Whatever else may be said about it, the bitterly divisive debate over “The Passion of the Christ” proves that Mel Gibson’s movie is — well, divisive.
This is not a small point. Gibson and his admirers insist the film’s message is one of love and redemption, meant not to divide but to unite. In countless published reviews and interviews, fans have described the film as an uplifting experience that can only bring the viewer closer to God. More than that, they have insisted, over and over, that no one could honestly draw any other message from the movie.
But that is not so. A great many viewers, both Christian and Jewish, have very honestly drawn a very different message from “The Passion.” Jews have come away disturbed by the film’s depiction of the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ day as a bloodthirsty mob howling for Jesus’ death; in this it seems to resurrect a toxic stereotype that has caused great suffering in the past and might conceivably do so again. Many Christians are troubled by the film’s relentless violence, which they see as an affront to Christianity’s teachings of peace. Such a nonstop orgy of torture, they insist, can only harden and degrade the viewer.
Of course, that can’t be true either. If the film’s violence is inevitably degrading, how do so many viewers manage to leave the theater feeling uplifted?
The plain truth is that Gibson’s film is a mirror, reflecting back what each viewer brings into the theater. So spare is its narrative that every viewer fills in the blank spaces with his or her own preconceived notions: Jesus’ redemptive grace, Jewish vulnerability, violence as corruption and so on.
And yet, so powerful is the glare of the film’s reflection that viewers seem blinded to the fact that others are reacting differently. That, it seems to us, is the essence of its divisiveness.
For all the tut-tutting of liberal critics, millions of Christian viewers have found the film’s violent imagery soaringly redemptive. For them it recreates in visual terms a theme of salvation through blood and martyrdom that is every bit as integral to Christianity as the social gospel of the Sermon on the Mount. Outsiders may find that sort of religious experience foreign and alienating, but they should not doubt its sincerity, nor mock its integrity.
Redemption through blood and suffering has deep roots in virtually every religious tradition, including Judaism. Some of the most grisly imagery in “The Passion” might almost have been lifted intact from the ~Eleh Ezkera or Martyrology liturgy recited aloud in synagogues on Yom Kippur morning, with its starkly graphic recounting of the torture-executions at Roman hands — steel-tipped scourges and all — of Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues in the year 135. Those faithful to the Jewish tradition should understand the impact of “The Passion” on Christian traditionalists.
But the pain felt by Jewish viewers is no less real for all that, and Christians need to understand it. Not because of the film’s violence. That is beside the point. What sets our blood boiling is the portrayal of our ancestors as guilty parties, fanatically bent on killing the son of God. The images of conniving Temple priests, of howling Jewish mobs, of Satan slithering through the crowd — our crowd. These images are poisonous.
Do not mistake us. It is not that our feelings are hurt. We are not insulted but frightened. These images have provoked violence against Jews many times in the past by untutored Christians eager to avenge their savior. Gibson and his defenders say it could not happen again, that humankind and Christendom have moved past all that. We’d like to think it’s true, but we’re not reassured, particularly when we see the speed with which the Christian love aroused by “The Passion” turns to rage at its critics.
Those defenders of “The Passion” who insist that it could not provoke anti-Jewish violence because its message is one of Christian love simply do not know their history. We have — literally — been in this movie before.
It’s a tribute to Gibson’s filmmaking skill that his movie has the power to evoke such intense feelings on all sides. It’s a pity that he lacked the greatness of vision to make a film that enlightened its audiences as well as aroused them, that helped viewers to understand one another’s reactions and united us instead of dividing.