The Passion and Its Enemies
At the Latin Mass at old St. Mary’s, the church was packed and the line outside the confessional was unusually long. “The Passion,” I thought to myself. And so it was. “Worshipers Take ‘Passion’ Back to Church,” was the headline in that Sunday’s Washington Times. The sub-head ran: “Mel Gibson’s film is inspiring parishioners to join congregations, go ‘back to the faith.’”
Thirty million Americans have seen “The Passion of the Christ.” According to Gallup, two-thirds of the nation intends to see the film in a theater or on DVD. By Good Friday, the crowds should be enormous. For this movie is a religious experience, a masterpiece, a work of art of immense power. The images of Christ and his Mother are burned forever into the imaginations of those who see it. “It is as it was,” said the Holy Father in Rome.
Though it is a Catholic film that faithfully replicates the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Seven Last Words, with allusions to the Eucharist and the war between Satan and the Mother of God, as Tom Piatak writes in Chronicles, evangelical Christians are as moved as traditional Catholics. It is an ecumenical moment. For once, Christians have come together, not to denounce some blasphemous filth funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, but in celebration and praise of an inspired work of art.
And despite the dire warnings of the Anti-Defamation League, not one synagogue has been torched, nor one American Jew assaulted. Yet still the attacks come. Not since D.W. Griffith portrayed the Klan as heroic defenders of white womanhood in “The Birth of a Nation” has a movie been so reviled.
“[A] wasted exercise in sadomasochism,” writes Al Neuharth. “A repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film” that uses “classically anti-Semitic images,” rants Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic. “A sickening death trip,” says David Denby in the New Yorker. “It is sick,” writes James Carroll in the Boston Globe, “a blood libel against the Jewish people,” echoes Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, “Jew-baiting,” says William Safire in the New York Times, “fascistic,” agrees Richard Cohen in the Washington Post. Daniel Goldhagen, author of A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, calls “The Passion” “a sadomasochistic, orgiastic display that demonizes Jews as it degrades those who revel in viewing the horror.” Gibson, Goldhagen writes, “restores a blood-drenched Christian culture of death.”
And here is the New York Times’ Frank Rich, ten days after the Ash Wednesday opening:
With its laborious buildup to its orgasmic spurtings of blood and other bodily fluids, Mr. Gibson’s film is constructed like nothing so much as a porn movie, replete with slo-mo climaxes and pounding music for the money shots. Of all the ‘Passion’ critics, no one has nailed its artistic vision more precisely than Christopher Hitchens, who … called it a homoerotic ‘exercise in lurid masochism’ for those who ‘like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time.’
That “The Passion of the Christ” is loved by Christians and loathed by such as these is a measure of the breadth of our religious divide.
But why all this venom against a movie these writers knew by then that millions of Christians had taken to their hearts? To vent, to insult, to provoke? Having failed to have the film censored, banned, or boycotted, some are now crossing a forbidden frontier to commit hate crimes against Christianity. They have begun to attack the Gospels as responsible for the Holocaust.
In a Washington Post column titled “Gibson’s Blood Libel,” Charles Krauthammer links the crucifixion story to “a history of centuries of relentless, and at times savage, persecution of Jews in Christian lands.” For 2000 years, he says, the Catholic Church taught that “the Jews were Christ killers.” Only at Vatican II did Rome take responsibility for the “baleful history” that came out of the “central story” of the Gospels.
The blood libel that this story [of the crucifixion] affixed upon the Jewish people had led to countless Christian massacres of Jews and prepared Europe for the ultimate massacre—6 million Jews systematically murdered in six years—in the heart, alas, of a Christian continent. It is no accident Vatican II occurred just two decades after the Holocaust, indeed in its shadow.
But Krauthammer stands truth on its head. Not until the ideas of Rousseau, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud had poisoned the soul of Europe and Christianity had lost the continent did Hitler and Stalin come to power to work their evil will upon Christians and Jews. Hitler learned his hatreds in Viennese gutters, not Catholic schools. Speaking of blood libels, has there been one greater than Krauthammer’s accusation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ paved the way to Auschwitz?
Krauthammer echoes Richard Cohen who says the movie is “anti-Semitic … in the way portions of the New Testament are—an assignment of blame that culminated in the Holocaust.”
