If there were anything anti-Semitic about “The Passion of the Christ,” I must have missed it. Perhaps my wincing at the sight of flying pieces of flesh and rivulets of blood, and the sounds of cracking whips and crunching bones had something to do with it. Despite “The Passion’s” gratuitously graphic portrayal of the flaying, torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Mel Gibson’s film is a staggeringly rendered awe-inspiring work of art — and if nothing else, a film evincing wrenching pangs of emotion.
Those expecting lessons in the teachings of Jesus and the moral foundations of Christianity will be sadly disappointed. The movie makes no pretensions of serving any other purpose than to present the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life and the brutality he suffered in the most graphic, visceral way possible — it is, after all, “The Passion.” Gibson had no qualms about incorporating violence: “I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge.” And no doubt he succeeded. The gore exceeds the limits of toleration and one’s gag reflex when the Roman guards tear into Jesus’ side with glass-shard whips to reveal blood-stained ribs and when a raven gouges out the eyes of the criminal crucified next to Jesus. These scenes are as unnecessary as they unpleasant.
“The Passion” isn’t your “progressive,” sanitized version of the death of Jesus Christ, but the film, in its macabre emphasis on the suffering of Christ, is not “backwards” or “un-Christian” as some critics have attempted to claim. Walk into any church and look up to find the symbol of Christianity and the tool of torture upon which Jesus suffered: the crucifix. True, many Christians today don’t believe in Gibson’s rendition of Satan as a physical being or wrack themselves with the guilt of Jesus’ death, but there nonetheless remains a fundamental connection to the suffering of Christ and its redemptive significance.
If the unabashed excesses of violence can be said to serve a purpose, they convey the mortality of the man from Nazareth. Yet unmistakably, beneath the torment and gore of the victim, there is the triumphant Jesus. By emphasizing the odiousness of his persecutors’ actions through their infliction of bloody torture, Jesus’ steadfast “turn the other cheek” aphorism becomes all the more resonant.
Many critics have challenged the film on the basis of betraying the Gospels by incorporating mystical visions and God forbid, Gibson’s own ideas. The movie faithfully follows the Scriptures of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, while patching up scriptural holes to create a coherent drama. Regrettably, Gibson has touted his film as absolute truth and Pope John Paul II jumped into the fray by rumoring to have said, “It is as it was.” While nothing in the Gospels is contradicted, “The Passion” is nonetheless an interpretation where artistic liberties were taken — nothing Gibson or the most fervent believer says should convince you otherwise.
Charges of anti-Semitism have been conveniently tossed around by those who object to the film’s portrayal of Jews in a negative light. Like all Passion plays, Mel Gibson’s rendition has the potential to ignite anti-Semitism. This possibility, however, does not legitimize anti-Semitism. Nothing validates hatred — a lesson Jesus would be quick to affirm.
Jewish leaders played a part in the material death of Jesus Christ, and true to the Gospels, Gibson is not shy about depicting their role. Yet to interpret this as anti-Semitism is unfounded. Jesus’ blood is figuratively and literally on the hands of all: the Jewish priests, the Roman soldiers, the citizens of Jerusalem and Gibson himself as he pounds the nail into Jesus’ hand. Furthermore, Gibson adds his own embellishment on the council of Jewish priests that condemns Jesus by depicting opposition from within the Jewish community, having several members of the Sanhedrin decry the trial as a “travesty.”
Both anti-Semitism and gross labels of “The Passion” as anti-Semitic originate from the same grave misunderstanding: that Christianity is an entirely separate, diametrically opposed religion to Judaism. Christianity built its foundations upon the Torah and the examples of the Jewish prophets and remains so to this day. Jesus and his followers were Jewish to the core — something the film makes abundantly clear in its use of Aramaic and dark-haired, Semitic-looking actors to play Jesus and his disciples.
Anti-Semitism should be a concern of all Jews as it rears its ugly head once again in Europe and some Islamic fundamentalist leaders call for death to all “Zionist-Crusaders.” But instead of declaring a faithful rendition of the Gospels anti-Semitic and alienating Christians who believe in their Scriptures’ literal accuracy, Jews should seek an ally in the Christian faith against the morally repugnant bigotry that is anti-Semitism.
“The Passion of the Christ” isn’t exactly “as it was.” Viewers must keep in mind that while the film follows the Gospels, it is an interpretation — an interpretation that relishes in the gore and suffering of Jesus Christ. And even if criticism for “The Passion” is unjust, if Gibson practices what he preaches, suffering is the only path to redemption.
Keith Urbahn is sophomore in Saybrook College.