The Passion

Posted: Feb 25, 2004 12:00 AM

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."

I find Gibson's answer troubling. It conflates the death of millions during war with a genocide unique in human history. Stalin's crimes were barbaric, as were Mao's, Pol Pot's and any number of totalitarian tyrants of the 20th Century. But the Holocaust stands apart in the annals of inhumanity. Not to understand this borders on indifference. Atrocities don't "happen," they are the result not only of evil incarnate in those who commit them but of the indifference of those that do not resist them. What makes Gibson's views of more concern is that his father is a Holocaust denier.

But "The Passion of the Christ" stands on its own. And, in my view, nothing in the film supports the charge that it is anti-Semitic or will encourage anti-Semitism. From its opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane through the terrible scourging of Christ and the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the film is about sin and forgiveness.

To try to assign blame for Christ's death is to misunderstand Christian doctrine. "Not My will but Thine be done," Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before Judas betrays Him. Christ must freely choose to die, but He does so in order to fulfill God's will. That Christ must die to expiate man's sin is both the most difficult and most fundamental precept in Christianity.

Gibson clearly understands this doctrine, and faithfully conveys it. Whatever else Gibson gets wrong in his interpretation of Christ's last hours on earth -- and critics have nitpicked the historical accuracy of everything from the language used by the main characters in the film, Aramaic and Latin, to the length of Jesus' hair -- he gets this right.