Both columns are of a piece with the slanders of Pius XII. Credited by one Jewish historian with saving 800,000 Jews, praised by the Rabbi of Rome, publicly mourned on his death by Golda Meir, Pius XII, too, has fallen victim to the blood libel that he was “Hitler’s Pope.”
Krauthammer and Cohen have picked up the new line advanced by Eli Wiesel, that Nazis and Christians in the Holocaust were one and the same.
[A]ll the Jews were victims, and all the killers were Christians. They didn’t become killers in a vacuum. They emerged from a certain civilization, teaching, and tradition of hate. They’re an example of what happens to people who learn to hate, and that’s a Christian problem.
Krauthammer repeatedly invokes Nazi analogies. Mel Gibson’s defense of his film about Christ reminds him of Leni Riefenstal’s defense of her films about Hitler. He calls Gibson’s interpretation of the Gospels “spectacularly vicious.” Why “vicious”? Because Gibson places the High Priest Caiaphas at the scourging, and this cannot be found in the Gospels.
But this is to cavil on the ninth part of a hair. According to Mark 15:31-32, “the chief priests” were mocking Christ at the foot of the cross, even as he was dying:
In like manner also the chief priests mocking, said with the scribes one to another: He saved others; himself he cannot save. Let Christ the King of Israel come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.
Does Krauthammer contend that Caiaphas was not central to the plot to have Christ killed? If so, his argument is not with Mel but with Matthew 26:2-3:
Then were gathered together the chief priests and ancients of the people into the court of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas: And they consulted together, that by subtlety they might apprehend Jesus and put him to death.
Something not clear here, Charles? And if Caiaphas conspired to kill Jesus, is it artistic injustice to have him observe the scourging he had brought about?
What motive did the religious establishment have? Consider these lines from Matthew 23, spoken by Christ right in the face of the Pharisees who had repeatedly sought to entrap him:
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour the houses of widows, praying long prayers. For this you shall receive the greater judgment …. Blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel …. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness …. So you outwardly indeed appear to men just; but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity …. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees … you are the sons of them that killed the prophets.You serpents, you generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?
This probably did not go down all that well at the Temple. And Jesus acted upon his words (Matthew 21:12-13):
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the chairs of them that sold doves. And he saith to them: It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.
The Scribes, Pharisees, and chief priest had every reason to hate Jesus and want him dead. Is this so difficult to understand? And did not the mob assembled by the high priests seek the death of Christ?
Here is Matthew 27:22-25:
Pilate saith to them: What shall I do then with Jesus that is called Christ? They all said: Let him be crucified. The governor said to them: Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying: Let him be crucified. And Pilate seeing that he prevailed nothing, but that rather a tumult was made; taking water washed his hands before the people saying: I am innocent of the blood of this just man; look you to it. And the whole people answering, said: His blood be upon us and upon our children.
Krauthammer is also upset with the appearances of Satan in the film. “Satan appears four times. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found … where? Moving among the crowd of Jews.”
But Satan first appears besides Jesus as he undergoes the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, alone. When Satan appears in the crowd, it is to observe Christ suffering, his scourging at the pillar by Romans, or to stare across at his Mother as she watches her Son carrying the cross up Calvary. If Satan is in a crowd, it has to be a Jewish crowd. Jerusalem was a Jewish city. The only Romans are Pilate and his soldiers.
As for the repellent term “Christ killers,” Krauthammer mouths myths he must have heard down at shul. As a cradle Catholic, I never heard this term until a Jewish friend told me this was what we Catholics were taught in our schools. But this crude blasphemous phrase is not one devout nuns of the 1940s or 1950s or Catholics of the Holy Name Society would ever use. It is a term ascribed to us by those who never knew us.
Krauthammer refers to the “baleful history” of the Crucifixion story. What did the Crucifixion give mankind? Salvation, the opening of the gates of heaven, Western civilization, the greatest art, architecture, music, painting, sculpture, cathedrals and churches in history, the idea that all men are children of God and that each has an innate worth and dignity, which puts limits on the power of any state—and an end to slavery.
