Lost in translation: responding to defenders of the Passion

Building/Consensus | Culture
Watching some of the news shows this week reviewing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I was appalled how many of them peddled a Jew-Christian dichotomy over the film: that is, Jewish observers were portrayed as being on the offensive over anti-Semitic undertones in the film, and mostly Christian faithful defending the it, often conflating an attack on the movie as an attack on religion. I started wondering whether this pattern was exhibited elsewhere.

Yesterday in synagogue, we had the rare privilege of having a non-Jew deliver the sermon: Dr. Philip Cunningham, Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College. Dr. Cunningham pointed out some of his theological and artistic complaints with the film, and was pained to say that it had the potential to turn back the last forty years of good faith dialogue between Christians and Jews (you can read his written review). Tellingly, he provided corroboration that the Jew-Christian divide was encouraged by the promoters of the movie. The pre-release PR campaign had shown previews to those most ideologically predisposed to agree with the film (excluding figures like himself). Furthermore, Christian defenders of the film would not appear on a TV program with a Christian critic such as himself– leaving the television to show Jew vs. Christian.

There is a genuine worry over anti-Semitism, of course. No one expects anti-Semitic pogroms to break out in the streets of America. But what will happen when DVD’s get released worldwide, with deleted scenes added, with translations in other languages? This is one of prime concerns of the Anti-Defamation League and of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

I was curious to find out whether the Jew-Christian dichotomy has been analyzed in the media, so I checked my usual sources: Mark Jurkowitz of the Globe focused on Howard Stern on Friday; Frank Rich of the Times took up gay marriage this week (after having analyzed the Pope’s purported endorsement of the movie in a Jan. 16th piece), and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post is mainly covering the covering of the Presidential campaign. Ovver the web, I watched last Friday’s WGBH show Beat the Press hosted by Emily Rooney (the show includes panelists Jurkowitz and his Phoenix counterpart Dan Kennedy, who has been writing about gay marriage). One focus of the show was on Gibson’s victimology complex, which has been aided and abetted by interviewers Bill O’Reilly. (O’Reilly freely discloses that Gibson optioned the movie rights to his novel a few years back, but that hardly makes his interview kosher. He also slandered Gibsn critic Andy Rooney as “an Irishman who has rejected his religion.” The verdict: “Neither of those is true about my Dad. He’s not Irish, and he didn’t reject his religion,” said Emily Rooney). But otherwise the usually sharp “Beat the Press” gang had missed out on the Jew-Christian dichotomy.

So along my spiritual search, I wandered over to the ecumenical domain of BeliefNet, and found their section devoted to the Passion. BeliefNet earns the praise of Civilities.Net in having an excellent presentation of articles and reader commentary I was absolutely floored by the insensitivity, and veiled anti-Semitism of some of the posters (they may not have had the benefit of hearing a speaker like Dr. Cunningham on their pulpit). What I’ve done here is to categorize, and respond to, the various types of reactions to watchdog pieces of anti-Semitism. By putting it in a challenge/response framework, we can understand the issues people raise instead of being overwhelmed by them.

I have included attributions to public figures and authors here; I have not done so for the reader comments. They can be found alongside the BeliefNet stories on the Passion.


“I wish we Christians could just be left alone to watch a story about the event that created our religion.”

Christians are free to discuss anything they like in church without outside interference, just like any other group. This is a motion picture that has been released to a general audience and is expected to be shown around the world.

“If ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is so troubling, then why hasn’t there been an uproar over the recent film, ‘The Gospel of John’? After all, it uses virtually every word of the Gospel, including words deemed offensive by critics of the Gibson film. Why was there no big hullabaloo over ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’?; it depicted what one reviewer called a “demonic Caiaphas.” Is it because Mel Gibson is a so-called traditional Catholic?” — William Donohue, President of Catholic League, 02/04/2002, “An Open Letter to the Jewish Community”

Perhaps because Mel Gibson is an international movie star who has had the clout to market this movie across the globe. The ADL and other critics can’t fight every battle.

“Liberals who defended the right to exhibit Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ which deeply offended orthodox Christians, now demand censorship of “The Passion of Christ.”Robert Novak, Nov. 2003

No one demanded censorship of Mel Gibson’s movie. Compare it with the protests against Scorsese’s production of fifteen years ago, led by the American Family Association and the Catholic League:

Despite apparent attempts by MCA/Universal to avoid a controversy, calls for protest mounted over the spring and summer of 1988, and on 11 August, over 25,000 protesters rallied at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The film opened the next day in just nine cities. Opening night screenings were heavily picketed, and several groups organized a boycott of other MCA businesses.
Satanic Verses and Last Temptations

“Are Christians never to tell their stories because they might offend someone?”

