Discussions about Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie "The Passion" have taken a disturbing turn. Rather than focusing on an effort to find out whether Mr. Gibson is making a movie on the death of Jesus that is consistent with church teachings and free of the anti-Semitism that haunted passion dramas for centuries, the very raising of questions is now being depicted as a part of the culture wars that have overwhelmed American society in recent years.
Movie critic Michael Medved put the issue in the context of "liberal activists, who worry over the ever-increasing influence of religious traditionalism in American life." And Kathie Lee Gifford writes that Mr. Gibson "is being so tormented for something that he has every right to do - as an artist in a free country where he is supposed to have the freedom to express and practice his own faith."
This is a strange and unfortunate reaction to the legitimate questions that have been raised. Let us remember that the Catholic church itself and Pope John Paul II, hardly a liberal, revolutionized centuries-old teachings about Jews and Judaism related to the death of Jesus. Recognition by the Vatican of the devastating effects of church teachings about Jews - blaming Jews for the crucifixion, delegitimizing Judaism as a religion, not speaking clearly against anti-Semitism - created new Church doctrine which has transformed Catholic-Jewish relations.
Whether one is conservative or liberal, indeed whatever ones views concerning which is best for American society, the issue of portraying the death of Jesus as a Jewish crime has long been rejected.
Why have we been raising questions as to whether Mr. Gibson's movie may be returning to outmoded, dangerous views of the Jewish role in the death of Jesus?
First, because there has been a long history of the passion story i.e., the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, being interpreted as holding the Jewish people responsible for killing Jesus.
According to this interpretation, both the Jews at the time of Jesus and the Jewish people for all time bear a divine curse for the sin of deicide. Throughout nearly 1,900 years of Christian-Jewish history, the charge of deicide has led to hatred and violence against Jews of Europe and America, and various forms of anti-Semitic expression. Historically, Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) was a period when Jews were most vulnerable and when Christians perpetrated some of the worst violence against their Jewish neighbors.
In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, the Roman Catholic Church took formal steps to correct this interpretation of the passion. In its document, Nostra Aetate, the Church officially repudiated both the deicide charge and all forms of anti-Semitism. Most Protestant churches followed suit, and since 1965 many Christians have worked cooperatively with Jews to correct anti-Semitic interpretations within Christian theology. Understanding the influential role that passion plays have exercised in the spread of anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church today urges great caution in all dramatic presentations of the passion to ensure that they not furnish any impetus for anti-Semitic attitude or behavior.
In 1988, the Catholic United States Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued a pamphlet, "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," which stresses that passion plays must avoid caricatures of Jews and falsely opposing Jews and Jesus. It quotes Pope John Paul II's statement that, "Catholic teaching should aim to present Jews and Judaism in an honest and objective manner, free from prejudices and without and offenses." The pamphlet concludes that correct Catholic teaching of the passion is one that portrays Jews accurately, sensitively and positively, because "the Church and the Jewish people are linked together essentially on the level of identity."
Second, a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars of the first century examined a draft of the screenplay of the film. In the words of Paula Fredrickson, one of the scholars, "the script, when we got it, shocked us." She noted that the scholars "pinpointed its historical errors and - again, since Mr. Gibson has so trumpeted his own Catholicism - its deviations from magisterial principles of biblical interpretation."
She went on to say: "That script - and, on the evidence, the film -- presents neither a true rendition of the gospel stories nor a historically accurate account of what could have happened in Jerusalem, on Passover, when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas was high priest.… The true historical framing of Mr. Gibson's script is neither early first century Judea (where Jesus of Nazareth died) nor the last first-century Mediterranean dispora (where the evangelists composed their Gospels). It is post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe."
Third, because Mr. Gibson, a "traditionalist" Catholic, has expressed strong criticisms of the modern church and is supportive of views of church policy that question or reject the many 20th-century changes, including the revolution in attitudes toward Jews beginning with Nostra Aetate in 1965.
This combination of history, an early version of the script, and reports about Mr. Gibson's views understandably raised concerns. We have not, however, reached conclusions about the film because we haven't seen it and because the producers say they have made changes. We have, instead, asked the producers for an opportunity to see a preview of the film. If our concerns would turn out to be unjustified, we will be eager to say so. If problems remain, we will be happy share our suggestions with Mr. Gibson.
In a world when anti-Semitism has undergone a frightening resurgence, one of the hopeful perspectives is the fact that the Church has changed so dramatically. We urge the makers of "The Passion" to continue this important progress that has benefited Christians and Jews.