The poison in `The Passion'

February 25, 2004|By The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski

OUR TEAM of Catholic scholars has agreed unanimously that the script of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ presented one of the most potentially anti-Jewish interpretations of Jesus' death that we had encountered in our many years of constructive engagement in the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

The scholars, members of the Bishops' Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations, decided to review the shooting script when it became available to us in the spring because of the claim by a spokesperson for Mr. Gibson that it conformed with the Catholic Bishops' Guidelines on Passion Plays.

Upon examination of the script, we unanimously agreed this was far from true, even though we insisted that Mr. Gibson has every right to make whatever film he wants. We are not trying to censor him. But the questions raised by the basic theme of the film remain very serious.

The main storyline focused on an evil cabal of Jews, increasing to a large crowd by the time Jesus was dragged into the Great Hall of the Temple. They relentlessly pursued Jesus until they were able to blackmail a weak-kneed Pontius Pilate into ordering his execution.

Such an account contrasts sharply with modern biblical and historical scholarship as well as with the documents issued by the Catholic Church and many Protestant denominations in the past several decades. Historically, such an account has proved toxic. It led over the centuries to the persecution and killing of millions of Jews at the hands of Christians, something for which Pope John Paul II expressed profound regret during his historic visit to Jerusalem.

Pilate was not a weak leader of the Roman imperial government that controlled Palestine at the time. Quite the contrary, he was a cruel tyrant whom Rome removed from office a few years after the Crucifixion for being overly tyrannical, even by Rome's cruel standards. There is simply no way a group of Jewish leaders could have blackmailed Pilate into doing their will.

The majority of Jews at the time were united with Jesus in their common suffering under Roman authority. The Romans were principally responsible for Jesus' death. That is the clear teaching of contemporary scholarship as well as church documents.

But Mr. Gibson has continued to blame the Jewish leadership in defiance of this scholarly and ecclesial consensus. That's the heart of the difficulty with the film. That was the central message of the shooting script we examined, and nothing basically has changed in that regard in the versions Mr. Gibson has shown in recent months.

Particularly disturbing is the way Mr. Gibson has manipulated the use of Matthew 27:25 -- "Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children" -- the infamous blood libel charge through which Jews supposedly called a curse upon their future generations.

This text has been used over the centuries by Christians to keep Jews miserable and marginal in society and at times even to justify their deaths. Mr. Gibson included this questionable text in his original script, deleted it because he claimed Jews would have his throat, put it back and then removed it from the final version. Such insensitivity to how much suffering this text has caused Jews over the centuries is deeply disturbing.

The film also raises a question about Mr. Gibson's ultimate agenda in making it.

It is now clear that for the past several years he has been campaigning against the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council and against modern biblical scholarship. So the film also presents a challenge to the basic teachings of Vatican II, including its historic declaration on the church and the Jewish people.

Likewise, it poses questions for the Catholic Church's endorsement of modern biblical scholarship as integral for an authentic literal understanding of sacred Scripture since Pope Pius XII's encyclical on the subject in 1943. Mr. Gibson appears to flout church teaching. Therefore, it is surprising that certain Catholic groups and church leaders who pride themselves on defending orthodoxy see no problem in his rejection of recent church teaching.

Finally, the film raises questions in its excessive use of violence. Jesus suffered greatly. But the depiction by Mr. Gibson goes far beyond what is in the Gospels. Jesus' final suffering and death should never be separated from his ministry, which is largely the case in The Passion of the Christ.

Despite the serious problems with the film, Mr. Gibson has provided the churches with a teaching moment.

Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Baltimore Archdiocese has led the effort to use this controversy to enhance the understanding of Christians about who was principally responsible for Jesus' death.

Now is not the time to simply criticize the film, though criticize we must. It is also a time for Jews and Christians to forge new bonds through study and honest discussion. If that happens, as is beginning to be the case, Mr. Gibson inadvertently may have provided an opportunity for a new intensification of Christian-Jewish understanding.

The Rev. John T. Pawlikowski is director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.

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