Christians Launch Effort To Counter Film’s Impact

By Nacha Cattan

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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With the controversial film “The Passion of the Christ” set to open next month, some Christian groups are launching campaigns to counter theological errors that may exist in Mel Gibson’s account of the death of Jesus, while several Roman Catholic scholars are calling on their church to outline publicly its doctrinal belief as a counterbalance to the movie.

The call from the scholars comes as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is set to publish a compilation of official Catholic guidelines on how to read and present the last hours of Jesus’ life, which includes a repudiation of the deicide charge against the Jewish people. But several Catholic scholars who have been critical of an early script of the movie say it is not enough for the Bishops conference to disseminate the packet of Church documents through its usual channels. Instead, they say, it should be widely publicized in the media.

“We have to stand behind these teachings. We cannot just have a booklet out and say ‘it’s enough.’” said Sister Mary Boys, a professor at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary and a member of an independent committee that advises the Bishops conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

“A press conference could include why the booklet is coming out now. We want people who see the film or read about it to know the official teachings of the Catholic Church.”

As an example, Boys pointed to a recent statement issued by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America saying it views “with concern” recent reports regarding Gibson’s film. The Lutheran statement also reviews the group’s doctrines on the death of Jesus.

Meanwhile, an independent group of Christian scholars has put out a cautionary guide to the movie and churches and synagogues around the country are scheduling interfaith discussions on the topic. This upsurge in Christian response to the film comes ahead of its February 25 release date and follows renewed warnings by several Jewish organizational leaders that the movie portrays the Jewish people as Christ killers and could foment antisemitism. It also coincides with a seeming strategic shift among Jewish groups that are now looking to Christian officials to take the lead in opposing the film.

Sounding a similar note, several Catholic scholars are calling on the church to do more.

“I think you need some sort of press conference given everything that’s going on, perhaps with Cardinal [William] Keeler to give it wider exposure,” said the Rev. John Pawlikowski, another member of the committee that advises the Bishops conference. Keeler is the top Catholic official in charge of relations with American Jews. Pawlikowski, the head of the national Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, said that during a press conference, Keeler “could give a quick synopsis of the main points.”

Jewish communal leaders remain deeply distressed about the movie’s release. Officials of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee who attended recent screenings of the film in Orlando and Chicago reported that hardly any of the problematic scenes had been excised. Instead, they said, the most incendiary scene, which had been cut from previous versions, was brought back.

The version screened in Orlando last week contains a scene in which the Jewish high priest Caiaphas declares “His blood be on us, and on our children” — a statement that appears in Matthew 27: 25. The verse, Jewish communal leaders said, had been used in the past as theological justification for violence against Jews and the charge of Jewish collective guilt for deicide — which was repudiated by the Second Vatican Council. Gibson practices a traditionalist form of Catholicism that does not recognize the Second Vatican Council reforms. He repeatedly has denied that his movie maligns Jews.

While AJCommittee officials described the film as a setback to Christian-Jewish relations, they did not seem to go as far as the ADL national director Abraham Foxman, who said that the film would strengthen and legitimize antisemitic feelings.

In fact, some observers said that AJCommittee officials themselves appeared to shift their tone or strategy regarding the film, although the officials deny this. In a recent interview with The New York Jewish Week, the AJComittee’s U.S. director of interreligious affairs, David Elcott, steered clear of criticizing the film and said, “the movie is not a wonderful story or a horrendous assault.” But in an AJCommittee press statement released on the same day as the article, Elcott said, “The movie undermines the sense of community that has existed between Jews and Christians for decades in its unnecessary and destructive imagery of Jews.”

Orthodox Jewish leaders are expected to raise their concerns about the film at a January 29 meeting with bishops conference officials. The meeting will include members of two Jewish groups, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, and will focus on a variety of issues.

Historian David Berger, who is slated to speak about the movie at the meeting, told the Forward that after the film is released, the Catholic Church should conduct a “public evaluation” based on its own guidelines for dramatic depictions of the Passion, culminating in either a repudiation or endorsement of Gibson’s work. “The question that needs to be posed to Catholic authorities is whether they have been serious through the years in developing guidelines for presenting the Passion narrative,” said Berger, a professor of history at Brooklyn College. “This is a test case to see if they were serious.”

Eugene Fisher, associate director of the bishops’ conference’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said that his organization would review the movie upon its release. As with all such reviews, Fisher added, the conference will take into account Catholic teachings. He said that a 128-page packet of Catholic documents recently released by the conference is being disseminated to all dioceses in the United States. The bishops conference, Fisher said, has yet to decide whether it would publicize these teachings in the press.

Among other documents, the collection includes statements from the Second Vatican Council and the bishops conference’s 1988 Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion. The bishops conference, in conjunction with the National Council of Synagogues, is also releasing a video of talking points for interfaith groups. Fisher said that across the country, dioceses, synagogues and Christian and Jewish studies departments on campuses are already meeting to discuss the film.

“There is a network,” he said. “Our book will help to resource these discussions.”

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