Any piece of pop culture that touches on serious religious themes inspires its share of controversy, but the noisy assaults on Mel Gibson's unfinished film The Passion, which describes the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ, seem unfair and painfully premature. Indignant denunciations of a movie that its critics haven't even seen, coming nearly a year before that picture's scheduled release, suggest an agenda beyond honest evaluation of the film's aesthetic or theological substance. The explosive charges of anti-Semitism being directed at this project may even threaten the emerging alliance between devout Christians and committed Jews.
In March, The New York Times Magazine launched the controversy with a hostile story mentioning the movie and featuring an interview with Gibson's 84-year-old father, Hutton Gibson. According to the magazine, the old man questioned the commonly accepted figure of 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and entertained conspiracy theories about 9/11. While employing guilt by association and attempting (without evidence) to connect the views of an obscure father to his world-famous son, the Times piece raised alarms about a possibly slanderous portrayal of Jews in the film's graphic depiction of the crucifixion.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other groups devoted to combating anti-Semitism issued critical statements about The Passion based on an early draft of the screenplay that the Gibson camp called a "stolen" script. Gibson insists he has altered the screenplay substantially since that early draft, but this didn't stop the ADL from issuing an angry statement on June 24, asking: "Will the final version of The Passion continue to portray Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of Jesus? ... Will it portray Jews and the temple as the locus of evil? ... ADL stands ready to advise (Gibson's) Icon Productions constructively regarding The Passion to ensure that the final production is devoid of anti-Semitic slander."
Of course, the ADL might have advised the producers more "constructively" with a private phone call, memo or meeting rather than with a thermonuclear press release. As it is, assaults on his unseen film leave Gibson in a painful predicament. If he ignores the ADL and other critics, he faces accusations of "insensitivity," but if he responds to their condemnations by allowing activists to shape his picture's content, then he undermines his announced intention of sparing no expense (including $25 million from his own production firm) to create a film of fearless, uncompromising Gospel authenticity.
In fact, the worries about anti-Semitic messages in the upcoming epic seem overblown based on known facts about the project. Of course, members of the religious establishment in ancient Judea come across badly in New Testament accounts, but beyond these villains, the new movie boasts a Jewish hero (or Hero) — not to mention many other sympathetic Judeans, including Christ's disciples and mother. Moreover, Gibson emphasizes the Hebraic identity of the Man from Nazareth. Production stills show actor Jim Caviezel as perhaps the most Semitic Jesus in cinema history — a welcome change from the Nordic Messiahs in many previous films. To make certain no one ignores the Jewish identity of Christ and the Apostles, Gibson insisted that his actors speak nearly all of their lines in Aramaic, the language of ancient Judea and a close cousin of Hebrew.
Of course, even the most responsible, well-intentioned movie treatment of the last hours of Jesus will provoke concern in the Jewish community, because so many millions of Jews have suffered and died over the centuries due to Gospel-based charges that they are "Christ killers." But the fact that persecutors and bigots have distorted teachings of the New Testament for their own cruel purposes doesn't mean that those Gospel texts, sacred to all Christians, must be scrapped, revised or ignored in a serious work of cinema.
In fact, the plea that Gibson's movie should place exclusive blame for the Crucifixion on Roman authorities contradicts not only mainstream Christian teaching, but also elements of Jewish tradition. In a courageous piece in the national Jewish weekly The Forward, Orthodox scholar David Klinghoffer points to Jewish sources more than 1,000 years old that "teach that Jesus died at least partly thanks to decisions taken by his fellow Jews."
Ironically, the new debate over these issues comes at a time of unprecedented cooperation between Jews and Christians. Since 9/11 and the chilling wave of homicide bombings in Israel, Jewish Americans have increasingly abandoned their instinctive fear of Christian evangelicals to make common cause with them in defense of the Middle East's only democracy. This troubles liberal activists, who worry over the ever-increasing influence of religious traditionalism in American life. The ADL, for instance, has been outspokenly critical of the so-called Christian right for more than 20 years, despite unstinting support for Israel by these conservatives. In this context, the dispute over The Passion draws attention from the virulent and dangerous anti-Semitism emerging from the Islamic world and instead refocuses concern on the long, tortured history of hatred of Jews by Christians. The controversy also raises pointed questions about Christian conservatives, who have conspicuously embraced many of Gibson's recent projects, including The Patriot and We Were Soldiers.
The beleaguered director hopes to discredit his critics with his movie's artistic quality. In almost plaintive tones, Gibson insists it always has been his intention that The Passion would "unify people rather than divide them."
Perhaps his efforts may yet achieve an uplifting ending to the story of his production, allowing the ADL to go back to doing what it does so effectively: concentrate on real dangers to Jews from real enemies who wish us real harm. Certainly, the Islamic terrorists and their sympathizers who loathe both "Zionists" (Jews) and "Crusaders" (Christians) can only smile at the utterly gratuitous divisions between the two faiths over an unfinished movie.