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Controversial 'Passion' presents priceless opportunity for education

A toxic film delivers a dangerous, but teachable, moment

By Paula Fredriksen / February 2, 2004

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" came into my life last April. Gene Fisher, the ecumenical officer for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, convened a group of scholars to assess Mr. Gibson's script - its historical fidelity, use of New Testament materials, and consonance with Catholic instruction.

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Why did we on the panel care? This was, after all, just a movie. The answer, in part, lay with Gibson's own publicity efforts. In numerous interviews, he'd presented his movie as an act of God, insisted that it was the most historically accurate depiction of Christ's passion ever filmed, and paraded his own Catholic piety as authentication of his movie.

But Gibson had revealed some historical gaffes. One source for his story came not from the first-century Gospels, but from Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a stigmatic nun whose visions enunciated an anti-Semitism typical of her time. (She believed that Jews used the blood of Christian babies for rituals.) And, finally, website stills of the movie were marked with Hollywood gore: "Realism" had less to do with history than with celluloid violence.

All this concerned those of us who work to promote interfaith dialogue and good relations between Christians and Jews. We volunteered time and expertise to give Gibson a confidential report that reviewed the problems, historical as well as (from a Catholic point of view) doctrinal, with his script. We framed our presentation by naming one precise source of concern: The long, toxic Christian tradition that Jews were - or are - particularly responsible for the death of Jesus, and how this has led to anti-Jewish violence.

Icon Productions leaked our report to the media, presented our assessment as an "attack" on Christianity, and has worked hard to keep the controversy alive until the movie's release Feb. 25. Right-wing Jewish pundits have been lined up to report that they see no problems with the movie, and that criticisms of it "lack moral legitimacy." Catholic concern has been deemphasized and Jewish concern emphasized to enhance the idea that the controversy is a Christian vs. Jews argument. Gibson's critics, say "Passion" apologists, attack his rights, and thus the rights of all citizens.

Let's be clear: This is an action flick. Gibson has taken skills honed in "Lethal Weapon," "Conspiracy," and "Payback" to construct his take on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. If you've seen the final half-hour of "Braveheart" (a medieval action movie) you've essentially seen "Passion." This time, Caiaphas is Longshanks.

Again, so what? It's just a movie. But this movie - unlike, say, "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" - risks more than religious offensiveness, and does more than simply entertain with violence. "Passion" stands in the echo chamber of traditional Christian anti-Judaism. The tradition at its most benign has excused, and at its most malicious has occasioned, anti-Jewish violence for as long as Western culture has been Christian. Jews viewing "The Last Temptation" were hardly going to feel enraged at Christians. Someone overstimulated by "Massacre," if tempted to act out, would act on his own. Christians enraged at the supposed Jewish treatment of Jesus have often acted out against Jewish neighbors in their midst, and felt morally and theologically justified in doing so.