The argument over Mel Gibson’s dramatization of the death of Jesus needs analysis, and this is not difficult to undertake, even for those who have not seen the movie, scheduled for release in February, on Ash Wednesday.
The plot line is remarkably brief. The biblical writers had no interest whatever in the kind of thing that interests Mel Gibson. He has taken on, after all, the greatest drama in human history, the crucifixion of the Jew who claimed divinity and persuaded most of the civilized world to accept his word. Matthew handles the whole thing–from the order given down by Pilate, to the expiration of Jesus–in less space than is taken by this newspaper column.
In that account, one line is spoken which most grievously offends several Jewish critics who have seen the two-hour film. The moment comes when Pilate attempts to free Jesus, on the grounds that he has not been proved guilty of anything. A colloquy ensues, Pilate vs. “the Jews” who are clamoring for Jesus’ death. Pilate declares, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” Matthew 27: 25: “And all the people answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’”
That curse is not recorded in the three other gospels’ accounts of the Crucifixion. Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, comments, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor, that “a tremendous number of Jews never turned against Jesus during Holy Week,” and records that “the Gospel use of the phrase ‘the Jews’ referred to Jesus’ Jewish opponents, not all Jews. It was a common construction of writing of the time.”
But Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, believe that the language that includes the tribal curse should be removed from the film, which Mel Gibson actually thought to do in one version of it (The Passion is still being edited). Their more general objections are to the depiction of the murderous bloodthirsty Jewish mob, as feeding a negative stereotype of Jews. “Do I think it will trigger pogroms?” said Mr. Foxman. “I don’t think it will. But will it strengthen and legitimize anti-Semitic feelings? Yes, it will.”
That judgment is incautious. Nothing legitimizes anti-Semitic feelings. The movie’s play to human emotions is of course central to its purpose. Mel Gibson is a professional producer of movie drama, and an essential part of drama is to show on screen what happened, or is said to have happened. Nothing would be more ridiculous than to sweeten the voices of the mob that cried out for crucifixion.
But the notion that this generates anti-Semitism is not entirely to be scorned. Movies about the Holocaust generate a measure of straight-out anti-German sentiment. Mel Gibson’s movie (Braveheart) about the Scots generated, however fleetingly, anti-British sentiment. The movie Zulu is here and there resented as depicting black Africans as savage.
The danger that the reiteration of the story of the Crucifixion will do anti-Semitic damage is, happily, slight. The Vatican in 1965 rejected and indeed denounced the proposition that the acts of individual Jews two thousand years ago justify anti-Semitism. The nightmare of the holocaust will always keep us awake to the awful lengths to which ethnic and religious hatred can go. But if there is consolation to be sought, surely it is that Hitler was utterly indifferent to any crimes any Jews might have committed against Jesus Christ. His antagonism–his hatred–was based on preposterous, but no less lethal, ideas of racial purity. I know of no text by Hitler against the Jews–and they are legion– in which the death of Christ is even hinted at as indicating 20th-century Jewish culpability.
The idea of corporate guilt is stultifying. Yet it is constantly being fed, as by such doings as President Bill Clinton’s going about Africa apologizing for slavery. It is one thing for modern Americans to regret slavery, quite another to apologize for it. Slavery, like anti-Semitism, is perpetually regrettable, but only those who engage in regrettable activity need to apologize for it. If it were otherwise, who among us could be free of ethnic or racial or religious taint from one or more historical abominations?
And even as we continue to see depictions of the Holocaust, and to learn from them, we will continue to see depictions of the tragic end of Christ on earth, and learn from them.