Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Mel Gibson's "Passion"

Last week in London England (where the film has not yet been released), I attended a private screening of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ". It was interesting to see the film having read so many reviews about it. The film is bloody, it is not anti-Semitic unless one uses a definition of that word that amounts to racism in reverse.

We all know by now that the film is about the last hours of Jesus' life leading from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Crucifixion and (briefly) the Resurrection. A large part of the action relates to the violent capture and scourging of Jesus, his carrying the cross up the Via Dolorosa and his Crucifixion on Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem. It could not be about this, be realistic and not be violent and bloody.

The film is also rather beautiful in places. Flashback scenes are exquisitely done. Most notable here are those with Mary and the boy Jesus and Mary Magdalene when she is forgiven as "the woman taken in adultery". Here Gibson gets high marks for artistic exploration and inspiration. But is the film "anti-Semitic"?

Those who say it is anti-Semitic have been watching the film with selective lenses on. Such lenses appear to suggest that nothing negative may be said about any particular Jewish person or group without that indicating a generalized anti-Semitism. No human being or group is beyond criticism and any viewpoint that suggests this is, in fact, just racism in reverse.

There are, and always will be individual Jews that are flawed as there are and always will be flawed Gentiles, Romans, Christians and people of every race and belief. Failure to acknowledge this frankly is inaccurate and dangerous. In this film the violence against Jesus is largely done by the Roman soldiers and not the Jews in any case but I do not hear Italians jumping up and down complaining about how their ancestors were portrayed.

Only if one finds the whole idea of the Gospel itself - - of a man becoming the scape-goat once and for all -- anti-Semitic is the film anti-Semitic. Clearly, if one has this view then any portrayal of the story of Jesus would be viewed as anti-Semitism. Such a definition of anti-Semitism would, as a matter of fact, hide a religious claim (Judaism is superior to Christianity) beneath a claim of race-hatred.

In relation to this portrayal, however, the charge is blatantly unfair. The film shows that there are Jews who do not go along with the trial, the sentence or the actual punishments as inflicted and who show sympathy to the tormented Christ along the way The portrayal of some Jewish religious leaders (others refuse to be involved) as involved in the crucifixion of Jesus cannot amount by itself to anti-Semitism unless Jewish leaders are not like all other leaders - - capable of corruption, lack of justice and cruelty.

It is also claimed that the portrayal of Jewish religious leaders in the film will lead to animosity against Jews themselves. This is also incorrect.

It is as if Germans were to begin complaining that they feared attacks on the basis of the numerous films about the acts of some Germans during World War II - - events much closer in time to us than the Crucifixion. Human beings have made scape-goats of each other from the beginning of time and there is no nationality under the sun that has avoided being the victims of oppression and then, at other times, the oppressors.

In fact, if one is concerned about attacks on Jewish people a much stronger case could be made, but it is not, that there could be more prospect of anti-Jewish violence from the nightly news with its often graphic scenes of Jewish military acts against Palestinians along the Gaza strip than from a film of this sort. Is it wise to show the damaged bodies of Palestinian youths in front of Israeli tanks? Isn't that likely to excite animosity against the Jews?

Do we hear Palestinians saying that showing the horrific results of terrorist attacks by Hamas against the Jews is anti-Palestinian and will lead to attacks on Palestinians? No we do not.

The story in this film is about much more than where and between what races (Jew, Roman and a few others) it took place.

This film, like the story on which it is based, claims that there is a purpose in the Jesus story. The violence is justified in the film only if it has a purpose. That is what is behind many of the criticisms: the critics do not believe in sin or its antidote or the story about this Divine and human scape-goat; for this reason the violence is seen as gratuitous and unnecessary. The biblical phrase "he was wounded for our transgressions..." becomes either "what transgressions" or "who, me?"

The central claim, around which the film revolves, is that human lives, and all human lives, can be changed. It is a claim that transcends time, place and the nationalities of those involved. That is why, ultimately, some will see it as meaningless violence without a purpose and others (as so many have done) as moving, life-changing and full of purpose and meaning.

Pointless or meaningful - - ultimately it is a question of whether one believes the story or not or whether one believes that such a "story" full of violence and love is important for human consideration. For on that belief so much else will depend. Did God make Himself into the final scape-goat to put an end to humans making other humans into scapegoats? One would think that it is a question worth considering and amidst the oceans of superficial nonsense on offer in movie theatres today Mel Gibson offers something profound for consideration - - whether or not we can ultimately accept it.

That is why this film, graphic for a graphic time, is so different from many others and why it and its themes will always be controversial. It is a film everyone should see and it is not anti-Semitic, it is anti-sin and considering that involves all of us, whether or not we are Jews.

Iain T. BensonĀ©