Mel Gibson’s "The Passion"
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is concerned about the screening of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" which opened in theaters in the United States on February 25.
The film is an impactful and emotion-arousing production of the central event of Christianity. It deals only with the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. It is a depiction of the account as relayed by the Gospels with the interpretations lent to it by a nun centuries later and Mr. Gibson himself. It appears to contest if not contradict the theological tenet of Nostra Aetate, set forth by the Catholic Church at Vatican II some 40 years ago.
The United Synagogue recognizes that, for Christians, this is a religious film. Accordingly, The United Synagogue reiterates its pre-film statement that "While we respect the right of freedom of expression and the prerogative of any faith to reflect on its own religious writings, we are compelled to note that, in the past, emotions elicited by particular depictions of The Passion contributed to virulent animosity towards our faith. Indeed, given the sophistication of modern means of communication, and their wider reach, such films now have the potential to exert even more influence on viewers."
The United Synagogue hopes that all who view the film will keep in mind the historical context in which the Gospels were written, the current position of the Church and, above all, the goal of peace among people of good will. We trust that the growing understanding between the faiths will prevail and that the effects of this film will not be used to erode the good relations that have been built between the faiths.
Talking Points on Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ"
The Passion of Christ is the sacred and foundational drama of Christianity. The Passion of Christ, consisting of the trials, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, is the central narrative of Christianity. Dramatic presentations of the Passion, known as Passion Plays, are traditionally an important part of the celebration of Good Friday and Easter and are central to how Christians know and experience their religion. Passion Plays must be understood in this context – much as the telling of the Exodus is important to us as Jews.
The summons of religious communities to tell their foundational narratives is central to belief. Respect for these narratives is essential in our diverse society. The Jewish community in no way objects to the religiously important duty of Christians to retell the story of the Passion of Christ. A broad range of Christian and Jewish scholars and clergy, over the course of many years, have advanced standards for telling the Passion that are carefully constructed not to imply Jewish collective responsibility for the death of Christ.
The release of "The Passion of the Christ" provides a window of opportunity and should be the starting point for a teachable moment. The conversations that are emerging about the film provide an opportunity to expand interreligious dialogue. There is much that Jews and Christians can do to frame these conversations in a positive light. There have been great advances among scholars, professionals, and clergy in the Catholic and Jewish communities that have brought sophisticated understandings and deep friendships. One of the degrees of difficulty is that not all of these understanding have reached the laity in each community. This film can be used to stimulate learning experiences about the closeness that has emerged between Catholic and Jews. No one presentation of the Passion will return Christians and Jews to previous periods of tension.
While it is unfortunate that Mel Gibson may have utilized his artistic license to depict a Passion that does not reflect modern sensitivities, we need to understand that most viewers of this film will not draw negative conclusions about Jews and may not understand why there is such concern. Most will not return to churches that fan anti-Jewish beliefs. A boycott of the film would probably be counterproductive, as this film has mass appeal because of its subject matter and the controversy surrounding it.
The real conflict represented by "The Passion of the Christ" was never between Jews and Christians. The core modern-day conflict represented in this film is not between the Jews and Christians, but rather may be a dispute within the Catholic community. Mel Gibson is associated with a movement known as Traditionalist Catholicism. Traditionalist Catholics reject modern influences on Catholic theology and practice. They seek to revive an orthodoxy uncorrupted by current teachings and reject the reforms represented by the landmark Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Of prime importance to traditionalist Catholics is the performance of the mass in Latin rather than the popular language of each country in which it is being performed.
For the purposes of understanding "The Passion," traditionalist Catholics may also reject many other aspects of Vatican II, including Nostrae Aetate. It is not surprising, then, that traditionalist Catholics would rebuff the modern day guidelines which instruct that depictions of the Passion avoid content that might stereotype Jews or lead viewers to misconstrue facts to conclude that all Jews of all time are responsible for the death of Jesus.
The concerns expressed about the film have been grounded. Some of the harshest critiques of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" have come from Christian scholars who felt the film does not meet modern standards. It contains portrayals of Jews and Judaism that are harshly negative - drawing not only from the Gospels, but also the visions of a Catholic nun who lived 200 years ago. It depicts a significant Jewish involvement in the decision to crucify Jesus. The movie has scenes that show large mobs, presumably Jewish, cheering wildly during the period leading to the crucifixion. Throughout history, these types of depictions have led some to imply Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ. Hopefully, these problematic scenes will not be of great significance to those seeing the entire film.
Concerns about the depiction of the Passion should be understood in their historical context. Throughout the history of Christians and Jews, the week leading up to Easter was a time when some of the worst violence against Jews occurred – often because of Passion Plays that led to interpretations that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ. Most Christian denominations recognized the devastating effects of the charge of deicide and its depiction in Passion Plays. The repudiation of the deicide charge by the Catholic Church and other denominations, and calls by leadership groups within the Catholic Church for responsible and sensitive portrayals of the Passion have played an instrumental role in the growth of understanding and the lessening of tensions between Christians and Jews.
The Gospels contain different accounts of the Passion that are the subject of ongoing conversations within the Church. There is no one uniform depiction of the Passion in the Christian Gospels, but resources are available to help presenters avoid the most problematic portrayals. Guidelines promulgated in the U.S. in 1988 by the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs call for modern depictions of the Passion to avoid implications of Jewish responsibility. Any person producing a Passion Play must construct a single story by combining elements from the four accounts of Jesus’ death. Decisions about which elements from which to draw requires unavoidable theological interpretations and decisions about the specifics of what happened at the time of Jesus’ death.
According to the Bishops’ Guidelines, crowd scenes should represent diversity not mobs, reflecting a range of responses to Jesus among the crowd as among their leaders. The Jewishness of Jesus and his followers should be taken seriously and stereotypes of Jews and Judaism such as depictions of Jews as avaricious, should be avoided. Also, problematic Gospel passages, like Matthew’s "his blood be on us and on our children" (27:25), should be omitted so as not to imply that all Jews should be blamed for the death of Jesus. As a general rule in these cases, the Bishops suggest that "if one cannot show beyond reasonable doubt that the particular gospel element selected or paraphrased will not be offensive or have the potential for negative influence on the audience for whom the presentation is intended, the element cannot, in good conscience, be used."
The United Synagogue thanks the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for the above material.
Additional information can be found at the following Web site:
Anti-Defamation League: www.adl.org
American Jewish Committee: www.ajc.org; http://ajc.org/InTheMedia/PressReleases.asp?did+1041
Criteria for the evaluation of dramatizations of the Passion can be found at:
Bishops ’Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligous Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988
"Bishops’ Committee Issues Collection of Documents on ‘The Bible, The Jews, and The Death of Jesus’" The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (BCEIA) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Feburary 11, 2004 http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2004/04-024.htm
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Statement: