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The Passion

New -- 20 March 2004

Updated -- Easter 2004


Mel Gibson's 2004 movie, The Passion, has done far more than remind us of the traditional passion plays of medieval and modern times. The man who brought us Braveheart and The Patriot has now caused with his latest effort a religious furor with a bloodthirsty vengeance.

The good news is that more and more people are thinking, asking questions, and seeking answers about their Christian religion. Such self-examination is always a good thing. [And it's about time! After all, it has been said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”]

The bad news is that Gibson's version tends toward being a very narrow view, akin to the philosophy of an extremist cult and one which can be considered not only anti-semitic but also for the most part, anti-Christian . [This latter assumes that a Christian is someone adhering to the words and works of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (as opposed to the advocates of the Romanized Pauline Christianity ).]

In essence, Mel Gibson is advocating the fundamentalist, predominantly Catholic Hierarchy belief that the importance of Jesus Christ's time on Earth is that he suffered and died for the rest of us. Such a doctrine is, as Leon Wieseltier noted, “The Worship of Blood.” [1] Even Pope John XXIII went so far as to issue an papal encyclical in which he argued it was Jesus' suffering, his sacrifice of blood, which redeemed everyone's sins, and not his dying on the cross. In this respect, Gibson was going for the sacrifice of blood -- apparently buckets of it.

Gibson has claimed that anyone having trouble with his movie, The Passion , must also has trouble with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). This is disingenuous at best. The Passion as related in these principal books of the Christian faith amounts to roughly 8% of the entire gospels. Gibson has thus taken out of context the arrest, trial and death of Jesus, and glossed over His message of love, compassion, and redemption. As Time Magazine phrased it, Gibson's movie has become “The Goriest Story Ever Told” [2], and is a far cry from “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

There is considerable debate when it comes to such issues as sacrifice and atonement. From a universal perspective or from reading any of the so-called Lost Gospels – such as Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Peter, etc. – things are not quite so crystal clear. Neither sacrifice nor atonement are the cut and dried version that the Gospel according to Mel might assume is the final gospel truth. There are indeed other interpretations, as well as other versions – from The Fifth Gospel to the Gospel according to Daniel. There is even the irony of Pagan Easter , where the church decries paganism and then contradicts itself by usurping paganism's traditional symbols and dating.

There is also the argument that while Jesus may have indeed suffered on his way to the cross, was His suffering far greater than the suffering of people around the globe, of the Iraqi boy who, for example, lost his legs and an arm in the U. S. invasion of Iraq ? What about the suffering of the victims of the Catholic Inquisition and the church's life-long habit of persecuting anyone disagreeing with their doctrines? Is death on the cross (admittedly a lousy way to die) worse than being burned alive at the stake? Jesus, at least, still had the stamina to carry a heavy cross half way to Golgotha – before being relieved by Simon, the Cyrene.

There is also every reason to believe that the four gospels are not historically accurate. The uncovering of the Lost Gospels and other sources [3] has made it clear that the virgin birth, Jesus' dying on the cross, and his marital status may have been far different in reality than the politicized version of Matthew, et al. The fundamentalist Catholic version is thus only one of many possibilities, and is – in the opinion of many scholars -- the most seriously flawed. The overriding emphasis on suffering and bloodletting is in fact contrary to the teachings of Jesus – those included in the four gospels, as well as the Gospel of Thomas and other historically accurate versions of his life and teachings.

[There is also the suggestion that this “Gospel according to Mel” is also racist, in that it should be fundamentally obvious that Jesus, the Disciples, Mary Magdalen, and the others were not pure bred Caucasian, down home in Iowa folk. While possibly not black, they were at the very least dark skinned and very similar to modern Arabs. Claims by the movie supporters as to historical authenticity is thus highly questionable.]

It is unquestionably true that Mel Gibson, Pope John Paul II, and everyone else of a similar persuasion have the absolute right to believe as they will, and to create works which fulfill their vision of the truth.

It is also unquestionably true that others have the right to point out the flaws and inaccuracies of such a version. This is particularly the case when The Passion carries with it the appeal to return to an extremely narrow doctrine of suffering and dying being the essence of Jesus Christ. And thus the reason for this page.

