Passion Redux

December 1, 2003 | 12 comments
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My entry below about Mel Gibson’s forthcoming film Passion generated some very thoughtful comments that I had overlooked until now. Rather than responding way down there, I thought it best to bring this topic to the top, as it is bound to generate more interest. The focus of the comments — a mini-debate really, between Brent and Taylor — is the historical record of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Brent defends Gibson to the extent that his film is based on an accurate portrayal of the information in the Gospels. He writes, “We clearly believe, indeed the Book of Mormon teaches, that the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ was responsible for Christ’s illegal conviction and crucifixion.” Taylor disputes the historical record. He contends, “The blame of the Jews by both NT and BoM writers is rooted in both political and theological arguments, not historical ones.”

I will not attempt to mediate the dispute about the historical facts, though my general inclination is to assume that we know less than we think we know. My point in posting was a different one. Even if the facts show unequivocally that “the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ was responsible for Christ’s illegal conviction and crucifixion,” the making of a film that emphasizes this fact may be “immoral” (borrowing from Amitai Etzioni) in that it stirs up contention between Christians and Jews. Or more specifically, it stirs up feelings of anger in Christians toward Jews. And given the sordid history of interactions between so-called Christians and Jews, I have sympathy for the concerns of the Jewish community.

I wonder if the reaction of Jews to this film (and others) is similar to the reaction that Mormons have when we feel that a film or book is not portraying our faith fairly. See my post here for that sort of reaction. Admittedly, we can distinguish Passion from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but I think the negative reaction stems from a similar sense of feeling wronged. We may not be able to point to any “fact” in the portrayal that is historically inaccurate; nevertheless, the facts may be presented in a manner that leaves the viewer with an impression that we think is incomplete and unnecessarily hurtful.

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12 Responses to Passion Redux

  1. Autumn on December 2, 2003 at 2:11 am

    I don’t want to get into a heated debate with anyone over gospel doctrine… however… if the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on the face of the earth… doesn’t it make sense to say that if the Book of Mormon is clear that the Jews were responsible for the crucifiction of the Savior… then that is probably acurate?

  2. Matt Evans on December 2, 2003 at 2:56 am

    Hi Gordon,

    It would seem to me that movies highlighting atrocities against the jews at the hands of the Germans or Egyptians, or blacks or Indians at the hands of whites, or Mormons at the hands of Gentiles, are open to Etzioni’s critique.

    But aren’t all of these stories worth sharing, just because they’re true, despite the fact that they create contention?

    I suspect Germans aren’t enthusiastic to visit the Holocaust museum, read Anne Frank, or watch Life is Beautiful, all of which undoubtedly affect attitudes toward Germans negatively. But I’m glad we have them.

  3. Gordon on December 2, 2003 at 5:14 am

    Two quick responses. First, to Autumn. Thanks for chiming in. Like you, I have no interest in a heated debate, and I appreciate the measured tone of your comment. You are certainly correct in saying that the Book of Mormon makes statements like “after the Jews … had slain the Messiah,” (1 Nephi 10:11), and “that Jesus, whom [the Jews] slew, was the very Christ and the very God.” Mormon 3:21. When I stated, “my general inclination is to assume that we know less than we think we know,” I didn’t mean to suggest that the Book of Mormon was inaccurate on this point, only that we presume to understand the reference to “Jews” as being the same group of people that we call Jews. That might be the right way to read these passages, but I am not certain about it. In any event, this is beside my main point …

    Which brings me to Matt’s comment. My point is not that we should never portrary atrocities. You and I would seem to agree that we can learn much from studying such events. Indeed, I think it is imperitive to remind the majority (e.g., Christian Germans in Germany, whites in the US) of the sins of their forefathers, that such events might more easily be avoided in the future. Your examples — “jews at the hands of the Germans or Egyptians, or blacks or Indians at the hands of whites, or Mormons at the hands of Gentiles” — all follow this pattern of a minority group being oppressed by a majority.

