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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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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.