'The Passion of Christ'

Posted: Nov 03, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- When a private viewing of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" was completed at a Washington hotel 10 days ago, my wife and I along with a dozen other invited guests were emotionally frozen into several minutes of silence. The question is whether public presentation of the film four months hence shall be welcomed by tumultuous demonstrations outside the theaters.

Hollywood actor Gibson, who spent over $25 million of personal funds to produce "The Passion," has finally found a distributor to begin its showing Feb. 25 -- Ash Wednesday. A campaign by some Jewish leaders to radically edit the film or, alternatively, prevent its exhibition appears to have failed. This opens the door to religious conflict if the critics turn their criticism into public protest.

That is not because of the content of "The Passion." As a journalist who has actually seen what the producers call "a rough cut" of the movie and not just read about it, I can report it is free of the anti-Semitism that its detractors claim. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and its allies began attacking the movie on the basis of reading a shooting script without having actually seen the film. The ADL carries a heavy burden in stirring religious strife about a piece of entertainment that, apart from its artistic value, is of deep religious significance for believing Christians.

The agitation peaked in early August when New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind told a rally: "This film is dangerous for Jews all over the world. I am concerned that it would lead to violence against Jews." Hikind had not viewed the film. After an ADL representative viewed a rough cut, longtime ADL director Abraham Foxman on Aug. 11 declared the movie "will fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism." Foxman called on Gibson to change his film so that it would be "free of any anti-Semitic message." This renews the 200-year-old dispute over the Jewish role in the crucifixion of Christ, the source of past Jewish persecution.

"The Passion" depicts in two hours the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life. To watch him beaten, scourged and crucified so graphically is a shattering experience for believing Christians and surely for many non-Christians as well. It makes previous movie versions of the crucifixion look like Hollywood fluff. Gibson wants to avoid an "R" rating, but violence is not what bothers Abe Foxman.

Foxman and other critics complain that the Jewish high priest Caiphas and a Jewish mob are demanding Christ's execution, but that is straight from the Gospels. Father C. John McCloskey, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, told me: "If you find the Scriptures anti-Semitic, you'll find this film anti-Semitic."

Complaints by liberal Bible scholars that "The Passion" is not faithful to Scripture are rejected by the Vatican. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who heads the Congregation for the Clergy, called the film "a triumph of art and faith," adding: "Mel Gibson not only closely follows the narrative of the Gospels, giving the viewer a new appreciation for those biblical passages, but his artistic choices also make the film faithful to the meaning of the Gospels."

As for inciting anti-Semitism, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos contended "the film does nothing of the sort." This Vatican official is denying that Gibson violates the 1965 papal document Nostra Aetate, which states: "What happened in (Christ's) passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

No such libel is committed by "The Passion," where the mob's Jewish identity is not specified. In the film, the high priest's men who seize Christ are easily surpassed in brutality by sadistic Roman soldiers. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is depicted as a weak, calculating politician who orders the execution. As a Catholic convert, I was taught we are all sinners who share in guilt for the crucifixion.

At the heart of the dispute over "The Passion" is freedom of expression. Liberals who defended the right to exhibit Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," which deeply offended orthodox Christians, now demand censorship of "The Passion of Christ." As a result, Abe Foxman and his allies have risked stirring religious tensions over a work of art.