In this regard, a particularly succinct and convincing argument on the negative connotations of Gibson's leap of faith has been provided by Rabbi Michael Lerner. His well-balanced Plea is included below in its entirety. It is well worth reading.



[1] Leon Wieseltier, “The Worship of Blood”, The New Republic, March 8, 2004.

[2] “The Goriest Story Every Told,” Time Magazine, March 1, 2004.

[3] For example, M. Baigent, R. Leigh, and H. Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Johnathan Cape, London, 1982; Laurence Gardner, Bloodline of the Holy Grail; The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed, Barnes & Noble, New York, 1996; Robert Siblerud, The Unknown Life of Jesus; Correcting the Church Myth, New Science Publications, Wellington, Colorado, 2003.


Gibson's The Passion

A plea to Christians to Respond with a Gospel of Love and Hope in place of this new fundamentalism

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Editor, Tikkun Magazine

Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism in the way that we did with the other great systems of hatred (racism, sexism, homophobia) when he told a national t.v. audience on February 16 that "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film (The Passion) but with the Gospels." [emphasis added] Few Christians today know the history of anti-Semitism and the way that the Passion stories were central to rekindling hatred of Jews from generation to generation. Many are embracing Gibson's movie and not understanding why Jews seem to be so threatened. Gibson knows that for many Americans it is simply unimaginable to question the Gospels.

Those who wanted to purge hatred of Jews from the collective unconscious of Western societies after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 faced an impossible dilemma. The dominant religious tradition of the West was based on a set of four accounts of Jesus, each of which to some extent is riddled with anger at or even hatred of the Jews. The Gospels were written, many historians tell us, some fifty years after Jesus' death at a time when early Christians (most of whom considered themselves still Jewish) were engaged in a fierce competition with a newly emerging rabbinic Judaism to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews (some of whom were becoming Jewish Christians, retaining their Jewish practice but adding to it a belief in Jesus as messiah) and the minds of the disaffected masses of the Roman empire (some Christians already having given up on converting Jews and beginning to think that the real audience for their outreach should be the wider world of the Roman Empire).

The Gospels sought to play down the antagonism that Jews of Jesus' time felt toward Rome, so they displaced the anger at his crucifixion instead onto those Jews who remembered Jesus as an inspiring and revolutionary teacher but not much more (not a messiah, not God). The result: an account that portrays Jews as willfully calling on the Romans to kill Jesus, rejecting the supposed compassion of the Romans, and thereby earning the hatred of humanity for the Jews' supposed collective responsibility for this act of deicide. Conversely, Jesus' Judaism, his viewing the world through the frame of his Jewish spiritual practice and Torah-based thinking, is played-down or at times completely obscured, so that the message of these professional "convert the non-Jews" thinkers would not be undermined by a covert message (still advocated by some of the Jewish Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospel) that to be a Christian one should also become a Jew. [See, for example, the Ebionites.]

When Christianity gained state power in Rome in the 4th century of the Common Era, it quickly began to pass legislation restricting Jewish rights. And as Christianity conquered Europe in the ensuing centuries, spreading its story that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the Jews became the primary demeaned other of Europe for the next 1700 years. Jews came to fear Easter because the retelling of the Crucifixion story often led to mob attacks on defenseless Jews who were blamed for having caused the suffering of Jesus.

In the aftermath of WWII, many principled Christians recognized that the Holocaust was possible in part because Hitler was able to draw upon the cultural legacy of hatred toward Jews nurtured by this kind of Christian teaching. The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have sought to distance themselves from this long history of demeaning the Jews. But although anti-Semitism became unfashionable, only a few Christians were willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels and culminated in its historically doubtful account of the Roman imperialists, who ruled with an iron fist and crucified thousands of Jews, bowing to the will of a hateful Jewish mob determined to kill Jesus.

Even when the Catholic Church officially banned teaching hatred of Jews, it never ordered its dioceses to teach about the role the church itself had played in creating and sustaining those negative stereotypes.

