Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" opened in theatres across the country this week, timed to coincide with the beginning of Lent. I have not yet seen the final version of the film, but I did see an earlier cut last July as part of a small group of "opinion leaders" invited to view the film in Washington, D.C.
Like most of the others in the audience, I was left almost speechless after watching more than two hours of harrowing suffering. But I was also deeply moved, not simply by the underlying story of Jesus' suffering and death but by the breathtaking beauty of the film. Yes, beauty. In the same way that El Greco's "Christ on the Cross" or Van Eyck's "The Crucifixion" are both beautiful and painful to look at, Gibson's film is mesmerizing. Yet almost none of the commentary on the film has focused on its artistic quality. Instead, the movie has become a kind of litmus test on anti-Semitism, bigotry and religious fundamentalism.
The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman has charged that the film may arouse anti-Semitic feelings because of its depiction of the role the High Priest Caiaphas and the Jewish crowds played in Christ's death. In my view, nothing in the film itself is anti-Jewish, but it does reflect -- accurately -- the Gospels' narrative about the role the Sanhedrin played in urging Jesus' persecution. The critics' quarrel is with the Gospels, not Gibson.
Nonetheless, Gibson himself has been less than reassuring on the subject of his own views on anti-Semitism. While he has condemned anti-Semitism as a sin, invoking the Catholic Church's teaching on the subject as well as several papal encyclicals, he has also said some disturbing things about the Holocaust.
In an interview with Peggy Noonan for the March issue of Reader's Digest, Gibson answered Noonan's throwaway, "the Holocaust happened, right?" with this: "I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union."
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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