No Cross, no Christianity. No Christianity, no West. No West, no freedom, no human rights, no America. Where does Krauthammer think our civilization and culture came from?
In her column “Hating the Jews,” Mona Charen accuses Gibson of seeding “his film with images of Jewish guilt and perfidy.” But how can one tell the story of how Christ was betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, how the scribes and Pharisees and high priest plotted against Him, how the crowd cried “Give us Barabas,” and “Let Him be crucified!”, how Pilate cravenly capitulated—without having a touch of “guilt and perfidy”?
What is the attachment of columnists in 2004 to a high priest of the first century A.D.? Why the Caiaphas Defense Fund? Is it not possible to accept that after Jesus berated the scribes and Pharisees in front of the people they might want to kill him? Is it not possible that the high priest would plot the death of so charismatic and threatening a figure?
What these writers are saying is that it is fine to say Pilate ordered the crucifixion, and the Romans did it, but anti-Semitic to say Caiaphas was the prime mover in the Passover plot. Yet, for Caiaphas to be innocent, the Gospels must be myths or lies. My film is anti-Semitic only if the Gospels are anti-Semitic, says Gibson.
Exactly the point, says Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic: “‘The Passion’ is anti-Semitic, because the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic—in the sense of fixing Jewish responsibility for the Crucifixion.” Abe Foxman agrees: “the Gospels, if taken literally, can be very damaging.” But what if the Gospels “taken literally” are true?
To Boston University’s Paula Fredriksen, an apostate Catholic and convert to Judaism, “anti-Semitism has been integral to Christianity.” In the Toronto Globe & Mail, Donald Akinson writes, “To film a literal version of the Gospel of John is like filming a faithful version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
With folks who believe this, dialogue seems pointless. For they are saying that Christianity is anti-Semitic at its root and either we rewrite the Gospels to eradicate any “perfidy” by the Jewish authorities who delivered Christ to Pilate, or we are colluding in anti-Semitism and responsible for its consequences. If being faithful to the Christian imperative to tell the Gospel truth about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is, to non-Christians and post-Christians, to spread anti-Semitism, our conflict is irreconcilable.
Yet a point bears repeating. Though Jewish leaders did conspire to put Jesus to death, this does not mean, has never meant, that all Jews were or are culpable in his death, or even that the Jewish establishment knew Christ was the Son of God. Common sense suggests they did not believe it—as does Christ himself from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And while many whose hatred for “The Passion” knows no bounds are Jewish, other Jewish writers—Michael Medved, Don Feder, Matt Drudge, Paul Gottfried—have urged their co-religionists and ethnic kinsmen to control the hysteria. Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition accuses Foxman and the ADL of “driving a wedge between American Jews and Christians.” But Rabbi Lapin seems a voice crying in the wilderness. For Ms. Charen puts “The Passion” in the context of the following events: an assault on a Kiev synagogue by thugs yelling “Kill the Kikes,” the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Greece, the French Ambassador in London blurting out at a dinner party that Israel is a “shitty little country.”
But is it really fair to include Gibson’s film in this litany? Is it wise to keep up this vendetta against a movie that Christians have embraced, when millions of these Christians give uncritical loyalty to Israel?
Safire rails that “The Passion” is the “bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen … reveling in savagery to provoke outrage and cast blame …”
The villains at whom the audience’s outrage is directed are the actors’ playing bloodthirsty rabbis and their rabid Jewish followers. This is the essence of the medieval ‘passion play’ preserved in pre-Hitler Germany at Oberammergau, a source of the hatred of all Jews as ‘Christ killers.’
But this is nonsense. The only people who come away from this film in “outrage” are those who went into it in outrage. Even Foxman, who slipped into a preview, acknowledges as much:
As the lights came up, the silence was etched with stifled sobs and tears. The 3,000 Christian pastors, leaders, students and others who attended the preview of the film’s graphic portrayal of the events leading up to the Crucifixion were visibly moved by the images that brought them closer than they may have ever been to bearing witness to the Passion of Jesus.