Liberals and progressives in the late 20th century did an impressive job of confronting and educating the public about the literary, intellectual, and cultural sources of racism, sexism and homophobia. But they tended to shy away from anti-Semitism, both because of the mistaken assumption that it was no longer a real problem (after all, Jews were economically and politically flourishing in post-WWII America) and because such a confrontation would have forced a challenge to the dominant Western religion at the core of its most dramatic story: the crucifixion.

Nevertheless, ever since the 1960s, there have been thousands of sensitive Christians, who, to their credit, have created a Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story and giving greater focus to the Resurrection than to the Crucifixion. [emphasis added] Returning to Jesus' Jewish roots, and refocusing attention on the bulk of the Gospel, with its stories portraying a Jewish Jesus who builds on and elaborates the ancient Torah commandments to "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love the stranger," the Christian renewalists tended to see the two-thousand-year history of Christian anti-Semitism as a distortion of the deeper truth of the Gospel. Easter became a holiday to celebrate the rebirth of an ancient Jewish hope that the forces of hatred and cruelty manifested in the Crucifixion could be overcome by a triumph of the forces of love, generosity and kindness whose Resurrection and ultimate victory were celebrated at Easter.

Yet that renewal movement is now being effectively challenged by a Christian fundamentalist movement with deep ties to right-wing politics. [emphasis added] In post 9/11 America, many people have given up on the hopeful vision of social change movements. They have turned to a deep pessimism in which the idea of a world based on love, cooperation and generosity to the other is alternately ridiculed and disdained as unrealistic and dangerous. A cynical realism holds sway in the media and mainstream American culture and political institutions, placing American progressive and visionary thinkers on the defensive. No wonder, then, that many Christians are attracted to interpretations of their religious tradition which emphasize the danger and cruelty in the world while sidelining aspects of the Gospel which teach compassion and solidarity with the oppressed.

I've written about this struggle in another context (see my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation). Inside the Jewish [and Christian] tradition[s] there has always been a struggle between those who have heard God's voice as the voice of accumulated pain and cruelty of the universe passed on from generation to generation, and those who have heard God's voice as a voice of love, compassion, generosity and transcendence. Even in our Torah there are moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own accumulated pain and hence hear a voice that talks a language of power, domination and cruelty, and other moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own capacity to respond to God's revelation of love and generosity. [emphasis added] There are Jews all over this planet and in Israel who feel deeply sad and outraged that the wisdom and beauty of our own Torah has today been appropriated by Right-wing West Bank settlers who use Torah to justify the expropriation of land from Palestinians, insensitivity to the pain caused by the Occupation, and arrogance toward an entire people whom they dominate. Trapped in the fears generated by 1700 years of Christian oppression, some Israelis today and some American Jews cannot acknowledge their own power, and see themselves as victims of the Palestinians rather than as the actual occupiers and tormentors of another people that they have become. [emphasis added]

The insensitivity of many Jews to the suffering we are causing to the Palestinian people may even make the insensitivity of Jews portrayed in Gibson's film seem to be characteristic of Jews — when in fact it is a distortion that is unrepresentative of most Jews today just as it was unrepresentative of most Jews at the time of Jesus. But it is a living example of how even the most loving- and justice-oriented tradition can be turned into its opposite — and sometimes by the people who claim to be its official public representatives.

And so it is through history that we find in virtually every religious tradition the people who distort the message of love of their own traditions and instead portray God as the voice legitimating domination, power over others, cruelty and violence. The George W's, the Osama Bin Ladins, the Ariel Sharons and the Arafats are found in every tradition. And they don't even need the frame of religion (some people like to blame these distortions but the truth is that the Nazis, Stanlinists, and Vietnam-war mongers of the US did not need religion to act out the legacy of pain and cruelty in the world). There is no religious tradition, no ideology of liberation (including Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, etc.) which cannot be appropriated by a distorted consciousness and transformed into its opposite, that is, into a mechanism or a justificatory ideology to dominate and act out of cruelty. [emphasis added]

So let's understand that the attempt to revive Christian enthusiasm around the part of the story that is focused on cruelty and pain is not only (or even primarily) a threat to the Jews, but rather a threat to all those decent, loving, and generous Christians who have found in the Jesus story a foundation for their most humane and caring instincts. It is these Christians who are under assault by Mel Gibson's movie, and by the particular form of Christian evangelicalism that it is meant to stimulate. [emphasis added]