Is it not the right of the offended party to register disapproval?

“In fact, Evangelicals are amongst the most ardent American supporters of Israel.”

This supposes an absurd quid pro quo: that Jews need to restrain of anti-Semitism would jeopardize Christian support for Israel.

“My husband’s family is Jewish, they don’t whine [about the movie, about anti-Semitism].”

I would suppose that they are familial with their in-laws. Intermarriage (between people of different tribes, cultures, or religions) has been a facet of most civilizations, which has brought cultural diversity and toleration. The dark side is that the values of smaller groups have a disadvantage against values of larger groups. If Christians have a right to stick together, in order to protect and promote their ideas, Jews do, too.

“I don’t hear any Romans screaming about this movie!”
“No one has accused the film of being anti-Roman, although they come out worst of all.”
— Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Australia, in his BeliefNet review on 02/24.

This is rather trite, especially coming from a Cardinal. Constantine converted in the 4th century, the Roman Empire became Christian, and transformed into the Roman Catholic Church. “So the Romans’ descendents triumphed, while the Jews were cast into darkness and, one might conclude from this movie, deserved what they got,” wrote David Denby in his New Yorker review.

“The Rabbi [Wolpe] should get off his anti-Christian campaign.”

This was a response to Rabbi Wolpe’s sermon to his congregation. There is no anti-Christian campaign.

“Stop blaming everyone for the Holocaust.”

There’s a paradox here: “collective guilt” (for all people of all time) is a central tenet of Christian theology. But the debate of culpability for the Holocaust (whether it be the German, Europe, the Catholic Church), is challenged.

“If this movie is really what they’re saying it is, an accurate portrayal, it’s not small mystery why there is so much trouble brewing around about it.”

Consider the case if its accuracy were not so universally agreed upon– imagine the trouble that would brew because of that!

“It seems to me that you are raising the specter of anti-Semitism to divert the viewer’s attention from something in the movie you fear more, something that you hope is not discussed.”

You are right. The media has focused far too much discussion on how the film affects Jews, and should instead offer presentation of the diverse reactions to the film from Christians.

Fortunately, there is a constructive dialogue on BeliefNet between two Christian scholars, John Dominic Crossan and Ben Worthington III. Here’s how Crossan frames the charge of anti-Semitism:

But that, like most of the media comments on Mel Gibson’s film, avoids the true issue. The soft questions are whether he, his film, or even its possible effects are anti-Semitic. (No, No, and I do not know, Gibson responds truthfully.) Here is the hard question: What have you, Mr. Gibson, as a conscientious Christian who knows very well that the passion story has repeatedly grounded lethal anti-Jewish prejudice, done to cauterize that potential venom in making this film? My answer: Nothing, actually. He has, in my judgment, shown careless irresponsibility, culpable negligence, and even depraved indifference to the dangers of anti-Semitism here and abroad. If you juggle with dynamite you are accountable for collateral damage.


“To accept the principle that an entire race can forever be held to blame for the actions of an individual or individuals of a particular race or faith is pure ignorance born of sheer bigotry.”
“Honestly, I think the last think Jesus would want are for gentiles to attack his Jewish people in his name.”
“To be anti-semetic [sic] is to be un-Christian.”

That message seemed to have been lost for 1900 years (see James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword.) We are indeed fortunate in that Christian-based anti-Semitism, to the extent it existed in Europe, did not reach North America. It has largely disappeared from Europe as a consequence of the defeat of Nazism, the reconstruction of the continent, and Vatican II, but is still smoldering in parts of Europe.

“It can be said a Jew IS Christ. A Jew died for all our sins – Jews and gentiles alike.”
“This film is not anti-Semitic because the heroes Jesus and Mary are Jews.”

The assumption here is that we’re keeping a scorecard of how well the Jews are portrayed in the movie, and also Jesus must be worth infinite points in the “good characterization” column. But Jews, for obvious reasons, don’t see Jesus in that way.

“I believe that everyone of us is guilty of Jesus’ death on that cross.”

This is the position of many Christians, and also of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. What you believe is important to you, but remember, it’s the film that will be shown worldwide, not your beliefs. The question you need to ask is whether the film conveys this message independently of what you already know.

