewish leaders of the time and their treatment of Christ that does not come from the New Testament itself —which Christians regard as divinely inspired. (In fact, the key events are confirmed by the Jewish Talmud.) Gibson invents nothing, embellishes nothing, does nothing to suggest that all Jews rejected Christ or sought His death. Because “The Passion” limits its scope to Jesus’ last 18 hours of life, it doesn’t take on the profound mystery—which puzzled St. Paul (Rom. 11)—of why a majority of Jews ultimately did not accept their Messiah, leaving only a saving remnant to lead the early Church. I look forward eagerly to David Klinghoffer’s upcoming, Why the Jews Rejected Christ. Himself a convert to Orthodox Judaism, Klinghoffer is unfailingly fair to Christians, and his account promises to throw light on the most enduring conundrum of salvation history. The best reflections I have read on the question occur in Salvation is from the Jews, by the brilliant Jewish Catholic Roy Schoeman. He speculates that the gentiles would never have accepted Christ had He become the standard of a unified, resurgent Jewish nation. On this reading, there is something sacrificial, even redemptive, in the sufferings and wanderings of the Jewish people ever since. Perhaps Jesus was not the only Jew whose passion plays a part in the salvation of the gentiles.

More than any other film I’ve seen of Jesus’ life, “The Passion” goes out of its way to establish the Jewishness of Christ, His mother, and His apostles—from costumes to casting. Mary, for instance, is portrayed by Maia Morgenstern, a veteran of Bucharest’s State Jewish Theater, whose parents survived the Holocaust. The use of Aramaic dialogue and of Middle Eastern music places these events squarely in their historical context and shows the trial and execution of Jesus for what they were: an intra-Jewish conflict over whether the rabbi Joshua ben Joseph was in fact the Messiah or a blasphemer who justly deserved the death penalty. (The debate in the Sanhedrin, during which several rabbis stand up in Jesus’ defense, turns into a squabble that evokes the raucous floor of Israel’s Knesset.)

Make no mistake: as the Gospels make clear, Jesus did indeed say things that contravened the law of Moses—divinely imposed, the highest, purest religion existing on earth. In the high priest’s presence, Jesus asserted His own divinity. Faced with this, the high priest had only two choices: bow down and worship Jesus or put Him to death.

There is no room in the Gospels for the liberal 19th-century myth of Jesus as a great moral teacher, unjustly persecuted. As C.S. Lewis has written, Jesus was either the Son of God or a wicked, perhaps deranged, imposter. Religious Jews who reject His divinity but affirm Him as a noble ethicist are being extremely generous.

That said, there is a narrative problem in “The Passion’s” depiction of Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia). This is important not because Gibson betrays any anti-Semitism in portraying him, but because Caiaphas is the most overtly active character in the film.

Jesus (James Caviezel) has chosen passivity—being “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” Indeed, the sickening violence Jesus undergoes reduces Him to a bloody, unrecognizable pulp early on in the film, making it hard to identify with Him thereafter. That’s the principle flaw in the film—which is far too gruesome for many viewers, akin in that way to “Saving Private Ryan” or “Reservoir Dogs.”

Pontius Pilate, an indecisive bureaucrat, is buffeted by events and the whims of the crowd. Mary, John, and the Magdalene are anguished onlookers. Satan appears in the form of an androgynous, vaguely erotic Goth chick but mainly skulks and whispers.

