If you're like many people, you are probably pretty fed up with the seemingly endless controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ.
After ominous predictions that the film would stir up anti-Jewish violence faded into unreality and box-office sales finally began to trail off, it seemed reasonable to think that Passion critics would simply cut their losses and get on with life. Yet, recent events — including the enormously successful release of the DVD version of the movie and the beatification of the visionary German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, dubbed “Gibson's muse” — have opened old wounds and once again aroused anti-Passion ardor among the embattled few.
This past September, Peter Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, and John Merkle, associate director of the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, released a statement condemning the film. Another 139 people, identified as “Christian scholars and leaders,” appended their signatures to the statement, which led a colleague of mine to remark with admiration that, despite the evidence heaped against them, this fringe element of the theologians guild would simply never accept that they were wrong about the film.
One cannot help but think of the heroic-pathetic figure of the black knight in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who — in spite of a progressive loss of limbs — valiantly struggles on, assuring his adversary that such losses are “only a flesh wound.”
The paternalistic air of the statement certainly didn't help the signers' cause. Much as an elementary-school teacher must patiently spell out concepts to the slower students in the class, the academics condescendingly “acknowledge that many who see the film are honestly unaware of its anti-Jewish elements.” But they “feel bound by our knowledge and our faith … to alert our fellow Christians to the film's misrepresentations and insinuations.”
In other words, even if our fellow Christians are too obtuse to recognize anti-Semitism when they see it, we — the enlightened few — feel obliged to point it out. Something akin to a theological noblesse oblige of the semi-skilled knowledge class.
I must hasten to add that many of the document's signers were undoubtedly motivated by the noblest sentiments and a sincere desire to enhance Jewish-Christian relations. Following the sterling example of Pope John Paul II, Christians must indeed repudiate the sins committed against Jews by their co-religionists and disassociate themselves from any vestiges of anti-Jewish attitudes that stubbornly persist even today. Unfortunately, the statement's signers have chosen a most wrong-headed path to accomplish their goal.
By smearing a faith-filled representation of Christ's passion as antiSemitic, the statement runs the risk of replicating the syndrome of the boy who cried wolf, who, having repeatedly sounded the alarm without cause, failed to receive help when the real enemy finally appeared.
The space of this column is insufficient to comment on all the errors that the authors managed to pack into their brief statement, but a few examples should suffice. First, the document begins by casting Gibson's film in the tradition of medieval Passion plays, a sort of guilt-by-association ploy unworthy of thinking persons. The only thing the film has in common with Passion plays is the subject matter, and to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. As viewers have recognized, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, rather than disqualified a priori as hateful or provocative.
Secondly, the document calls into question the historicity of the Gospel accounts, “since the Gospels themselves are products of an historical situation that drew strong contrasts between Jesus and his Jewish kinfolk at the expense of his affinity and affection for them.” While people are free to accept or deny the historical validity of the Gospels, it should be understood that the Catholic Church “unhesitatingly affirms” the historicity of the four Gospel accounts (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 126).
The signers of the statement hail from a number of Christian communions, thus unanimity on this point is not to be expected. Nonetheless, a substantial majority of Christians will clearly identify with the Catholic position here. After all, if Christians are not permitted to evaluate a representation of the Passion by its fidelity to the Gospel accounts, one wonders what source could possibly be fit for such a task.
One thing is certain: Jesus Christ became a sign of contadiction.
Having excluded the Gospels as a historical source, the rest of the deconstruction of the film comes naturally. For instance, the document states that the film “has generated a great variety of responses from viewers, which testifies to the ambiguity of its central message.” I am personally unaware of any film in the history of cinema that generated a homogeneous reaction from viewers, and I am not sure that such a phenomenon is possible, or even desirable.
One thing is certain: Jesus Christ himself (due to no ambiguity of his message) generated an immense diversity of responses, so much so that he became a “sign of contradiction” and divided families down the middle (see Luke 12:51-53). And referring to the diametrically opposed responses to Christ's Passion, St. Paul writes: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). If the historical event of Christ's death provoked such diverse and even contrary reactions, then one would expect an artistic rendering of the event to generate a similar response.
Fortunately, this dogged resistance to the film pales in comparison to the overwhelmingly positive response by most scholars and ordinary viewers. On Nov. 7, the movie received its umpteenth prize, this time from the Catholics in Media Associates which gave Gibson its yearly film award at the association's 12th annual Mass and luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Also registering their praise for the film are the droves of DVD buyers, who purchased a record 9 million copies in the first three weeks after its release.
Fortunately, in a free society, people can still make up their own minds.
Father Thomas Williams, LC, is dean of the theology school at Rome's Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University and theological consultant for the making of The Passion of the Christ.