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Passion Play

From the August 25, 2003 issue: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ.

Aug 25, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 47 • By MICHAEL NOVAK
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THE NICENE CREED, recited by the world's more than two billion Christians every Sunday, declares that Jesus Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried."

More than anything else, these ten words are the theme of "The Passion," Mel Gibson's new movie. Although not scheduled to be released to theaters until Ash Wednesday, "The Passion" generated this spring more discussion than any film in recent memory: endless op-eds, press releases, debates, and denunciations--all about a movie, in Aramaic and Latin, that none of the commentators had seen.

Perhaps in response to all this publicity, both negative and positive, Gibson released a trailer for "The Passion" on July 14. And then, on July 21, he brought a rough cut of the film (with English subtitles) to Washington for a few commentators and interested writers to see.

It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen. In the days since watching that rough cut, I have not been able to get the film out of my mind. Although I have read many books on the death of Jesus, and heard countless sermons dwelling on its details, I would never have believed a human being could suffer as much as Gibson's Christ does. Seen through the perspective of the mother of Jesus, as this film allows the viewer to do, the suffering is doubly painful--for with her, we watch the unbearable scourging, gustily delivered by the Romans at Pilate's orders nearly to the point of death. The pillar to which Jesus is chained is less than waist-high, so that his back is bent while he must keep himself on his feet. When he is dragged away, blood lies pooled and splattered on the white marble floor. The soldiers' laughter echoes again at the moment of the awful downward push when he is crowned with thorns. And then there are the thundering falls of the scourged Christ upon his flailed and bleeding back, under the impossible weight of the cross.

There are, in a sense, only five historical accounts of the Passion: in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and, in bare but vivid outline, in the letters of St. Paul. Paul's accounts are by some thirty years the earliest and represent in large strokes the settled beliefs of the first generation of Christians. Down the centuries, the narrative of Christ's death and its meaning have remained much the same.

The fuller accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John supplement each other, often overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another on the sort of contingent details that eyewitnesses (or their note-takers) often report differently. But all the Christian accounts agree that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all human beings of all time, under the command of the Roman consul in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate.

Jewish accounts concur that Jesus was a Jew who suffered and died under the Roman authorities. His claims for himself seemed to Jewish authorities then (and since) to be blasphemous--for Christ clearly announced that he owned an authority higher than the high priests and the rabbis', said forthrightly that he was greater than Solomon, and put himself on a higher plane than Moses. He went even further, daring to call God his father.

The claims Christ made for himself seemed at the time divisive and dangerous. Many people, the Jewish authorities told Pilate, were following this man's lead. His history, they said, showed that he worked magic, performed miracles, and consorted with demons. He had been sent by God, he as much as said, to "fulfill the Scriptures." His continued preaching might lead to riot and rebellion. But only the Romans had the power to do to Jesus what was actually done, and so it was under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and at the hands of the Roman Empire, that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried."

AT THE TIME of Christ's death, Christianity was still internal to Judaism. The Christian Church itself began not at the Passion, but fifty-three days later on Pentecost, when the apostles left an "upper room" in Jerusalem speaking in tongues. With his preaching Jesus had clearly put a challenge to Judaism, expressly announcing a "new" covenant, whose mandate was to "complete" and "fulfill" the "old" covenant. And there is no doubt that Jesus' death meant a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews. Nonetheless, from a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant. God cannot be unfaithful to his promises. Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them?

Thus, Christians hold that Christianity fulfills the hopes launched into the world by Judaism. They also hold that those Jews who reject Christianity remain vessels of God's first love. In God's mysterious plan, the continuation of Judaism in time is a grace to be respected, on the same principle on which the faith of Christians rests--the fidelity of God to his everlasting promises.

