The Passion of the Christ and Congregational Interfaith Relations

Article excerpt

By the time you read this we will be in the midst of the next installment of how The Passion will impact Jewish-Christian relations since the DVD was released on August 31, 2004. As of this writing you can find competing discounts for as low as $17.50, and bulk orders through churches are going to boost sales even before it is released. Mel Gibson's violent, darkly personal interpretation of the final 12 hours of the life of Jesus continues to be a fascinating measurement of the Zeitgeist. The flurry of charges and counter-charges about the films anti-semitism are now being dismissed, because there were no pogroms causally linked to the film.

Whether the films violent portrayal of Jews and their role in the death of Jesus ultimately has an impact of how people feel about and relate to Jews today, only time will provide the perspective and necessary anecdotes as evidence of such negative behavior. Here is what we can state without equivocation: The Passion of the Christ will continue to provoke serious conversation and confusion among Jews and Christians who want meaningful relations between the communities through their synagogues and churches.

Immediately prior to the film's release in theaters and for the first few weeks prior to Easter 2004, there was an outpouring of Jewish-Christian dialogues, programs, sermons, editorials, reviews, panel discussions, workshops, and clergy association meetings. Out of all those programs came a renewal of important relationships that have both an immediate and signifcant influence on Jews and Christians within their congregations. Even in communities without organized interfaith programming, one could find real concern and at least a new openness to old fears. Then the movie amazed everyone with its success at the box office, $370.3 million with equally amazing numbers of viewers worldwide. All of this without any significant episode of public rage against Jews for the crime of deicide, God's death. But now as the DVD comes out in the final days of summer, there will be little of the polarizing media or renewed interfaith education which the public experienced last winter.

Yet, the release of the DVD and VHS tape is a moment which requires serious reflection for the future of the very programs that seemed so successful just six months ago. The questions raised by the film are not new questions; rather they are the classic issues of anti-Judaism and antisemitism which have remained during the last 1900 years. The film and now DVD version depict spectacular violence as the suffering of Jesus, which is the key to why this film is a vital barometer of the Zeitgeist. Though created by a traditionalist Catholic who relies on the writings of a recently beatified Catholic mystic, Anne Emmerich, The Passion of the Christ has galvanized the Protestant Evangelical communities. The film invites the viewer to experience the physical sacrifice that Jesus went through as the Savior. This is not some visual subtlety as the film begins with a verse from Isaiah 53:5 "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (NRSV). Gibson forces his viewer to experience that the Christ event is transcendent suffering: violent, unrelenting, bloody, cruel, merciless, and mesmerizing.

The many questions raised by reviewers, scholars, and the public about the film's antisemitism are now the fodder of future academic papers. Whether there is an antisemitic affect/effect when the film is shown privately in homes, youth meetings, church adult-ed classes, seminaries, missionary meetings in foreign lands, and among clergy may well be beyond calculation. Much of the Christian community prepared their followers for the film with educational material which reviewed their particular denomination's teachings about Jews, Judaism, and the death of Jesus. The release of the DVD will not include any study guide or commentary, and one must ask whether the same Christian education preparation will be offered or provided as the film leaves the public domain. …