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Pastor's Page -- Remarks on "The Passion of the Christ"

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 them.  

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.


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