Gibson film ignites passion, irony

Posted: Aug 08, 2003 12:00 AM

This has got to be one of the strangest controversies in a long time. A movie that won't be released for months is being denounced by people who haven't seen it. Why? Because they claim the film assigns blame for a crime to a handful of people who have been dead for 2,000 years.

Now, to be sure, the crime in question is a big one: deicide, the killing of God. And the handful of people are a pretty controversial bunch: "The Jews" - scourge of history to some, heroes of history to others, ethnicity of accountants, borscht-belt comics and deli sandwich makers to most.

Nevertheless, I still find the controversy over Mel Gibson's yet-to-be-released film, "The Passion," too rich in irony to take at face value.

First, here's the back story. Mel Gibson is a big movie star, as if you need to be told. He's also a very Catholic guy. In fact, he has ties to a quasi-heretical movement within the Catholic Church that rejects Vatican II and the popes who've run the church since then.

Gibson claims he's attempting to re-create the events of Jesus' final hours before the crucifixion in as authentic a manner as possible. This is an audacious task for a filmmaker for a whole bunch of reasons. According to scholars, the biblical record on the exact details is a bit muddled with different apostles telling slightly different versions of the same event.

But the technical and artistic stuff doesn't get to the heart of why the film is so audacious. The real challenges are religious. Understandably, it's a touchy subject.

The story of the crucifixion is the central religious narrative for over a billion Christians of different denominations and cultures. And, alas, the role of "the Jews" in Jesus' death has been, at various times and places, the most reliable excuse for nearly 2,000 years of Jewish persecution.

In short, getting this movie wrong is a bigger deal than messing up the "Star Wars" series with Jar Jar Binks.

Some scholars, many of them Catholic, who have seen a version of the script believe the film is irresponsible. It gets significant facts wrong - including the use of Latin at a time when Romans spoke Greek - and at the same time, they say, revives the idea that "the Jews" are "Christ killers." The Catholic Church officially exonerated the Jews of the crime in 1965.

Predictably, various Jewish leaders and other like-minded folk have raised their "concerns," too. Unfortunately, none of them has seen the movie, either.

Meanwhile, many people who have seen the film, including several friends and colleagues of mine, say it is a wonderful, albeit violently bloody, film. I'll take their word for it.

But, either way, I still have a problem with the controversy. First of all, what if it's true that some Jews were culpable in Jesus' crucifixion? It seems pretty obvious that some Jews were, in fact, in on it. And, it's equally obvious that some Jews weren't (Jesus, after all, was Jewish). That's why I insist on putting quotation marks around "the Jews," because such a collectivity only exists in the minds of those who cannot see Jews as individuals.

But even if "the Jews" of two millennia ago deserve a share of the blame, so what? If you think it's ludicrous for Americans today to pay reparations for slavery or to hold a German teenager personally responsible for the Holocaust, how much more absurd is it to hold Jews responsible for the actions of a few Jews 20 centuries ago?

How much more ludicrous is it for a religion that champions forgiveness and love to blame all Jews for the actions of a few of our great-great-great-great (fill in the rest of the greats yourself) grandfathers? I'm no expert on Christianity, but group punishment and hereditary guilt strike me as remarkably un-Christian (and un-American) concepts.

Of course, fear of hypocrisy didn't stop some Christians at different times and places from making the lives of Jews miserable. Some Christians persecuted Jews out of a misguided effort to save their souls. More often the persecution was based in a desire for vengeance or simply out of hatred. And that hatred endures. In fact, it will endure regardless of what this movie says.

Yes, "The Passion" will probably stir up anti-Semitic acts by those looking to get stirred up. The Christ-killing story has always been an excuse for anti-Semitism, not a cause of it. After all, while there were attacks against Jews, there were no pogroms to hunt down the descendents of Pontius Pilate and the other Romans who were not only guilty of deicide but also responsible for the centuries of persecution Jesus' followers suffered.

Even if there is zero anti-Semitism in Gibson's heart or in his movie, that won't change the fact that "The Passion" will probably stir up Jew-hatred among some folks who are so inclined. I don't see why that fact should keep Gibson from making his movie. And as to whether it is worth making the movie in the first place, well, we can't answer that question until we see the film.