Does this sound like the “kind of sentiment we would expect from Christians ready to act on their latent anti-Semitism?” asks Dr. William Donohue of the Catholic League. That brings us to the heart of the matter. Though we all see the same movie, we hear and see different messages. Where they see Caiaphas, perfidy, and anti-Semitism, we see Christ, his suffering, and what salvation cost. As Bruce Anderson writes in the Spectator, Christians do not focus on the characters that so captivate Safire, Charen, and Krauthammer.
[T]he horror does not come from the artist’s imagination. It comes from the self-sacrifice of the son of God who, after preaching to and living among the poor and the outcast, endured a felon’s humiliating death. Mocked for His pretensions to kingship, He revealed the nature of His Kingdom by embracing His Cross.
For centuries, Christians have read the Gospel story of the passion and death of Christ in Holy Week. Yet, never has there been a pogrom in America. America is not the Russia of Alexander III. But if these writers truly believe millions of Christians have sat through two hours of endless “Jew-baiting” and failed to recognize it, what does that tell us about what they think of our intelligence, our sensitivity, our decency?
Safire twice refers to Oberammergau and calls it a Jew-baiting passion play “preserved in pre-Hitler Germany, a source of the hatred of all Jews as ‘Christ killers.’” The famous Oberammergau passion play dates back to 1633 and the Thirty Years War when villagers in this tiny Alpine town were spared from the Black Plague and vowed to give thanks to their God by producing a play on his passion and death, once every ten years. It is a six-hour thing of beauty known to Catholics worldwide, few of whom have ever seen it. Were that play a cause of the Holocaust, why was there no Holocaust in the centuries when Catholic kings ruled the Holy Roman Empire? Why did it happen only after the Hitler came to power and Europe was convulsed in the worst war in its history, 300 years after the play was first performed? Blaming a six-hour play, put on once every ten years, by 2,000 amateur actors, in a tiny town of 5,000 buried in the Tyrolean Alps, for Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews is so preposterous it calls up the old adage: “Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.”
To Safire, Catholicism leads straight to the Holocaust. The line from Matthew, “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” he writes, has led to “millenniums of persecution, scapegoating and ultimately mass murder that flowed partly from its malign repetition.” This was “finally addressed by the Catholic Church after the defeat of Nazism.”
In 1965’s historic Second Vatican Council during the papacy of Pope Paul VI, the church decided that while some Jewish leaders and their followers had pressed for the death of Jesus, “still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor the Jews of today.”
That was a sea change in the doctrinal interpretation of the Gospels, and the beginning of major interfaith progress
This statement is historically and patently false. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document to which Safire refers, is not any “sea change in the doctrinal interpretation of the Gospels.” It is a reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teaching for the benefit of Jewish groups that requested it.
Christianity and the Church have always taught it was our sins that put Christ on the Cross. As Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of the school of theology at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, a consultant to Gibson’s film, tells the National Catholic Register:
[T]he fathers of the Second Vatican Council didn’t see themselves as reversing any prior teachings on this question [of Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death]. The council categorically reaffirmed perennial Catholic teaching that all of humanity’s sins, and the sins of Christians in particular, are responsible for Christ’s death, as stated, inter alia, in the catechism of the Council of Trent.
Gibson drives the point home with brutal force as he plays the Roman soldier who hammers the first nail into the palm of Christ. His message is reaffirmed in the penultimate scene described in America by Lloyd Baugh, S.J.,
In a physically static but morally dynamic representation of the Pieta, Mary stares not at the dead Jesus but directly into the camera, and therefore directly at the viewer …. This shot, lasting a long 20 seconds, invites the viewers to enter the narrative and assume their responsibility, as sinners, for the death of this Jesus, who the film repeatedly makes clear has died for our sins. Gibson here is saying, more strongly than any other director has done, that it is not the Jewish people who killed Jesus; every one of us sinful human beings is responsible for his death.
This is why, at film’s end, men and women sit in stunned silence or sob. Gibson has charged us with moral complicity in the suffering and death of the Son of God we have just witnessed in all its horror. That is why we are moved. But for Mona Charen, it is all just another attempt to blame the Jews: “There is a seemingly unquenchable thirst to vilify Jews, to deny them their humanity, to strip them of their history and to transform them—in propaganda—into oppressors rather than oppressed.”
Give it a rest, Mona.
