National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

What I would tell my Jewish friends about 'The Passion'

Pacific News Service

I live on a Christian-Jewish fault line in this Jewish/Latino suburb north of Chicago. And “The Passion of the Christ” has just triggered a 7 on the socioreligious Richter scale.

Suddenly my two closest Jewish friends, a couple, are up in arms about what they consider to be Mel Gibson’s Mad Maxing of Jesus.

‘Passion’ stirs passion

Even before it opened, Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial, with some claiming the movie was anti-Semitic or could fuel latent anti-Semitism. The controversy has not been put to rest with the movie’s opening. In their discussion of the historical truth of the Gospels, the movie’s portrait of Christ and Christianity and the charge of anti-Semitism, these writers (Miller, Beaudoin and Tapia) reflect some of the divergent responses the movie has occasioned.
-- Margot Patterson, opinion editor

We share liberal politics, hip spirituality, a passion for expression through writing and art, a love for the outdoors. Our 12-year-old daughters are best friends. We light Hanukkah candles at their home; they bring gifts to put under our Christmas tree that blinks with the Star of Bethlehem.

But now a polemical 120 minutes has made us come face-to-face with something profound we do not share. A view, an experience, an interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death.

For me, a self-proclaimed Latin-Catholic-evangelical-Afro-Baptist-Pentecostal postmodernist, this first became apparent as I heard of their grave concern about Gibson’s artistic and religious vision around the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. Various Jewish organizations and writers they respect sounded alarm about the movie’s anti-Semitism at worst, and at best the provocation it could have for those who are latent anti-Semites.

Theirs is a voice I had not heard before and realized I did not understand intuitively. I read what they shared with me and felt their outrage. I was cautious about engaging them in an in-depth dialogue until I myself had seen the movie.

When I sat in a darkened sold-out theater, I had my defenses up. I had read one writer who proclaimed that the movie “would inspire more nightmares than devotion,” many others who declared that Jesus’ messages of love had been drowned in gore and blood, that viewers would walk away wanting to strike people like my Jewish friends. I was ready to see it through my Jewish friends’ eyes.

Instead I ended up being part of a religious experience. Tears were streaming down the face of a young woman on my left there on a date with her boyfriend as Jesus was whipped. On my right a Slavic father with his wife and teenage son swallowed hard repeatedly throughout the film. By the time the credits rolled the audience sat in a hush, slow to get up in contrast to the customary end-of-the-film rush for the exits. I experienced all of it, emotion and faith swirling within me, pushing out the intellectualism of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

And I got a glimpse of how difficult it would be to bridge my view of the movie with what I knew would be my friends’ views. Because we both are rooted in our differing views of Jesus himself.

For a people historically persecuted as “Christ killers” by the institution of my upbringing, how to explain that for modern Catholics, the Jews of the New Testament are an abstraction? They are the narrative foil for the death that Jesus had to go through to save us from our sins. For Latin Catholics, the movie viscerally and personally connects them to the countless crucifixes nailed on their home walls, perched on sensual baroque altars, dangling from rearview mirrors.

And how to explain that evangelicals are so focused on their personal relationship with Jesus and what he has done and can do for them that they find Jews quite irrelevant to their own personal experience with Jesus? Evangelicals are so ahistorical and so single-minded about the hereafter that the story of Jesus has been but a metaphor for suffering and redemption.

Or how to explain to my Jewish friends that much of this movie is more about narrowing the gap between traditional Catholics like Gibson and evangelical Christians?

Finally, how to explain to them that for lapsed Catholics and evangelical Christians, this celluloid “Passion” captures the one unchangeable, untarnishable thing about Christianity -- Jesus himself. With each lashing, each driving of the nails into his flesh, those who grew up Christian or converted are brought back to the central figure of Christianity.

There he stands naked, bleeding, broken in an accurate depiction of the Gospel narratives. In this moment there is not yet the all-powerful, corrupt Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages, no megachurches, no screaming, fundraising televangelists, no jingoistic American flag-wavers, no sex-abusing priests, no annihilating anti-Semitism.

How to explain religious Christian devotion to the central figure of the faith? That was what was evoked as Christians in the audience winced when metal-tipped whips dug into Jesus’ sides and back. In their hearts they believe that “through his stripes we’re healed.” For them the vivid, gory reliving of Jesus’ final hours only serves to make their devotion stronger as they witness his suffering.

Those who don’t understand this kind of religious devotion may have overlooked the flashbacks that stood in dramatic contrast to the evil Jesus endured. He said to love those who hate us. To forgive those who do not know what they do. He called his followers to be peacemakers. To lay down their lives for their friends.

This is what I would want my Jewish friends to know.

Pacific News Service contributor Andres Tapia grew up in Lima, Peru. He writes on spirituality, immigration and cross-cultural issues.

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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