Judging by the swirl of slow-moving elderly ladies in 1968 Oldsmobiles occupying all the spaces in the parking lot at our local strip mall yesterday, I am just about the only person in town who has not seen - and doesn't have any desire to see - the orgy of blood and torture that is, by all accounts, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Religious belief as commercial entertainment has always seemed to me an odd mixture of not necessarily compatible impulses, and a film that is marketed as an "historically correct" version of the Passion leaves me feeling particularly uncomfortable. If you are going to make a movie that threatens to resurrect the late, unlamented blood libel against the Jews, it seems to me particularly important to make sure that your audience understands the difference between what is history, what is religious belief, and what is entertainment. The lines between these seem to have been blurred in The Passion and, in view of Mel Gibson's disingenuous But I'm only saying what's in the Bible! line of defense, I suspect deliberately so.
Richard Silverstein's Gibson's The Passion: Why are Jews Distressed? is a timely reminder that, for the Jewish community, the question of "Who killed Jesus?" has always been far from academic and, too often, literally a matter of life and death:
[W]hat...all those who support this film neglect to acknowledge is that the question of who killed Jesus is not irrelevant or incidental. For centuries, Christians believed that Jews killed Jesus (the Vatican did not renounce such a belief until 1968!). As recently as the early 20th century (in the Russian blood libel cases), Jews died with the cry "Christ Killer" on the lips of their Christian accusers and murderers. The First and Second Crusades began with the slaughter of thousands of Jews in their German communities because they "killed Christ."
Richard's post made me think more about what exactly made me uneasy about Gibson's Passion, and my comment on his post is reproduced here:
"Thanks for posting this, Richard. I too decline to give Mel Gibson my $10 to go and see his remake of a mediaeval passion play. IMHO, there is so much wrong with this movie, on so many levels, that I find it difficult to know where to start – so I’m glad you did.
The first thing that struck me is what a marketing genius Mel Gibson has turned out to be. Six months ago, The Passion was an esoteric pet project, financed with his own money, which nobody was interested in and which was probably going to cost him a huge loss. Now, after a little Holocaust minimization, and whipping up of evangelical Christian frenzy, he’s got a winner. What a cynical manipulation of all sorts of dangerous passions. I can’t see any good coming out of this, only dissension and hostility and controversy which, bearing in mind Gibson’s own reported religious beliefs, might sadly be perfectly fine with him.
I wouldn’t really agree that this is going to cause problems particularly for Jews in Europe. It seems to me that the current anti-Semitism in Europe – primarily in France – arises out of an unassimiliated underclass of overwhelmingly young first- and second-generation immigrants of North African descent, whose hostility to “the Jews” comes from seeing them not through the historical European perspective of "Christ killers" but through the prism of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I don’t think they are likely to be particularly inflamed one way or another by Gibson’s resurrecting the “the Jews killed Jesus” canard.
(A lot of the rest of what we in the US call European “anti-Semitism” is, in my experience not classic anti-Semitism at all, but criticism of the policies of the Israeli (Sharon) government vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The “criticism of Israel = anti-Semitism” argument simply doesn’t cut much ice over there, and the result is that mainstream debate on Israel/Palestine is of a depth and a vigor that is unheard of here, unless you make a point of seeking out serious debate on Israel.)
The rest of “Christian” Europe is in many ways a post-religious society, in which religion is a personal, private affair, and which finds it truly odd and more than a little scary that the most powerful nation on earth is led by a born-again believer who thinks God talks to him. So I think that many Europeans are going to look upon The Passion as just another odd example of the fundamentalist, evangelical nuttiness that seems to have so many American Christians in its grip right now. I think a society like post-war Europe - that has begun to think of it religious heritage in mythological rather than literal terms - is not for the most part likely to look at this movie as history and think “the Jews killed Jesus”.
I think if there are repercussions for the Jewish community (and sadly I fear that there might be) it is going to be primarily right here at home, from the fundamentalist Protestants that Gibson has cynically aimed his movie at. (Which in itself is an extreme irony, bearing in mind that Gibson is a traditionalist, pre-Vatican II, Catholic, who believes that fundamentalist Protestants are going to burn in Hell. How cynical can you get, just to make a buck?).
The problem in marketing a bloodfest like The Passion to US Christian fundamentalists is that, well, they’re fundamentalists! They read their scriptures literally – or at least the parts that suit them (I notice that they’re much more interested in literal readings of verses against homosexuality than the ones against divorce, for example) - and many of them think they are reading actual history. Which they are not. The Christian Gospels arise out of a specific context, when the early Christians were engaged in a bitter polemic against those Jews who, unlike themselves, did not believe that Jesus was moshiach. They come from a time when Christianity was breaking with a Judaism which didn’t accept its belief about who Jesus was, and was turning instead to the Gentile world for converts. Hence a Gospel portrayal that maximizes Jewish “guilt” and minimizes Roman responsibility (which historically, bearing in mind the comparitive power of the Roman procurator and the occupied Jews, is surely getting it backwards).
I think the Gospels probably say more about the state of the debate between the Early Church and the Judaism it was breaking away from than they do about the historical events that surrounded the death of Jesus a generation before. To take the scriptural narrative out of the context that gave rise to it, and market it to an audience that believes it is watching real history about “the Jews” is, I think, a horribly dangerous thing to do. You don’t have to be a historian to know why, and I can’t ascribe to Mel Gibson any charitable motives for doing it."