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Peter J. Rubinstein
On “The Passion”

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  February 28, 2004

During this past week a terrorist bombing on a Jerusalem bus massacred eight Israelis. During the same period of time five members of our armed services were killed in Iraq, our president proposed a constitutional ban on gay marriages, and Haiti, increasingly convulsed by civil unrest, is in a state of imploding. Yet the thing people are most talking about is Mel Gibson’s cinematic venture which has hijacked public attention. People want, people seem to need to talk about the movie.

The professional media critics have weighed in on the movie. But, quite honestly it doesn’t make a bit of difference what they say. The success or not of this film will depend very little on how it is judged by the press. Nor will the success of the movie be impacted at all by the numerous historians or biblical scholars who have passed judgment on the accuracy of the tale (and generally found it lacking) or the veracity of the gospel account. as it is portrayed (and generally found it deceptive.)

There is nothing logical about this film. It was not made for reasons of profit. It was not intended to be an objective telling of a story or an unbiased account of the last 12 hours of a man’s life. Debates about logic and accuracy and history and fact miss the point.

Mel Gibson made it clear from the very beginning that “The Passion” is an obsessive portrayal of his faith with a singular focus on violence and suffering.

I will not see the movie. I will not see it because I don’t have the stomach and even without seeing the movie, I already know of the capability of human brutality. Jews don’t need Mel Gibson to teach us about human cruelty. We have inherited memories of the worst of human degradation. We know of the murderous instinct of the most despicable human behavior. We suffered the torture, degradation and murder of parents, grandparents and great grand-parents because they were Jews. At times the worst that was done to the Jewish people was in the name of other’s faith. We don’t need Mel Gibson to instruct us about torture and suffering.

And I will not see the film as a protest. I do not want to be counted or my money to be used to validate Gibson’s obsession. Whether the profits are going back into his pocket or to Opus Dei or to more radically conservative religious endeavors, I want no part of justifying this misadventure.

But one does not need to see the movie to know much about it.

There is unanimity that this movie is violent. One writer describes the Passion as “a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony.” We also know that the film has precipitated heartfelt conversations especially among those who before the film have known each other across religious boundaries and who, because of the film, are plumbing each other’s faith sensitivities more deeply.

It is clear that, depending on the eyes through which one sees or the heart with which one feels, “The Passion” is either, as according to one viewer “the greatest thing to happen to mankind” or an expression of redemption or this movie is, as it is to others, the darkest cloud in religious relations in the last six decades, a source of profound fear. What this film means to any of us depends on the lens through which we experience it. The events of this film have evoked deep visceral reactions and unleashed ominous forces with possible dire consequences.

There is no absolute standard for anti-semitism or anti-semitic behavior that can be applied either to Mel Gibson or his film. But according to our faith and religious values, all of us are responsible for the results of what we do, whether the effect is intended or not. For me the problem is that Mr. Gibson has accepted no responsibility for the forces he has unleashed. He proffers a message of love and dismisses a very real deep visceral anguish that his movie would impel a deepening of prejudice, a validation of discrimination and an impetus to violence against Jews here in our own country, or more likely in Europe.

Would Mel Gibson, in service of his own faith, deliberately cause harm or danger to others? He denies that this is his intention or what he hopes viewers will take away from The Passion. But what Gibson intends or hopes is irrelevant. He places his faith above all, even the hurt of others. When blind faith prohibits you from seeing the harm you are causing other people it is time to open your eyes. Mary Gordon who defines herself as Catholic wrote in the Times today, Mel Gibson “has to be aware of the Passion story’s role in the history of the persecution of the Jews, a story whose very power to move the human spirit haws been a vehicle for both transcendence and murder. To be a Christian is to face the responsibility for one’s own most treasured sacred texts being used to justify the deaths of innocents…I believe” she says “one does not take the risk that one’s life or work might contribute to the continuation of a horror.”

On the day the film opened a church marquee in Denver proclaimed “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus”. Jews in small towns across the country talk of their fear of the religious fervor and statements about Jewish complicity in Jesus’ death instigated by the film. In a study of hundreds of websites, chat room commentaries, and email correspondence there is a heightened level of anger directed at Jews regarding their opposition to the film, along with an intense and renewed interest in converting Jews to Christianity.

Historically some of the worst violence perpetuated by Christians against Jewish neighbors in Europe followed passion plays at this time of the year prior to Easter. So while some Christians would discover faith in the Passion and experience the movie as a life-changing event, others of us would have a visceral trepidation about the film, fearful for the seeds of hate, violence and torture that it plants.

On March 15th in this sanctuary we will gather with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, St. Peters Lutheran Church and Holy Family Roman Catholic Church to discuss the movie, our neighborhood and us. I know that many of my closest Christian colleagues are deeply troubled that the movie belittles the teachings of love implicit in their faith.

The Roman Catholic Church beginning in 1965 officially repudiated both the charge of deicide and all forms of anti-semitism. Most Protestant Churches have worked with the Jewish community to eliminate anti-Semitism within Christian theology and doctrine.

Cardinal Egan last week issued a moving statement recounting his own long and warm relations with Jews and rejects and deplores enmity based on religious teachings. In his sermon last Sunday Father Bob Robbins of Holy Family Church affirmed about our city that “We are two peoples bound together with so much mutual respect and so many works of justice and compassion that our mutual support and sympathy will never be compromised.” We in New York City will be fine.

But this film has and will do damage to inter-religious relations around this world. Among the worst demonstrations of religion have been in the name of faith using what the Passion depicts as cause.

All of us need to take responsibility for our actions and that is what we can learn from the events surround the release of this movie. All of us would do well to think about the effects, intended or not, of what we do and what we engender. We all would do much better expanding the scope of our responsibility rather than claiming that we are powerless over others or the events of their lives or what they think.

Our faith commands us quite clearly that each of us and all of us together are completely responsible for the quality of our society, the welfare of other people and the well-being of creation. Let no man or woman turn aside from what together we have wrought. Let all of us together work to vigorously reaffirm strong ties among all people of our city and to nourish messages of goodness, justice and love and creation and life and peace which should be among the best of religious values.

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