Only Caiaphas takes decisive, ongoing action, making him in effect the Passion’s anti-hero. But Gibson does little to establish his motivation for rejecting Christ or persecuting Him. We do not see flashbacks of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple, calling the Pharisees “whited sepulchers,” or otherwise making direct claims to displace Caiaphas’s priesthood with His own. We have to infer all that from our memory of the Scriptures—which renders this film’s Caiaphas something of a cipher. His cruelty and relentlessness seem insufficiently motivated. It is easy to see how a paranoid viewer, eager for hints of anti-Semitism, could read them into the empty spaces in the narrative. But Gibson didn’t put them there. In fact, to the fair-minded viewer, Foxman’s attack upon the film will seem like a thinly veiled assault on the Gospels themselves. And this is supposed to be good for the Jews?Gibson even proved amenable to editing out one “hard saying” from the Gospel narrative. After screenings with Christians garnered negative reactions to the scene, Gibson cut the statement by Caiaphas calling down Jesus’ blood on himself and his people. Thank God. This phrase, taken out of context, was abused in past centuries to justify persecution of Jews. It’s impossible to think of a more perverse, destructive interpretation of Jesus’ death than one that targets His own people. Christianity teaches that the sins of all men, of each individual man, and of the first man, were the cause of Jesus’ death. Insofar as particular Jewish people (several hundred at most) on Good Friday followed their leader in denouncing Christ to Pilate, they were merely serving as stand-ins for the whole human race. To blame contemporary Jews for their actions makes as little sense as sending Ralph Fiennes to stand trial in The Hague for his character’s crimes in Schindler’s List.

But Gibson did not go far enough for his enemies. They seem in fact implacable—though that does not stop self-hating Christians from trying. Some biblical scholars suggest the Gospel of John be edited or excised from the scriptural canon because it is “inherently anti-Semitic.” In 2003, some theologians associated with the U.S. Catholic Bishops colluded with several Jewish leaders to produce a document that effectively declared that Christianity was meant only for gentiles, not for Jews, so the Church should stop evangelizing them. When prominent Jewish Catholics, among others, pointed out such statements by Jesus as “Go nowhere among the Gentiles … but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5) and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), the document was quietly dropped. Appropriately, the architect of that document was Eugene Fisher, the same man who helped the ADL orchestrate an attack on “The Passion” —based on the preliminary, stolen script. The bishops had to back away from that one, too, under threat of legal action.

The eagerness of liberal Catholics to assist in slandering the great Pope Pius XII—whose early anti-Nazi diplomacy has recently been documented, along with the hundreds of Jews he personally ransomed—is even more detestable. Ironically, there are certain parallels between Pius XII and “The Passion’s” Caiaphas. In each case we find a world religious leader existing under military occupation at the sufferance of enemies who persecute innocent Jews. Let Pius be judged by the same standards critics would have us use in judging Caiaphas. Which leader comes off better?

It is clear that the same spirit motivates the campaign against Gibson’s film, the attacks on Pius XII, and similar assaults against Christianity in public life. It’s more than just a rejection of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah—a shocking assertion that requires the divine gift of faith to accept. It is an attack on Christian culture root and branch, an assertion that the Christian faith is a dangerous poison that must be purged from the earth to ensure social progress and the safety of other religions. This position, which most Jews would surely reject, is the basic assumption of contemporary secularism, which knows no race or creed. But since Foxman is leading this particular jihad against the cross, one wonders whether he does not agree with Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby. Interviewed for Ron Rosenbaum’s fascinating book, Explaining Hitler, Maccoby blames Christianity itself, its central doctrine of the divinity of Christ and His sacrificial death, for subsequent anti-Semitism and for the Holocaust. Maccoby asserts in his various writings that the core narrative of Christ’s death on the cross led directly and inevitably to Jews being sacrificed, en masse, in Nazi death camps. “Christians say the Holocaust is part of the evil of humanity,” he told Rosenbaum. “It isn’t the evil of humanity. It’s the evil of Christendom.” For this reason, Maccoby considers that the only forms of Christianity that are not intrinsically anti-Semitic are those that reject Christ’s divinity and redemption. On the same page, Maccoby insists that for him, “Christmas is a sinister festival,” since it points ahead to Easter. Does Foxman agree? I don’t know. But his organization provides on its Web site a comprehensive guide for members on how to purge holiday celebrations in public schools and civic spaces of any reference to Jesus, the Nativity, or Christmas.

Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables on Foxman, who freely attributes to his opponents the darkest of motivations, and demand of him: How much of our faith do you demand that we renounce? How far do you intend to go?


John Zmirak wrote the first English-language biography of anti-Nazi activist and social philosopher Wilhelm Röpke.

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