The movie depicts the narrative from Matthew, where after Jesus’s death, an earthquake destroys the Temple in Jerusalem. Pilate is seen as surviving the earthquake with a nary a scratch. Dr. Cunningham’s interpretation is that supports the message of specific guilt.

“In his movie, The Passion of the Christ, the hand holding the spike being nailed through Christ’s wrist is Gibson’s. Who killed Jesus? Mel Gibson knows. And he made the very point with his own hand that he was responsible, not the Jews.”Chuck Colson, syndicated radio host, on BeliefNet.

This sounds like a bit of cinematic behind-the-scenery, like pointing out that it was Alfred Hitchcock, and not the movie character Norman Bates, who wielded the knife in the Psycho shower scene. The movie is expected to stand on itself, without any explanation needed of how the scene was filmed. There is a spectrum of ways between depicting specific guilt and collective guilt. I’m not one to judge how well the movie did it, but believing reviewers should be doing this.

“Did not Christ, hanging on the cross in the movie, say of the Jews of that time AND for all mankind ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.'”

Dr. Cunningham addressed this point, by describing what happened afterwards in the film. A bird which comes down from heaven and gouges the eye out of a man, on a crucifix nearby, who was previously mocking Jesus. “Either Jesus’s prayer goes unanswered, or God is a sadist. Both of these choices are theologically disturbing,” he concluded.

“I think the important message of Jesus the Christ is what he said in life.”

Well, many critics of the movie agree with you. That’s why they expected to see more about Jesus’s life, and less about his death.


“I’m sorry that Rabbi Wolpe seems unaware of the — at this point — thousands of testimonials from viewers who have seen this film and insist that it aroused no anti-Semitic feelings in them.”

Feelings are unimpeachable. This is a false expectation that this is considered proof. It’s almost like asking people who just saw “The Basketball Diaries” whether they would be more inclined to take a shotgun and massacre their high school class. Or consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Do you think you could find a person who walked out of that theater and claimed to have a feeling of anti-Arabism? Nonetheless, the argument has been carried by American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee that films like “Raiders” and “Aladdin” have contributed to stereotypes about Arabs by Americans. I think they have a point. The difference is that the Passion plays have a history of fostering anti-Semitism, and there is nothing different in the current one to suggest otherwise.

“Satan is going to hate having some many people hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he’ll bitterly oppose it.”

This is just like saying, “if you’re not on our side, you’re on the side of the terrorists, the unions, the side of evil, etc.” Again, it’s not like you can find an American who will testify that their mind was changed because of the Secretary of Education’s recent smirch of the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the U.S., as a “terrorist organization.” What’s downright frightening is that the same demonization rhetoric of some average yokel on a bulletin board is reflected by the highest level of government in this country.

“For the first time in my ministry, I received an e-mail that said, among other things, ‘Any suffering Jesus received was too little. As a Jew, I glory in the death of the Evil Monster Jesus . . . Cursed be Jesus forever and ever.'”Rev. Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals.

This is of course a great insult, and I reproduce it here because it should be repudiated. There is a great deal of ignorance about Jesus in the Jewish community, and it inexcusable for this ignorance to turn into hate.


“Good God, these Hollywood ‘critics’ and ‘experts’ are disgusting. You’ll never hear a word from them about the rampant, REAL anti-semitism coming from France, Germany, Russia, and the M.E… BTW, has anybody ever noticed that most of these people that try to demonize the Bible Belt’s way of life, openly commit the same acts that they use to demonize us?”
“These people have been saying for decades that government can’t stop them from showing preschoolers pornographic images of homosexuals on ‘separation of church & state’ grounds. Now they’re trying to set up all these little institutions to tell us that the Bible is hate-speech and should be condemned by government.”

Who are “these” people you are talking about? This is an accusation against a straw man. Make an accusation that will stick. I challenge you to come up with one.

“Stop playing the blame game & start to understand that the Passion is about God’s universal love so that whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have eternal life.”
“We all need to grow up and stop the problem mind set (who is to blame). Instead, we must solution focus: how we can use Jesus’ passion to eliminate terrorism & create peace.”
“As more people embrace Jesus’ love, anti-semitism will also be gone.”
“If Jewish scholars like the Rabbi here would spend half as much time researching how perfectly Jesus fulfilled every single Old Testament prediction of the Jewish Messiah as they do yelling about some imagined slight…”

This is no different than saying without Jews– the descendents of the children of Israel, monotheists who approach God through a way without Jesus– there would be no anti-Semitism. This is beyond anti-Semitism itself: it is absolute hypocrisy and is repudiated by the Catholic Church and other major Christian denominations.

