Comments on The Passion of The Christ
By Daniel E. H. Bryant
For the Lane Institute of Faith and Education
At Northwest Christian College
March 8, 2004
First, I want to acknowledge that this is a wonderful opportunity to
discuss matters of extreme importance to people of faith and to deepen
our understanding of different perspectives on these critical issues.
Second, while there are many things I did like about the movie, I want
to focus my comments here on just one of the concerns I have for the
sake of this dialogue.
Much has been made of the hand of Mel
Gibson in the movie, holding the nail driven into the hand of Jesus.
That clearly says to me that Mel Gibson does not hold Jews responsible
for the death of Jesus and that he did not intend to convey any anti-Semitic
message with this movie. It is the unintentional impact of the
movie that worries me.
In 1980 I had the opportunity to spend a week working in Auschwitz
alongside 30 young German volunteers. We cleaned exhibits, pulled
weeds, browsed the archives left behind by the SS and conversed with
survivors from the camp. It was an incredibly powerful experience
for me and even more so for my young German friends.
Following that experience, I learned while studying for the ministry of
the long and shameful history of Christianity and anti-Semitism.
From the time of Constantine up to the 20th century, Christian councils
and governments have regularly passed laws against Jews, prohibiting
marriage between Jews and Christians, forbidding Jews from legal actions
against Christians, requiring Jews to live in ghettoes and to wear
distinctive clothing, and expelling entire Jewish populations from their
territory. The first crusade ended in 1099 with the burning of a
synagogue filled with Jewish families, women and children. The
Spanish Inquisition offered Jews the choice of baptism or death by
drowning. The most prominent Christian theologians from the 2nd
through the 20th centuries vilified the Jewish faith. Martin
Luther openly called for the burning of Jewish homes, businesses and
synagogues. Every single law used by Hitler to persecute Jews has
a Christian precedent. Without centuries of Christian anti-Semitism,
the Holocaust would not have been possible. This is our history
which we must own as Christians, just as Germans have had to own theirs.
When Mel Gibson makes a movie showing his hand pushing a Jewish
grandmother into the gas chamber, then I will know that he gets it.
I received one message about tonight from someone who hoped that I would
help Jews understand this movie. Let me be clear. The
problem is not with the misunderstanding of Jews. The problem is
with the insensitivity of Christians who do not comprehend the
seriousness of anti-semitism and how intentional or unintentional
portrayals of Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus contributes to
it. I believe that is what the movie does.
I cite three examples in just one scene, the hearing before Pilate.
First, is the portrayal of Pilate as a very sympathetic figure who
honestly struggles with questions of truth and justice. Such a
portrayal defies everything we know about Pilate as a brutal dictator
who would massacre an unruly mob before he ever held a conversation with
Second, the portrayal of Barabbas. The Gospels describe Barabbas
as an insurrectionist who committed murder, meaning that he was involved
in violent efforts to drive out the Romans. As such, he would have
been seen as a hero by any Jewish crowd, not as a filthy, disgusting
criminal. To portray a Jewish crowd choosing Gibson’s disgusting
Barabbas over the brutally beaten Jesus is highly problematic.
Third, the crowd crying out for the crucifixion of Jesus. I quote
from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops criteria for
dramatizing the passion, “Any crowd or questioning scene… should
reflect the fact that some in the crowd and among the Jewish leaders…
supported Jesus and that the rest were manipulated by his
opponents…” Gibson shows no manipulation of the crowd and no
support among Jewish leaders except for a dissenting voice early in the
movie when Jesus is first brought to the temple. Add to that a
later scene in which Jewish children are distorted into satanic images
tormenting Judas, and it is easy to see why many people are concerned
that this movie promotes the Jews, rather than Pilate, as ultimately
responsible for the death of Jesus. That is the theological
foundation for the Holocaust.
Pastor Jaskilka cited statistics in our earlier conversation on the
Water Cooler (KEZI News 2/26/04) that 80% of the US public agrees that
Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus, 12% are undecided and
8% disagree. I accept those numbers as likely accurate. I am
not concerned that the 80% will change their view as a result of this
movie. I am somewhat concerned how the 12% will respond, but I am
most concerned about that 8%. It was ten years ago this month that
one among that 8% riddled the synagogue here in Eugene with gunfire.
And it was another among that 8% who last week distributed Aryan Nation
literature on car windshields at the two theaters showing this movie,
literature which calls Jews vampires and claims that “America belongs
to the children of the white Christian people.”
Gibson has stated that he wanted to push people over the edge,
presumably so that the sacrifice of Jesus will mean more to them, and
therefore he made the movie very brutal. But what happens when you
push an anti-Semite distributing hate literature over the edge? What
happens when you push a racist over the edge? What happens when you push
an abusive parent, husband or boyfriend over the edge? I would
hope that we seek not to push anyone over the edge, but to pull people
back into the loving grace of God where the emphasis is not on how
terrible they are that caused Jesus to suffer so, but on how wonderful
God is, who lovingly suffers with us.