The Jewish leaders of the generation that knew him did in fact reject Jesus and his claims, and they did accuse him of blasphemy. "Nevertheless," as the Second Vatican Council said in its statement on Judaism, "the Jews still remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made." The Council strictly forbids Catholics to hold Jews to be "repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures." And it deplores "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time and from any source against the Jews." This condemnation includes the Church's own sins. The Council stressed the two covenants' common spiritual heritage and foresaw a future in which both communities would serve God "shoulder to shoulder."

Gibson's film is wholly consistent with the Second Vatican Council's presentation of the relations of Judaism and the Christian Church. But "The Passion" will not be easy for Jews to watch. One reason is simply that its entire subject is the death of one who, for many Jews, is a figure of division, Jesus Christ. And a second reason is that it is never easy to relive a moment in which the leaders of one's community, however justified they might have been by their own lights and their own sense of responsibility, do not appear to viewers to be acting in a noble way. As a Catholic, I cringe every time I go to the theater when a pope, cardinal, archbishop, or even priest is portrayed in an unflattering light. Even when they deserve it, I do not enjoy the spectacle.

In the first part of the gospels' account of the Passion, the high priests of Jerusalem standing before Pilate are, painfully no doubt to contemporary Jews, the voice for the prosecution. During the early scenes of the movie, which I tried to watch as if I were Jewish or seated alongside a Jewish colleague, I thought: This is too painful. Having sat through many analogous moments as a Catholic, I did not like the experience.

VERY SOON, though, the action in the film belongs to the Romans. Roman soldiers inflict systematic pain on Jesus with gusto, lighthearted bantering, and the practiced sadism of those who know how to keep subdued populations subdued. The overwhelming drama consists in Christ's willing endurance of unbearable suffering, for the purpose of inaugurating an entirely new order in human life. The movie, like the gospels, is unmistakable in setting this meaning before our eyes. It is, somehow, our sins for which Jesus is dying.

The Passion of Jesus Christ is not a drama about ethnicity. It is about our humanity. The hero of this movie is Jewish, his mother is Jewish, his apostles and followers are Jewish. But one misses the whole point of the Passion of Jesus unless one sees that he submitted to his suffering for all of us. From the first, Christ's teaching in life had been, "Take up your cross and follow me." The meaning of that teaching could not have been plainly understood before his death. This movie suggests to viewers that in witnessing Christ's suffering, our own suffering has a forerunner and teacher. Suffering like Christ's may be redemptive. That depends on how we shape our heart to it.

On the cross, the Christ of Gibson's movie is offering forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity. To blame his suffering on others' sins, instead of one's own, would be to join the boisterous soldiers who inflicted on him all the pain that viewers will hardly be able to watch. If Christians blamed others, they would again make a mockery of Christ. They would again pound the crown of thorns into his skull.

Are there historical inaccuracies in this film? Yes, some minor ones (beginning with the Roman characters' Italianate Latin: Echay 'Omo, Pilate pronounces Ecce Homo, when he exhibits Christ to the crowd). Is the film unfaithful to its historical sources? One who hears the gospels often will feel at home in it, but Gibson did not set out to make an academic documentary. His film is a stream of slowly moving, vivid images, against a starkly universal backdrop. The spoken words are mostly in Aramaic (Latin when the Romans speak), which exceedingly few people understand these days.

The sounds of the unfamiliar tongue put the viewer outside any one time or place, in a kind of timeless, universal space. The mood "The Passion" generates is meditative and contemplative. The tone is awe. One finds one's emotions hushed. For minutes after the film ended, the audience at the showing I attended did not speak or move. We felt part of an indescribably important human moment. We had been drawn into an axial point of silence and wonder.

Such is the power of a genuine work of art--and in its artistic integrity, "The Passion" dwarfs any previous biblical film.

BUT THE MAKING of a film about the death of Jesus Christ is a public event, and it has public consequences that need to be considered. Before I saw "The Passion," I was sympathetic to the worries about the film strongly expressed by the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations. History is not reassuring concerning dramatic treatments of Jesus' Passion, and there has been considerable negative talk about Mel Gibson ever since his project was announced, much of it related to the schismatic views attributed to his father, who is ninety-two.

