The Subtle Problems in Affirming Christianity Without Offending Others

May 09, 1993|By HAL PIPER

"Let his blood be on us and on our children!"

Ah, yes, the "blood curse." Jesus of Nazareth was innocent of the charges against him, according to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. But when Pilate tried to reason with the Jewish mob, he got nowhere. At last, in exasperation, washing his hands, Pilate cried: "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility."

"All the people answered, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children!' " (Matthew 27:25).

Words to launch pogroms. The Jews went down in Christian history as "Christ-killers."

But almost 2,000 years have passed since the events recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Do we believe today that this account is historically accurate? And even if we accept the story as literally true, was it Jewish blindness or human nature that cried out for blood?

The questions came to Baltimore last week with the monster musical "Jesus Was His Name," a $24 million extravaganza in the midst of a 32-city North American tour. (The show's final performance is at the Baltimore Arena today.)

The play is a multi-media story of the life and death of Jesus, blending 58 live actors with 70mm film clips projected on an 80-foot screen. One of its authors is Robert Hossein, co-creator of the great hit "Les Miserables." "His Name Was Jesus" was a smash success in France before Radio City Music Hall mounted the present production.

Yes, but is it anti-Semitic? That's the first question that has to be asked about any Passion play -- a dramatization of the death of Jesus.

"At least the blood curse ['Let his blood be on us and on our children!'] has been deleted," says Arthur J. Dewey, professor of religion at Xavier University, a Roman Catholic college in Cincinnati. Yet, he concludes, "This work plays upon the unconscious prejudices of the Christian audience without challenging them to reimagine or re-evaluate the Passion material."

So, one thumbs-down. . . .

Another Roman Catholic perspective comes from John Cardinal

O'Connor, archbishop of New York: "As one who abhors imputing guilt to the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus, I do not find in the text of . . . [the] play . . . any support of such a charge."

Note the nuances of the both statements. Professor Dewey doesn't call the play anti-Semitic, but thinks it is not radical enough. Cardinal O'Connor confines his judgment to the text; if the overall impression turns out to be offensive -- well, he never actually endorsed anything but the written script, which consists entirely of Biblical quotations.

Jewish watchdog groups are similarly nuanced. The program distributed to those who attend performances of "Jesus Was His Name" contains a carefully qualified endorsement by the Anti-Defamation League:

"We take note that Radio City Music Hall Productions was sensitive to these issues and actively initiated meetings to seek the advice and judgment of responsible agencies within the Jewish community in order to assure understanding of their intention to deliver a message of tolerance for our troubled times."

But last month in Cincinnati, where the show made its second stop on the current tour, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee, joined by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars and clergy, expressed its "considered judgment [that] the production fails to reflect recent New Testamant scholarship. It also ignores many of the guidelines for dramatization of the life of Jesus of both the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Conference of Christians and Jews."

Again, what does that mean? Is this a play that misrepresents Christianity and offends Judaism -- or just one that "ignores guidelines" and "fails to reflect scholarship?"


Here is my confession: I have written a Passion play.

It was only a little one, acted by 9th- and 10th-graders in a Sunday school class I taught. Still, it may be that I have more experience with Passion plays than some of the scholars and moralists pronouncing on the profound issues of Christian-Jewish relations.

And a further confession: I deliberately included the "blood curse."

A problem common to great auteurs staging "Romeo and Juliet" or "King Kong" and to meek Sunday School teachers whipping teen-agers through a dramatization of the Passion is this: How do we tell a story that everyone knows in a way that will cause a torpid audience to bestir itself and say, "Geez, that's fascinating; I had never thought of it that way"?

Not by following some authoritative body's guidelines, I think.

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