For believers, 'Passion' comes through

February 29, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON — "This is my body, which is given for you."

- Luke 22:19

WASHINGTON - The woman on my left watched through a latticework of fingers, a tissue catching her tears. The man on my right made sounds of wordless dismay. On the screen below us, Jesus, a carpenter turned itinerant rabbi, was being brutalized and put to death.

It happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. It is happening again in multiplexes around the country. The Passion of the Christ, produced and directed by Mel Gibson, is the most controversial film in recent memory, both embraced and feared for its graphic recounting of the killing of Jesus. Some Jews think it revives old libels about Jewish blame for the crime, so they regard the movie with trepidation.

Consider a critic interviewed on the radio the day the film came out. Though usually a straightforward reviewer, she kept demurring about The Passion, insisting that people would have to "find their own answer." She did fault the movie for emphasizing the bloody death of Jesus over his message of "love and faith."

The phrase struck me because it seemed strangely generic. A moment later, the woman mentioned that she is Jewish, and I understood both her inability to be more specific and her evident discomfort.

One of the radio anchors asked if she found the movie anti-Semitic. She said yes.

I'm hesitant to contradict her. A little over a year ago, when Trent Lott said a racially incendiary thing, it irked me to hear his fellow senator, Bill Frist, assure the nation that his colleague was not a racist. One middle-aged white guy vouching for the racial blamelessness of another was hardly the most ringing endorsement.

Similarly, as someone who'll never experience anti-Semitism, I don't know that I have standing to say there's none in Mr. Gibson's movie. But I didn't see any. And anybody making that charge will have to go some to convince me.

Which is not to say I'm without empathy for the fears expressed by some in the Jewish community. To the contrary, those fears offer a visceral and poignant reminder of how tenuous a thing acceptance can be, how fierce a grip history can have. Jews have made inroads into the nation's mainstream to a degree that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Yet even in the midst of that success, they live with this constant nugget of fear, this need to be on guard, lest acceptance erode and yesterday's nightmares come roaring back.

I can relate.

But there's something critics of The Passion, Jewish and otherwise, are missing. Namely, that this movie - there's no delicate way to say this - was not made for them - or for that matter, for Muslims or atheists. It is deliberately exclusionary to a degree I've seldom seen. You didn't have to be Jewish to get Schindler's List or black to get Roots.

To understand The Passion, though, you need at least familiarity with the four Gospels and, ideally, faith in them. The movie does not concern itself with back story; it assumes that you come to it with a certain body of knowledge.

Otherwise, all you will see is a man being hit over and over and over again, such extravagantly brutal torture that you cringe and pray for it to be done. But it never is. There is always another blow, a fresh gout of blood. If you know the Gospels, however, you might see something more than violence. You might see the embodiment of Christ's message. Which was not simply "love and faith" but also redemption, ransom, sacrifice, the willingness to take upon himself, upon his body, punishment for all the sins of humankind.

I'll leave it to others to argue whether it makes sense to exclude so many people. I will only say that within its narrow confines, The Passion is a work of shattering immediacy and devastating power.

Its point is not that the blood of Christ is on the Jews, but rather that it is upon us all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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