Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Thinking Passionately

Perhaps enough has been said of Mel Gibson's The Passion. I have been a bit torn by all the hoopla; I must admit that when those fellow members of my Tribe, whose politics happen to lie left of center, start talking about Jew-hatred (they, of course, would never use such a term), I not only doubt their intuitions, but get that hunch that nothing good will come of it. I think in this case I may have been both wrong and right. Their intuitions may have been right, but the PR bonanza that Mel garnered at our expense has been enormous and I have to wonder if Abe Foxman is getting some of the royalties.

A couple of interesting articles, on both sides of the equation, are floating out there right now. One by Zev Chafets, conforms more to my instincts. His basic point is that the story that Mel is telling is largely faithful to the account in the New Testament and that the movie really was not made for Jews or is really about Jews; and that we shouldn't be telling him or Christians how to interpret their text. Also, he points out that it is implicitly pro-israel. As he says:
"Lately, Yasser Arafat has taken to declaring that the original inhabitants of Israel were Palestinians. But there are no Palestinians in Gibson's Jerusalem, just as there were none in the Gospels. Jesus and his disciples are as Israeli as Ariel Sharon. The Arabs are still 600 miles and 600 years from the Holy Land.
If the Anti-Defamation League were smart, it would stop bugging Mel Gibson for an apology and ask instead for a couple hundred copies of the movie.

Well, I understand his general point and I like his tone, but it is clear Mel had some choices in how he interpreted scripture and those choices went decidely against the Judeans. But his point that we shouldn't be giving interpretative advice is off-point, if only because the interpretation is NOT the real point here. But I will get to that in a second. First, let me point out Hitchens latest. Our Man holds no punches, and in fact gives Mel a flailing consistent with what is witnessed in the Passion. After recounting stories of Mel Gibson as a joke-telling homophobe, he notes that:
"I think that it's a healthy sign for our society that so many Jews have decided to be calm and unoffended by the film, and that so many Christians say they don't feel any worse about Jews after having seen it. We have a social consensus where Jews feel more secure and Christians less insecure. Good. But this does not alter the fact that The Passion is anti-Semitic in intention and its director anti-Semitic by nature. Some people including myself think that Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League are too easily prone to charge the sin of anti-Semitism. But if someone denies the Holocaust one day and makes a film accusing Jews of Christ-killing the next day, I have to say that if he's not anti-Jewish then he's certainly getting there."
He then recounts the interview with Peggy Noonan:
"Noonan asked him a question that he must have known was coming, and which he must have prepared for, and she asked him in effect to "make nice" and agree that the Holocaust actually had occurred. His answer was, to all effects and purposes, a cold and flat "no." A lot of people, he agreed, had died in the last war. No doubt many Jews were among the casualties. It's one of the most frigid and shrugging things I have ever read. You would not know from this response that the war was begun by a fascist ruling party that believed in a Jewish world conspiracy, and thus that all of those killed were in part victims of anti-Semitism."

Right on, brother. The Man is getting to THE point. He recognizes, what so few do, the disease that anti-semitism is, and how ALL of civilized democratic society is its victim. And he recognizes that Mel doesn't get that. And then he finishes with this:
"Gibson announced a few weeks ago that he had cut the scene where a Jewish mob yells for the blood of Jesus to descend on the heads of its children (a scene that occurs in only one of the four contradictory Gospels). Gibson lied. The scene is still there, spoken in Aramaic. Only the English subtitle has been removed. Propagandists in other countries will be able to subtitle it any way they like. This is all of a piece with the general moral squalor of his project. Gibson's producer lied when he said that a pope Gibson despises had endorsed the film. He would not show the movie to anyone who might object in advance. He will not debate any of his critics, and he relies on star-stricken pulp interviewers to feed him soft questions. Now, as the dollars begin to flow from this front-loaded fruit-machine of cynical publicity, he is sobbing about the risks and sacrifices he has made for the Lord. A coward, a bully, a bigmouth, and a queer-basher. Yes, we have been here before. The word is fascism, in case you are wondering, and we don't have to sit through that movie again." (emphasis added).

Wow. Maybe he is right. And this gets to THE point which I believe Chafets missed. It isn't about interpreting scripture .... the scripture is pretty clear and Matthew takes a decided view on who is to largely blame for the cruxifiction. Although liberties are taken, the story is the story (as Chafets himself points out). I have no doubt whatsoever that the suffering of Jesus as depicted in this story is an incredibly meaningful and ultimately redemptive account for Christians and as such, they should feel free to embrace it. And Mel should feel free to celebrate it. The issue, however, is that this story has been used for centuries as a justification for the persecution of Jews and that is something that Mel has chosen to ignore. If he had come out and said something to the effect that 'this is a very central story to my faith and it is an ultimately positive story, but one that has been abused by others over time to persecute Jews, and my point is to change that dynamic/distortion', it would have been a completely different result. Instead, he acts surprised by those who would challenge him, defending his movie simply as not anti-semitic. Not even Foxman is saying it is anti-semitic, but it can and has been used for those purposes, and Mel is no where on that issue (I think his point is that it is a pure story, and is what it is, and if people don't get it, that is their problem ... to deny more is to imply that there is something wrong with it in the first place). Either he is ignorant, or not very smart, or so blinded by his story that he can't understand the issue. Or, it is something far more nefarious, and the Hitch is on to it.

I remember I once knew an artist that wore a swastika as an earring. I asked him about it and he defended it rigorously, saying that in India and other places, it is a sign of peace. He happened to be right, as I found it in abundance when I went to India. But my point to him was that while that may be the case, here, in the world we live in, that symbol has become one of the most horrible symbols of hate and death to ever exist, and if wants to redeem it, he will need to take responsibility for the feeling he hurts along the way when he proudly displays it.

The bottom line for the Passion, is that Mel avoided his responsibility to humanity. This powerful story, so central to many Christians, has been abused historically in spite of the very love of human-kind that Gibson professes to uphold. When he mass distributes it to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, he needs to assume responsibility for how that message will be delivered and the impact it has. One would think that, having publicly embraced the positive aspects of this story's message, he would zealously protect it from those who, as in the past, would use it as an instrument of hate. That he hasn't even tried, makes me more than a little nervous.


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