Silence of the Flock

If Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a problem, what is the problem, and whose problem is it, anyway? There are in fact two problems, and their relationship is both oblique and shadowy.

The most important is the film's anti-Semitism. Gibson and his screenwriter, Benedict Fitzgerald, say they didn't intend to make an anti-Semitic film, and we must, I suppose, take them at their word. But even taking them at their word addresses only the conscious intentions; if one examines the imagery and associations in the film, the power of the unconscious rears its head -- and in this case it is an ugly and a dangerous one. In a world in which acts of violence against Jews and their sacred places are on the rise, any work capable of fanning these always fannable flames is morally dicey. The possibility that Gibson's film, whether intentionally or not, will contribute to growing anti-Semitism -- not only in this country but in the world at large -- is a problem for all people of goodwill, not only for Jews.

The second problem lies in the realm of ideas. The story of the Passion, which deals with the mystery of death, is, naturally, one that calls up intense (you could even say passionate) responses. These responses are in the nature of Christian family quarrels, but who ever said family quarrels were temperate or trivial?

Quarrels of interpretation over the life, death, and ministry of Christ are likely not to be very important to Jews -- indeed, it would be strange if Jews entered into the discussion at all. But it would be disappointing in the extreme if Jews considered the anti-Semitism issue theirs, and if Christians focused on the questions of interpretation. Unfortunately, in the gallons of ink and hours of media time devoted to this film -- and to the response to it -- I have yet to find a critical mass of Christian alarm about the implications of The Passion and its anti-Semitic potential. I have been unpleasantly surprised by a consistent ahistoricity in most Christian discourse about the film, as if it were possible to speak about anti-Semitism apart from a history of the Holocaust, to speak about Jewish-Christian relations without referring to the Church's implication in the centuries-old history of Jewish persecution in Christian Europe.

Except in the words of James Carroll writing in The Boston Globe, Garry Wills writing in The New York Review of Books, and an issue of the (liberal Protestant) Christian Century, which devoted several articles to the film, I have found precious few notes of outrage or anxiety in the Christian commentary on what is, however temporarily, a major cultural event.

The Jesuit magazine America at least paid attention to the film's anti-Semitism, but I was startled by the intellectual sangfroid of an article on the 19th-century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, an inspiration for Gibson and Fitzgerald and their depiction of the Passion. Emmerich's inclusion of Jewish blood libel in her understanding of the Passion is brushed off as another aspect of 19th-century German thought, and her assertion that Ham, the son of Noah, is the progenitor of the "dark and stupid races" is mentioned without commentary. The author, John O'Malley, says about these mad and dangerous writings, "While it has been helpful to people in the past, I would not recommend it to anyone today." This is kind of like saying that bloodletting might have once been a useful practice, but we've moved on.

More alarming still were the articles in the two other major journals most associated with Catholic liberalism. In The National Catholic Reporter, which did cover the controversy, signed articles showed little interest in the anti-Semitic dangers of The Passion. One piece even criticized the actions of the Committee of the U.S. Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Religious affairs, which, having been denied access to the film and the screenplay, received a purloined copy and expressed its concerns, suggesting revisions that would lessen the anti-Semitic tone. The National Catholic Reporter suggested that this was a brand of censorship, and ended the article "Let Mel Be Mel." It also included an open letter by someone who had been deeply moved by the film and urged Gibson to donate a share of his substantial profits to the National Catholic Relief Fund.

This insensitivity to the anti-Semitic dangers of the film was echoed in an article by Richard McBrien, otherwise noted for his outspoken liberal positions. His piece, reprinted in several Catholic newspapers, focuses on the anti-Resurrection portrayal of the Passion and asserts that McBrien is not speculating "about whether the film is likely to foment anti-Semitic feelings and behavior. In fact, anti-Semitism is not even at issue here. What is of interest is the irony of it all -- not of the film itself but of its enthusiastic reception by evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants and of the carefully designed efforts to recruit them as its most zealous promoters." In reading this, I was reminded of the "Son of Sam" case, in which the eponymous Sam, owner of the dog that the killer David Berkowitz thought was telling him to kill women, told a journalist that what most upset him was not the dead women but that Berkowitz was sending get-well cards to friends of Sam's who were not even sick.

Most offensive to me by a long chalk, however, was an article in Commonweal by John A. Coleman, which begins by asserting that Gibson's film is not anti-Semitic because it divides the blame evenly between Jews and Romans. Never mind that this is patently untrue, that Pontius Pilate is portrayed as sensitive, thoughtful, and agonized and Caiaphas as a bloodthirsty rabble-rouser. This article, heADLined "Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall: How Christians and Jews Approach the Cross," focuses most of its attention on Chagall's use of crucifixion imagery as an icon of Jewish suffering. Now, what are we meant to think of this discussion at this moment in cultural history? It asserts the power of the image of the cross, but its subliminal effect is to link Chagall and Gibson, a partnership that can only boggle the mind.

But how could anyone expect much sensitivity to the anti-Semitic aspects of the film when the hierarchy of the Catholic Church provided such equivocal leadership? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reissued a collection of Vatican II documents, asserting that Jews were not to be blamed for the death of Christ and issuing guidelines for the presentation of the events of Jesus' last days in Passion plays, a move greeted with appreciation by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). But when Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, attempted to get some clarification from the Vatican about the pope's supposed statement that "it is as it was," and asked the Vatican to take action similar to the American position, he was rebuffed. Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, praised the movie, asserting that it was not anti-Semitic and denying that there was any need for the Vatican to restate Vatican II teachings on the role of the Jews in Jesus' death.

My candidate for this year's award in the category of equivocal behavior, however, goes to Edward Cardinal Egan of New York, who issued a pastoral letter expressing his concern that Gibson's film might be conducive to anti-Semitism and destructive of Jewish-Catholic relations -- only to urge, a few weeks later, that all Catholics "rush" to see this inspiring film.

At stake for Christians and Jews are the questions: What is Christian responsibility for the ongoing history of anti-Semitism, and what kind of trust can Jews have of Christians if this responsibility is not acknowledged? The us-them divisions that these events have engendered underscore the poignancy of Abraham Foxman's questions: "Why are we the only ones raising our voice? Where are you?"