Deicide Déjà Vu: Mel Gibson's Film, the Passion -- an Attack on 40 Years of Jewish-Christian Dialogue

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It is now four decades after Nostra Aerate and a few years after both A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People and Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity. In addition, the Scholar's Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches has for more than 30 years now been a positive force for Jewish Christian dialogues in both North America and Europe. The results of these documents and dialogues have been far reaching, even in to the parish and local church level. In a modest way they have had an impact on the liturgy of some churches. There has even been a shift in the rhetoric of some in the Christian fundamentalist community regarding Jews, Judaism, Israel and the Shoah. Would all of this progress in Christian Jewish dialogue be wiped away with one video representation of the death of Jesus? Would the film resurrect the ancient accusation of deicide against the Jews? Would it be the precursor of a new era of Christian religious anti-Judaism akin to that already existing in the Moslem world? These are critical questions that must be addressed in any discussion of Mel Gibson's The Passion.

To paraphrase Paul Newman's famous line from Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure of interpretation!" Mel Gibson's The Passion is a film based on a personal interpretation of the Gospel story of the last hours of Jesus. That specific interpretation is part idiosyncratic to Mel Gibson and to the brand of Catholicism he and his father and others express that denies the changes in Catholic theology and liturgy generated out of Vatican I and II. That interpretation is also colored by the very anti-Jewish novel of the erstwhile nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the early 1800's. (In what must be the height of bad taste, bad timing, and obvious pandering to the right wing of the Catholic Church, the Church leadership has begun the process of beatifying Emroerich as the first step towards sainthood.)

Gibson has said in numerous interviews that he is simply being faithful to the Gospels themselves. This is hardly true. Any rendition of the Gospel story which condenses all four works into one cannot by definition be true to the Gospel story. But Gibson also adds many images to the story not contained in the Gospels. The Executive Director of Boston Colleges Center for Christian Jewish Learning, Phillip Cunningham's brilliant analysis of the film, Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching, gives evidence of this in a most graphic way. Cunningham points out the numerous non-biblical references contained in the film, primarily drawn from the demented ravings of Emmerich. Gibson's artistic license, in part drawn from Emmerich, raises the level of anti-Jewish images well beyond those in the Gospels themselves and gives rise to the accusation of antisemitism, which Gibson denies.

However, it is not the intent of this paper to recount those anti-Jewish aspects of the film, but rather this paper will focus on the impact of the film on Christian-Jewish dialogue. In a survey done of viewers of the film, pollster Gary Tobin reported that the film did not have the negative impact Jewish groups predicted. As reported in the JTA on March 17(th) 2004,

...a random national survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Tobin's group March 5-9, nearly two weeks after the movies premiere, 12 percent of the 146 people who had seen "The Passion" said it made them "less likely" to blame Jews today for the crucifixion, compared to 5 percent who said they were "more likely" to blame all Jews for killing Jesus.

Was Gibson correct that the film was not antisemitic? Were Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant groups crying wolf? The doomsday predictions of immediate increased anti-Jewish attitudes and antisemitic violence never happened.

Gibson was not correct; religious groups were not crying wolf. …