This is a film in which every heroic figure is a Jew: Jesus, his Mother, Mary Magdalene, the Apostles Peter and John, St. Veronica who wipes his face on the road to Calvary, Simon of Cyrene who, though first bitter at being conscripted to carry Christ’s cross, is soon trying to lift the burden from his shoulders. Jewish members of the councils are heard at the court proceedings crying out against a “travesty … a beastly travesty.” At the crucifixion, a member of the Jewish council, most likely Joseph of Arimathea, is seen helping take Christ down from the cross. Along the road to Calvary, the women of Jerusalem weep openly. The entire film underscores the words of Christ (John 4:22) to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “Salvation is from the Jews.”
If there is any “unquenchable thirst to vilify,” it would appear to be on the part of those who cannot stop vilifying Mel Gibson. What has this man done but defend himself and his film against the most savage charges ever leveled at a work of art? As for Ms. Charen’s suggestion that Jews are “oppressed,” one must ask: When have Jews ever been oppressed in this country?
In World War II, millions perished at the hands of the Nazis. A horrific and historic atrocity about which we are regularly reminded. But in that 20th century tens of millions of Christians—Armenians, Mexicans, Spaniards, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Chinese, Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Timorese—were martyred for their faith by Communists, Nazis, and Islamic fanatics. No nation, no race, no people have cornered the market on suffering. Nor on oppression. As there were renegade Catholics in Hitler’s Reich, so there were atheistic Jewish Bolsheviks like Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin’s man in the Ukraine, who were as guilty of genocide as Heinrich Himmler.
Author Gertrude Himmelfarb asks how Christians would react if “a Hollywood so notoriously populated by Jews” made a film about how Jews were falsely accused and put to death during the Spanish Inquisition. But the event in 1481 Ms. Himmelfarb brings up is not remotely comparable to the Crucifixion that is the central event in 2000 years of Christendom. As for her admonition that we stop coarsening the culture by going “over the edge” with films rooted in violence and sadism, is Ms. Himmelfarb asking for a moratorium on movies about the Holocaust?
Frank Rich, who has reviled Gibson and his film since he first heard of it, now frets for his safety: “‘The Passion’ has made me feel less secure as a Jew in America than ever before.” Well, Frank, if you were not insulting millions of Christians by telling them a beloved film about their Savior is a homoerotic “jamboree of bloody beefcake” and calling the Pope “a shill,” you might not be at risk of having your lights punched out.
A decade ago, Irving Kristol warned his kinsmen and co-religionists not to antagonize a huge friendly Christian majority by using the courts to de-Christianize the country. Jews who wish to maintain their separate and unique religious and ethnic character ought not be in the vanguard of those seeking to prevent Christians from maintaining the Christian character of their country, said Kristol. He added pungently:
One can easily understand the attractiveness of this vision to Jews. What is less easy to understand is the chutzpah of American Jews in publicly embracing this dual vision. Such arrogance is, I would suggest, a particularly Jewish form of political stupidity.
Kristol subtly titled his piece, “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews.”
Yet still the questions arise. Why do a handful of writers continue to rage that the film is a moral atrocity, a horror, the product of a deranged or anti-Semitic mind? Why do they hate “The Passion of the Christ” so?
The answer I believe may be found in words this writer spoke at the Republican convention, 12 years ago: “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
Those who hate “The Passion” are, almost all, on the other side in that war. They hate the movie and the messenger, and, as they admit, the “central story” of the Gospels, the Crucifixion of Christ. Why? Because if “The Passion” is true to the Gospels and the Gospels are themselves true, then there is a painful truth to be faced. It is found in John 1:11, inside “The Last Gospel” of the Tridentine mass Mel Gibson attends. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” Admittedly, that is a hard message to hear.
Safire quotes Christ (Matthew 10:34) as saying: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” But Christ is using a metaphor here, the meaning of which follows:
For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household.
Again and again, Christ refers to this coming divide between those who will follow him and those who will reject him. “He who is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23).
The venom spewed at “The Passion of the Christ,” only testifies to the truth of the Savior’s warning, “As the world has hated me, so also it will hate you.” Braveheart has led and won a great victory in the crusade that is the culture war that will determine the fate of the civilization that came out of what happened on Calvary and on that first Easter morning.