Yet, in a deeper way, the Gibson movie is likely to stimulate a broader assault on all of us who seek to build a world based on caring and love, cooperation and generosity, by giving strength to the part within each of us that despairs, the voice within each of us that tells us that cruelty is what is "really how the other is, really how the world is," ["It is as it was." Pope John Paul II] the voice inside each of us that feels that there is no point in struggling to transform the world because it is too hopeless and too dominated by craziness (and that is the point of the Jews in the Gospel calling for Jesus to be killed, because it is saying "even the Jews, his own people" do this, because evil is dominant in the world and always will be, and the only way out is to believe in Jesus and find salvation in another world, and despair of changing this one).

So, part of the struggle is to reclaim and reaffirm the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who retains hope for building love right here, the Jesus who unabashedly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived (which is to say, that it is here on earth, that the world right now can be based on love and kindness, and that we don't have to wait for some future time or "the end of days" as described by Isaiah, because it is here now, we can make it happen right away by the way that we live our lives). And it is this voice of Jesus that The Passion movie seeks to marginalize or make invisible. [emphasis added] (One sad sidelight of this entire history has been that it has made it almost impossible for most Jews to learn from our brother Jesus — and yet, precisely as a powerful Jewish teacher and a fore-runner of the Jewish renewal movement, Jesus has important lessons for Jews today, and should be re-appropriated into the Jewish tradition, not as messiah or son of God, except in the sense that we all are that, but in the sense of being an inspiring teacher with all the strengths and human limitations of the rest of our teachers).

I hope Christians will take the lead in organizing people of all faiths to leaflet every public showing of Gibson's film with a message that runs counter to the anger at Jews that this film is likely to produce in at least some viewers. I hope that every morally sensitive Christian minister and priest will use the weeks ahead to preach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism until most parishioners can understand why Jews would feel worried about the popularizing of the Gospel story. But I hope also that the discussion isn't reduced to that Christians take on the underlying challenge and affirm their commitment to the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus that preaches that a world of love is possible right now, right here, through our actions. I write this precisely as one of those Jews who affirms Jesus and some aspects of his teachings, learns from him, and feels solidarity with him as a great Jewish brother and teacher.

The best hope to avoid a new surge of anti-Semitism will not come only from de-coding the anti-Semitic themes in Mel Gibson's film, or the Gospel on which it was based, but rather by re-crediting the ancient Jewish vision of Jesus that in place of the Old Bottom Line of money and power, a New Bottom Line of Love and Generosity is possible. People of all faiths need to shape a political and social movement that reaffirms the most generous, peace-oriented, social justice-committed, and loving truths of the spiritual heritage of the human race. It is only this resurrection of hope that can save us from a new wave of global hatred.

Please take this message and ask your local newspaper to publish it. Send it to your friends and anyone on your email lists. Please approach local Christian groups to take the lead to create this discussion publicly. Or, failing that, please have your local Tikkun Community create a public discussion of these issues (we are doing that in the Bay Area on March 14th -- 3-6 p.m. at the Jesuit University: University of San Francisco in McLaren Hall with speakers including Matthew Fox — check our calendar of events at www.tikkun.org a few days before). We will also discuss these issues in greater detail at the annual Tikkun Community Conference and Teach-In to Congress for Middle East Peace April 25-27 in Washington, D.C. because at a deep level they underlie the entire enterprise of building a world of peace (if you despair of that, then you stop thinking about how to build more cooperation and the Ariel Sharon and George Bush strategy of domination over others is what you are left with).


Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, national chair of the interfaith peace and justice organization The Tikkun Community (http://www.tikkun.org), rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, and author of Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (HarperPerennial) and most recently, of Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003). Responses to: RabbiLerner@tikkun.org    

WE WANT TO HEAR from you! Use our direct link to share <A HREF= "http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/your_views.html">your views</A>. Or write to "Letters," Tikkun Magazine, 2342 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 1200 , Berkeley, CA 94704; Fax: (510) 644-1255. Please include your name, address, and daytime phone number. Letters may be edited for space and clarity.



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