Now that anyone who's anyone has weighed in on Mel Gibson's film The Passion of The Christ, it's my turn. I'm a regular individual, not a professional, nor a commentator beyond the occasional miffed letter to the editor. I have no radio show or weekly column. I'm just a run-of-the-mill, devout Christian.
Like commentators before me, I also believe that the highly publicized nature of the charge of anti-Semitism relative to this film was brought about in error. My experience in both Protestant and Catholic circles in Texas and California has been one of witnessing the power of Christ's Passion to inspire sincere individuals toward repentance and lovecertainly not hatred toward Jews. So I too have winced when I've read what sounds like over-the-top predictions of violence against Jews come Ash Wednesday.
On the other hand, through my learning and teaching within the Jewish community and being a guest at many a Shabbat table, I've heard worries honestly expressed and am therefore moved to plead with my Christian brothers and sisters to respond with compassion when Jews raise questions about the net effect The Passion will have on their welfare.
Those who defend The Passion seldom take these fears to heart. Worse yet, I've witnessed in these months leading up to the film's release a persistent tendency by writers who profess to be Christians to write off "Foxman and company" with such words as "kibitzers," "leftists," and "opportunistic fundraisers." Early on, a well-known Christian entertainment pundit denounced those raising questions about the film as "a pack of anti-Christs," thereby tapping into the rhetoric of historical anti-Semitism. The latest dismissive wave of the hand came from an otherwise much respected and loved giant among Christian personalities who wrote, "Shaky charges of 'anti-Semitism' are really just a smokescreen. I believe the real problem the liberal establishment has with this movie is that it has the audacity to portray Christ as He really was—not only as a historical figure, but as the Savior of mankind."
We common folk are also guilty of insensitivity. For instance, one pro-Passion website, garnering thousands of online signatures in support of the film, permits the occasional, blatantly anti-Semitic remark to accompany a signature without comment or apology by the site owners. For example, one person appends to his signature:
St. Pio of Pietrelcina once wrote that "the Jews are the enemies of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Church." Unfortunately, his words have proven to be true in regard to their violent reaction to this beautiful film. Let's pray for them.
All of this is troubling in light of the fact there are communities of Jews here in America that weather a certain amount of religious hatred that Christian Americans seldom face. Jewish reaction (which has not been "violent" as far as I've heard) may have more to do with personal experience, recent as well as historical, than anything else.
Take Los Angeles, the city I live in. A couple of years ago there was an incident in the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in which religiously identifiable Jews, walking home on the Sabbath, were confronted and attacked by skinhead types who were apparently cruising the streets seeking targets. A Jewish teen ended up in the hospital after his assailants kicked and beat him, yelling epithets like "dirty kike."
Ask yourselves, fellow Christians, when do we in America have to fear walking home from church while wearing a cross and holding a Bible?
Last March, next door to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, someone shot out a front window of the offices of the Orthodox Union (a synagogue association) while a youth group was in session.
Four years ago, a racist gunman cased out the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance and other Jewish institutions, and upon finding their security too stiff, targeted a Jewish Community Center preschool, critically wounding several individuals, mostly children.
Do we Christians ever have to worry about having armed security at the religious schools that our children attend? Yet this is a common sight, not just at Jewish schools in L.A., but at synagogues and community meetings.
Then there was the well-publicized July 4, 2002, shooting of an El Al airline counter at the Los Angeles Airport. Even after 9/11, the airport's safety and security were not enough to protect the two Jews killed in the attack.
Please keep in mind that the size of the Jewish community is small enough that usually just a degree or two of separation exists between a victim of an anti-Semitic attack and most of their fellow Jews. It's true for me, too: one Jewish gentleman I know walks with a pronounced limp because two years ago he had been left for dead after a hate-related attack.
I haven't done special research to ferret out these examples. I'm describing what I've come across in my interactions with the Jewish community in the last five years in one American city.
The matter of imagined or real anti-Semitism is not as straightforward as proponents of The Passion make it out to be, where Jewish spokespersons that defend the film are good and the ones who criticize are bad. Every community, Jewish ones included, is diverse and complex, with each individual bringing to the table of life his or her own history of personal, family, and community experiences. Just because some Jewish leaders, like Rabbi Daniel Lapin, have tried to assess Gibson and his film in what I think is a more even-handed, productive manner in no way gives us Christians automatic permission to discredit the more anxious voices.