“There are greater causes that deserve our attention.” Rev. Ted Haggard.
“Right on Rev. Haggard. There are definitely greater causes that deserve our attention then the much ado and publicized ‘anti-Semitism.’. A-S affects 22 million people. World Poverty strickens and cripples over 600 million Africans and poor people.”

Anti-Semitism is as insidious as “World Poverty”– it is a disease of the mind. It is an emblem of a sick society. As James Carroll writes in Constantine’s Sword, it poisoned Christian Europe for centuries and set the stage for the destruction during the Holocaust. It now poisons the minds of the Islamic world. As Daniel Pipes has reported, there’s a rumor passed by the Egyptian state media that Jerusalem pays Jewish women infected with AIDS to spread the disease in Egypt. This brings an entirely new form to the “blood libel”. Consider also that the polio virus was supposed to have been eradicated from the planet this year, thanks to a $2B worldwide effort. The last frontier of the disease was rural villages in Nigeria. But it was stopped by the local imams, doctors, and political leaders, who refused to take part in the program, believing it was a “Western plot” to sterilize their population (they didn’t say Jewish or Zionist plot, but they might as well have, as those are often interchangeable in the Islamic world.).

“When I moved to Atlanta and met some REAL Jewish people, to me it was like meeting movie stars. No, they didn’t seem as impressed to meet me.”

Speaking personally, I’ve done interfaith workshops through my synagogue, with the nearby Catholic Church. As expected in the urban Northeast, these were not Catholics who were laying eyes on Jews for the first time. But they were very interested in all facets of Judaism– customs, prayers, language, etc. We Jews conceded that we could not exactly reciprocate their enthusiasm, because of the nature of the relationship between the religions (the Hebrew Bible is part of the Christian canon, but not the other way around). Nonetheless, I was honored to be a resource for others to learn about Judaism. And I continue to be disposed to do so.

“Two of my good friends are Jewish and I was raised Protestant. Both friends can not see past their religious brainwashings to view this film as an artistic endeavor. I don’t ask that they go see it, but their closed-minded views are straining our friendship. … Why are those in the Jewish community so close minded?”

I don’t think anyone should be pressed to see any particular movie, especially one that has been reviewed as the most violent motion picture of all time. And I don’t think a call to “open-mindedness” should demand a complete participation on the part of a guest. I’d invite a non-Jew to a 45-minute Friday night service, or a 3-hour Passover seder meal, but certainly not to 6-hour Yom Kippur service.

As Dr. Cunningham told us today: We need dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it should be based on the film. Base it on the texts. Base it on the work of institutions focused on Christian-Jewish dialogues.

[In the great tradition of religious texts, I thought I’d cut & paste this essay for posterity. The original was way too long, so I moved the paragraphs on other movies to a new essay entitled Ecumenical Passions. I leave the ending below as a postscript.]

I had a dream in the early morning between starting and finishing the above essay. I had planned on preparing for reading the Torah in synagogue in the coming week. As the Torah scroll has only letters– no vowels, punctuation, or cantillation– one must spend the week before practicing with the text. But in my dream I was unprepared. I got to the altar and looked for signs of help. Seeing friends of mine from the congregation surrounding altar (two are required by Jewish law), I pressed forward. I thought I could go on what I remembered. I look at the text, and was amazed, seeing the Hebrew letters with their vowels. I was relieved. But a funny thing happens in your dreams: you can recognize letters, you just can’t read them. They dance, they start to disappear. I had not yet realized that I am dreaming, so I reminded myself that in real life I felt I needed new glasses. And then the words disappeared, and the scrolls did, too. Now I was looking at the actual objects described by this Torah portion, the raw materials of the tabernacle: the precious metals, the wood. They were piled on shelves, just like those in the factory of my parents’ linens manufacturing business of a decade ago. I had to assemble in mind what their Hebrew names were, and how they were meant to put together.

And of course, I failed. There are a few ga’ons (geniuses) who have memorized the whole Torah, who could do this, who could read Torah even if the letters danced and mocked them. But it is forbidden even to them to read the Torah from memory. The words of Torah, and the rest of our Bible, are important enough that we exercise extreme caution in trying to represent them in other media, lest we lose something in translation.

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