More important, ours is a particularly nasty time for Jews around the world. Taboos that had seemed firmly in place since 1945 have suddenly dissolved. Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated in France, horrible slogans are shouted in public throughout Europe, acts of violence against Jewish passers-by are caught on film, and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which we thought discredited forever, is welcomed with a new credulity in the Arab world.

Gibson's film, however, is simply not part of this horrendous trend. On August 8, representatives of the Anti-Defamation League attended a private screening of the rough cut in Houston and, on August 11, released a new statement that still attacks the film "in its present form." Their interpretation of the movie does not square with the film I saw. Gibson omits some of the New Testament texts most painful for Jewish readers, such as "His blood be upon us and our children!" He also adds such moderating scenes as some of the Pharisees walking out in dissent from the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and, later, one member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, helping to lift the lifeless body down from the cross.

MOST IMPORTANT, Gibson's narrative shows that Pilate alone has the power to put Jesus to death, and the film's full narrative weight assigns responsibility to Rome and the Roman soldiers. The Anti-Defamation League is wrong to assert that the Jewish authorities are "forcing the decision" and that the Jewish high priest is "controlling" Pontius Pilate. The Jews had no such power, and they say so in the film. Pilate tries to shift the responsibility, first to Herod, then to the high priests. And he pretends that the decision is not his--but he knows it is, and he gives the orders that only he can give. His soldiers enjoy their brutal sport, as obviously they have done before: Historians suggest they performed this gruesome work about 150 times in crucifixions under Pilate.

There is no doubt that the trial of Jesus was not, in the Christian telling, the best moment of the high priest and his council. But the first two generations of Christians were nearly all Jews. They still thought of themselves as Jews, and they were at first astonished to see how they were rejected and persecuted by Jewish officials. The accounts by the evangelists are plainly written to convince believing Jews that Jesus fulfills the biblical anticipations, and nearly every word they write in criticizing the Jewish leaders of their generation was an allusion to condemnations of earlier Jewish leaders by the Jewish prophets.

The early Christians thought their criticisms of the Jews were of the sort one makes within one's own community, and therefore had a different edge than they would have had if they had come from pure outsiders. Only gradually, and with something of a shock, did Christians come to see that, even if they thought of themselves as serious Jews, they belonged to a new community.

Though visually powerful in the way only movies can be, Gibson's film recognizes that Christian criticism of the Jewish leaders has different valences today than it did in the first years after Jesus' death, and on the whole the movie softens the Jewish elements of the gospels' story and with the New Testament places the onus on the Romans.

Still, Jews will not agree that Jesus as the Messiah took the sins of all upon himself in self-sacrifice. That makes a movie about the Passion not only a memory of a painful separation between communities, but also a story with dramatically different meanings for Christian and Jewish viewers--and for that there is no immediate solution, short of banning all attempts to make films about the death of Jesus.

BUT GIBSON'S VERSION is not divisive or dangerous for Jews. Without preachiness, without external commentary, this cinematic reenactment has the potential to be transformative in powerful, mysterious, and quiet ways. When "The Passion" is released on Ash Wednesday its effect around the world will almost certainly be conciliating, quieting, and calming, for it induces awe at the suffering we inflict upon one another.

Through the film, the viewer is forced to see a single human being's passion. A man who claims to be the Son of God knows in advance, as the film shows, the unbounded pain he is about to suffer, the mere thought of which makes him sweat blood. But he willingly accepts this burden, and he perseveres through every shock to his flesh in order to open up a new way of living for the entire race.

Gibson's achievement springs not solely, not even mainly, from a cinematographer's art. Whether he intended it this way or not, perhaps because he puts on film the unadorned directness of the gospels, "The Passion" is a meditation and a prayer.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair of Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.