Posted: February 23, 2004
Since its first test screenings in Houston and other cities across the country, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has sparked concern and controversy. At the Anti-Defamation League, the concerns come from the movie's portrayal of Jews, our knowledge of the history of passion plays and the types of reactions they can incite. The controversy comes from the ways we of different faiths see the movie: many Jews reacting with the concerns mentioned above, many Christians seeing it as a vivid portrayal of pivotal moments in their faith and a graphic, heart-rending demonstration of Jesus' supreme sacrifice for all people.
We realize that most Christians will find this movie to be an uplifting experience, and we are encouraged that it already has opened more doors to interfaith dialogue. Our greatest fear, though, is that it will do what many passion plays have done historically: provide validation for those who believe Jews are evil and foment anti-Semitism amongst those who already harbor those feelings.
The earliest known passion plays date back to the 12th century. Over the years, they have become increasingly elaborate, and popular, especially across Europe during Lent and Holy Week. Historically, because many passion plays have supported the idea that the Jews of Jesus' time are responsible for his death, such plays have incited destruction of Jewish property and verbal and physical attacks against the Jews.
We at the ADL do not believe that The Passion of the Christ will incite anti-Semitic riots, but we remain keenly aware of anti-Semitism both in our country and around the world, and the repeated use of the age-old deicide charge to legitimize hatred against the Jews. This charge continues to foment anti-Semitism, despite calls from Christian scholars and the Vatican itself for more than five decades that Jews should not be blamed for the death of Jesus and that such passion programs must be presented with sensitivity and avoid the "blame the Jew" syndrome that has pervaded them for centuries and pervades the Gibson movie.
Indeed many in Houston's Jewish community welcomed the statement issued recently by Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston: "The passion and death of Jesus was a horrific human suffering and it is essential to Christian identity and salvation. The Gospels are clear that some Jews called for His death. But from apostolic times, the church has professed, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate," a Roman governor. It would be tragic and abhorrent for anyone to use this film to stir up anti-Semitic feelings. We will stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters in trying to prevent any resurgence of anti-Semitism. I hope that Christians who see the movie will see themselves as responsible for Christ's death and that it will be a profound spiritual experience of repentance and conversion to a better Christian life."
The ADL hopes, as Bishop Fiorenza does, that the movie will be a spiritual experience for those who see it. Already it has created a great deal of discussion. The movie reminds us that we live in a world of diverse religions and opinions. Just as members of the Abrahamic religions have interpreted the Bible in so many different ways, those who have seen The Passion of the Christ have different interpretations. Sometimes it is hard to find common ground in those divergent reactions. Sometimes it is hard for us to understand each other, even though our religious narratives all began the same way.
We must remember that no matter what we see in a movie like The Passion of the Christ, our goals are the same. Jews and Christians alike share essential values that put love, compassion and understanding above division, exclusion and hatred.
In these days surrounding the release of this controversial movie, let us come together. Let us allow each other the opportunity to appreciate our similarities and learn about our differences. Let us open our minds and our hearts to interfaith understanding, and together, let us find more opportunities to reach the many lofty goals that Christians and Jews share