    The tougher case is the one presented by Passion, where the (current) minority group is cast as the oppressor and the (current) majority group as the oppressed. Now, if this were just a historical curiosity, like the Vikings slaughtering monks in England in the 700s, we are not concerned that Brits will get inflamed and attempt to persecute Norwegians in northern Wisconsin. But the crucifixion of Jesus is not just a historical curiosity, and the likelihood of Gibson’s film provoking presecutions against Jews is, if not high, at least tangible. That’s a moral issue.

    Still, with all of that said, I want to make clear that I would not ban the teaching of this story, either publicly or privately. My point is much narrower: I am suggesting that we should be very cautious in the way we teach the majority (Christians) about their relationship to the minority (Jews). My impression (having seen only the trailer, mind you) is that Gibson’s film risks being insensitive to that, relying on “adherence to the Gospels” as a substitute for moral judgment.

  4. Brent on December 2, 2003 at 10:09 am

    Very thoughtful post and commentary by all. I agree Gordon that various references to “Jews” both modern and scriptural may be subject to different interpretations and meanings. In fact, Nephi notes that in using the term “Jews” that he means those dwelling at Jerusalem (implying not just those of the tribe of Judah), and he even notes later that it is only “those who are at Jerusalem” who will crucify the Lord (1 Nephi 19:13) without a specific reference to Jews. Jacob notes that Christ had to come among the “Jews” because no other nation would crucify their God. (2 Nephi 10:3). Nephi also states that a “remnant of [his] seed” will later learn “that they are descendants of the Jews.” (2 Nephi 30:4). The implication in many of the Book of Mormon references to “Jews”, it seems to me, is that in using the term “Jews” the various writers really means those of the House of Israel. (Remember Lehi was a descendant of the tribe of Joseph through Mannaseh). In any event, it is clear that it was “Jews” who were the focus of Christ’s teachings and who initially accepted or rejected Him.

    I can understand and appreciate the concerns you raise about the impact the dramatic portrayal of Christ’s suffering at the hands of “those who [were] at Jerusalem” may have and the potential for harsh feelings being engendered among those who are ill-informed and incapable of recognizing the individual guilt of those involved rather than any sort of group guilt. In fact, without the ADL and others drawing attention to the historical fact that “Jewish” (whatever that means) leaders were responsible for Christ’s execution, this issue likely would never have come up. From what I have read, the main message and emphasis of the film is on Christ and his role as Savior, not on his relationship to the Jewish leadership at the time of his death. Regardless, I would hope that in light of the current strong state of Christian-Jewish relations, the risk of anti-semitism resulting from Mel Gibson’s movie should be relatively low. It is interesting to note that conservative Christians have been and are the staunchest supporters of Israel and Jews in the world. In fact, it has been recently reported that anti-semitism is at historical highs in a much more secular post-World War II Europe. I would speculate that, if most of the reports about the film are correct, Mel Gibson’s film rather than inspire anti-semitism, it will help Christians more fully appreciate Christ’s suffering and atonement and resurrection, which should inspire them to more fully follow His example of love and longsuffering toward all mankind. At least that would be my hope.

  5. Gordon on December 2, 2003 at 11:51 am

    Nice post, Brent. I hope that, too.

  6. Adam Greenwood on December 2, 2003 at 12:19 pm

    As I understand it, Gordon, you don’t mind remembering atrocities that remind majorities of their flaws, but you do mind remembering atrocities that keep the majorities satisfied with themselves and their natural tendency to mistreat minorities. Fair enough.

    But, as the intellectual said, It’s Not That Simple (see also, It’s More Complex Than That).

    Minorities can stultify themselves by keeping a too vivid memory of their wrongs. Such is certainly the case in the Israel-Palestine situation, and probably a contributing factor to the malaise of black America. Furthermore, majorities are paralyzed for good as well as evil when they learn too much of their mistakes and not enough of their defining myths.

