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Jews and Christians after The Passion

May 9, 2009 | by Yossi Klein Halevi

Are we supposed to ignore the irony that our strongest allies are now promoting a film that resurrects the charge of deicide?

I had assumed -- hoped -- that the Jewish critics of The Passion were exaggerating. The critics, after all, have a habit of assuming the worst of Christianity, and of underestimating the positive changes in Christian attitudes toward Jews. They turned the Pope's beatification of Edith Stein into a nefarious Catholic plot to "Christianize" the Holocaust, and transformed a debate among historians over the role of Pius XII into a campaign against the church headed by John Paul II, who has devoted himself to Christian atonement for anti-Semitism.

But this time the critics weren't exaggerating. Mel Gibson has produced a medieval passion play, reviving the whiff of deicide at the most vulnerable Jewish moment since the 1940s. In the film, hysterical Jewish mobs repeatedly call for Jesus's blood as Pontius Pilate agonizes over his fate. Worse, the film undermines one of the seminal accomplishments of the Christian-Jewish dialogue: restoring the Jewishness of Jesus.

While the elders of the Sanhedrin look like hassidim from Brooklyn, Jesus looks like a Renaissance Italian.

It's hardly surprising that Gibson is a "traditionalist" Catholic contemptuous of Vatican II. His film, after all, undermines a key historical achievement of Vatican II: beginning the process of the Church's reconciliation with its Jewish roots. Given the damage he's done to Christian-Jewish relations, I wouldn't want to be Mel Gibson on Judgment Day.

I'm currently visiting Colorado Springs, which many call the evangelical capital of America. The powerful evangelical group Focus of the Family is headquartered here; on a Sunday morning, as many as 10,000 people fill its main church. One local bumper sticker reads, "In case of the Rapture, this car will be driverless." (The counter-sticker goes: "In case of Rapture, can I have your car?") This is as good a place as any to contemplate the effects of The Passion.

On a weeknight, the theater I attended was nearly full.

People emerged from the screening in what seemed like stunned silence. Clearly, many had just experienced a profound religious encounter. Yet I felt alone and vulnerable in that crowd, no longer trusting its benign instincts.

Still, those same Christians are almost certainly passionate supporters of Israel. Earlier that day I'd spoken about the Middle East to cadets at the Air Force Academy, here in Colorado Springs. Many of the cadets are devout Christians. When I arrived, the guard at the gate was talking to a young woman about the Rapture. Not surprisingly, my audience was deeply sympathetic to Israel. As I spoke about Israel's dilemmas and the necessity of the security fence, there were vigorous nods around the room. "You're not alone," one cadet said to me afterwards. And that's precisely how an Israeli feels among religious American conservatives: embraced, appreciated, understood.

Are we, then, supposed to ignore the irony that, in our war with genocidal Islamism, our strongest allies are now promoting a film that resurrects the charge of deicide? A few days ago, a leading conservative Jewish critic appeared on an evangelical TV show to express his outrage at Jewish criticism of the film. It was an appalling display of obsequiousness: Instead of explaining why Jews feel threatened by The Passion, he denounced its Jewish critics for supposedly trying to dictate to Christians what to believe.

Yet those Jewish leaders who have led the public campaign against The Passion have also behaved shabbily. In fact, they bear no small responsibility for turning the film into a media sensation. Instead of quietly encouraging an internal Christian debate over the film, they have created the worst possible outcome -- a growing Christian defensiveness over a perceived Jewish assault on their faith.

The crucial question, after all, is what Christians, not Jews, think about The Passion. Where a Jew sees blood, kitsch, and menace, a Christian sees sacrifice, suffering, and love.

I sat in on a discussion about The Passion among a group of Colorado Springs college students, most of them Evangelicals and Catholics. They'd just come from a screening, and were so overwhelmed by emotion that it took them a while to be able to speak. When they finally did, they raised crucial questions -- about emphasizing the crucifixion and all but ignoring the resurrection, about the historical veracity of the film, about the religious uses of Jesus's suffering.

"And what about how the Jews were portrayed?" a young man asked tentatively. "The Romans did most of the beating," one student replied. "There were some Jews in the film who tried to defend Jesus," another added.

The Passion can have a devastating effect abroad, for example in Eastern Europe, where Vatican II still hasn't taken deep root.

I don't know how typical those young people are. I suspect that most American Christians will react in similar ways. The two Christian communities that are responding most deeply to The Passion -- Catholics and Evangelicals -- are each in their way immunized by their own theologies against anti-Semitism. Vatican II has uprooted the deicide charge from normative Catholic thinking, at least in America. And evangelical support for Israel is based largely on the verse in Genesis in which God promises to bless those who bless the progeny of Abraham and curse those who harm them.

Still, The Passion can have a devastating effect abroad, for example in Eastern Europe, where Vatican II still hasn't taken deep root.

Clearly, those Colorado Springs students had very different perceptions than Jews about the main issues raised by the film -- which is, after all, not about what Christians believe about the Jews as much as what Christians believe about Christianity.

And so the dilemma remains: How strongly do we challenge and invalidate a faith experience for Christians and impose a Jewish agenda on what should be an internal Christian debate over the meaning of their faith?

The dilemma is compounded by mutual insecurity. For Jews, a wildly popular film evoking deicide only strengthens our growing sense that the bad days are returning.

For Christians, especially Catholics, who feel under assault because of the Church's sex scandal, the Jewish attack on a positive artistic depiction of their faith intensifies their sense of cultural siege.

Emerging from The Passion, I wanted to weep -- for the inadequacy of the good against the passions of the malevolent, for all the efforts at reconciliation between Christians and Jews that are so easily obscured by a media event. It was, of course, too much to expect that centuries of contempt would be erased by several decades of goodwill. But how is it that those of us who work for Christian-Jewish rapprochement can't manage better damage control when the demons of the past resurface?

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

For more on "The Passion" see:

Why Jews Don't Believe in Jesus

Gibson's Blood Libel

The Passion: The Movie and the Aftermath

Mel Gibson and the Jews

The Passion: A Historical Perspective"

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