In short, there is sufficient evidence of religious hatred here in America to warrant the Jewish emotions behind protests against The Passion. Add to that anxiety the situation abroad, where the widespread reemergence of anti-Semitism is coming about swiftly and with violence, and you have the makings of a leadership that can feel and sound embattled.
I'm still of the opinion that the concerns about The Passion stirring anti-Semitic attitudes in the American movie-going public have been largely misplaced, but I do not for a minute hold these fears to be misbegotten or disingenuous. As this film comes to our hometown screens, I'm asking my Christian brothers and sisters to embrace the love and compassion reflected in Jesus' assuming upon himself human suffering. We likewise must step into the shoes of our Jewish friends to understand the sincerity of their distress. Discuss the film with a Jewish friend, and do listen with patience to what he or she may have to say. Let that Passion which inspired centuries of saints to take in orphans, care for the sick, and—like the ten Booms—give safe harbor to one's neighbor, prompt us to guard against a cynical or harsh response.
It's not enough to say, "I saw the movie, and it's not anti-Semitic. And besides Jesus was a Jew and so were his disciples. Get over it!" Rather let us speak with assurance that anti-Semitism has no place in our churches and will not be tolerated should this sin rear its head. It is in this manner that we can guard against evil people using the film or the controversy surrounding it as reasons to target the Jewish community.
Through much of the debate of these past few months, there have been a handful of exemplary Bible-based Christian voices that have surfaced to help put the brakes on the rhetoric of polarization. Media insider Larry W. Poland has produced an insightful booklet, "Is the Passion of Jesus Anti-Semitic?" that explains, without condescension or exaggeration, current and historical reasons for Jewish fears. He also presents excellent advice on actions Christians and Jews can take to improve their friendships with each other. The booklet is free read online, but I recommend ordering copies in quantities sufficient to pass around to your pastor and fellow believers.
Another Christian leader helping the situation instead of fanning the flames is Franklin Graham. "In no way do I hold the Jewish people responsible" for Jesus' crucifixion, he said. "Be assured that I will do everything I can to remind people of this fact."
Indeed, "everything one can do" is a noble, holy standard. It will be through our caring actions, not bombast, that we will best demonstrate that the Gospels create loving people and not raving anti-Semites.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other CT coverage of anti-Semitism surrounding The Passion include:
The Passion and Prejudice | Why I asked the Anti-Defamation League to give Mel Gibson a break. (Feb. 24, 2004)
Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of the Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Jews Against Jesus? | Critics of Gibson's film The Passion distort the truth. (Oct. 30, 2003)
Poland's Catholic Bishops Ask Forgiveness for Wartime Massacre of Jews | Theologian says continued anti-Semitism overshadows gesture. (June 12, 2001)
Oberammergau Overhaul | Changes make the Passion play more sensitive to Jews and more faithful to Scripture. (Aug. 24, 2000)
CT Classic: Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Aug. 24, 2000)
At Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial, Pope Regrets Persecution of Jews | Catholic Church 'deeply saddened by anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians.' (March 20, 2000)
Is Holocaust Museum Anti Christian? | Six prominent Jews are accusing the U.S. Holocaust Museum of anti-Christian bias in showing a 14-minute film on the roots of anti-Semitism. (April 27, 1998)
CT's coverage of The Passion includes:
The Passion of Mel Gibson | Why evangelicals are cheering a movie with profoundly Catholic sensibilities. (Feb. 20, 2004)
Mel, Mary, and Mothers | The mother of Jesus was still a mom (Feb. 20, 2004)
Film Forum: The First Official Passion of the Christ Reviews … and 50 First Dates | Moviegoers must wait a few more days for The Passion of the Christ, but the reviews are already coming in. Plus: Mel Gibson talks to PrimeTime, and the Passion debates continue. Meanwhile, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have 50 First Dates, and one Christian film critic wonders why viewers are ignoring Peter Pan. (Feb. 19, 2004)
The Good News of God's Wrath | At the heart of the universe, there is a just and gracious God. (Feb. 23, 2004)
'Dude, That Was Graphic' | Mel Gibson talks about The Passion of The Christ (Feb. 23, 2004)
Behind the Scenes of The Passion | On the set with Holly McClure (Feb. 23, 2004)
Behind the Scenes of The Passion Part 2 | On the set with Holly McClure (Feb. 23, 2004)