    But put that too one side. I don’t really know that Christians are a majority in this country. Like Brent, I think Gibson’s aiming his broadside at a secular West, not at the leavening of Jews still left to us.

  7. Nate on December 2, 2003 at 12:51 pm

    A NOTE ON “JEW” IN THE BOOK OF MORMON: As I recall, in one of his books Nibley makes the argument that Lehi and his family were actually from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and were in that sense foreigners in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. Nibley argues that this explains the cool attitude of Nephi toward the “Jews at Jerusalem,” and his tendency to treat “the Jews” as a “them” rather than an “us.” If Nibley is correct, then there is political subtext to the Book of Mormon’s use of the term “Jews.” This suggests that Gordon is correct that we ought to be very, very hesitent to make sweeping generalizations about “Jews” on the basis of the book of Mormon text.

    Note also that this reading is congruent with Taylor’s discussion of current debates in NT scholarship suggesting that the word “Iudenoi” (if that is the right transliteration), which gets translated as “Jews,” may have had a much more localized meaning. It is important to remember that at the time of Christ there was already a huge population of diaspora Jews living in places like Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, etc.

  8. clark on December 2, 2003 at 2:21 pm

    I think that it was Sperry who first came up with this idea. I’m not entirely convinced by it. Further I think the coolness of Nephi can be perhaps laid at the feet of the persecution of his father. I mean we are talking about Nephi feeling that he was sent out in the wilderness largely because of the action of his people in the Palestinian region. I think we have to be cautious about reading too much political into things. Not because there aren’t clear hints of political undertones. There are. Simply that what these political undertones are seems ambiguous.

  9. Taylor on December 2, 2003 at 3:15 pm

    The hostility to Jews in the BoM and NT isn’t just a political event, but also a theological one. I mentioned in my previous comment on the first Passion posting that the notion of the righteous prophet who is rejected by wicked Israel is a dominant motif in the OT. The story of Moses, the Suffering Servant passages, Elijah, etc. are all examples of this theme. This is a powerful theological idea, but not always historical.

  10. Jim on December 3, 2003 at 2:06 am

    Relevant to the question of who killed Christ and, so, to some of the questions here: http://ghansel.free.fr/holocauste.html

    That is not a misspelling of “holocaust” in the web address. Though the piece is in English, the site is a French site.

  11. Rich on February 9, 2004 at 8:31 am

    I happened upon this site. I just wanted to say from the heart, as a Christian, that it has always been my view that all of us played a part in the crucifiction of Christ. This is why I wear a cross. The one death of Christ is still being played out in our daily lives. What we do today He felt then. The Cross, reminds me of what I have done, what I have failed to do daily so that I can face my fallen nature in oder to be healed of it. The cross helps me take a real hard look at my own passions and desires to see if they are in line with Christ’s passions and desires. The neatest part about this is the love that God has for you and me. He is the only one that can heal us from our fallen nature. the cross shows us what the world has to offer if we don’t have Christ first in our lives. Without the Crucifiction we would have no resurection. Pain and suffering has to be confronted to understand what Christ is all about.

    We as Christians are called to endure the cross that comes through proclaiming Christ crucified in order for us as Christians to have life. (Luke 9:23-25) Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself. Take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever looses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? We see the cross and death as a just reward for the wages of sin. Through Gods great mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, we prepare for the victory. We know that we are sinners in repentance, that Jesus did not die in vain. That He is on our side. Denying the cross, thinking we can avoid it is treading in dangerous waters. It is life on the Titanic.

  12. lyle on February 9, 2004 at 9:19 am

    Rich, Thank you for yor comments.
    All: The pre-screening isn’t happening…currently. However, I have access to special edition DVDs for free, which have the trailers and a special Q&A with Mel Gibson, some extras, etc. available to all. Just email me your name and address and they will go out this week to you.