Rarely do matters of serious religious debate become central to discourse in today’s society. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ,” has afforded one such rare opportunity for public discourse even before its release. From the cover of Newsweek magazine to the lead story on ABC television’s Prime Time, this cinematic portrayal of the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus of Nazareth has propelled the ancient story into today’s public eye.
For many of my Jewish people, the prospect of this movie raises fears over the ugly specter of anti-Semitism. Historically, the retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion, especially in the form of Passion plays, often led to horrific violence against the Jewish people. Many presented vicious caricatures of Jewish people that whipped certain non-Jews into a frenzy of fear and hatred. Such caricatures fueled the fires of anti-Semitism and fed the propaganda machines of the Nazi Gestapo and still serve as fodder for Palestinian terrorists.
Even today in the United States there are some who refer to modern day Jews as “Christ Killers.” We’ve encountered them on street corners while handing out our gospel tracts.
The depiction of Jesus’ Passion touches on a deep wound that has been reopened again and again. You can understand why many Jewish leaders are asking one another, “Is this movie good for the Jews?” Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, has concluded emphatically, “If Mr. Gibson’s ‘Passion’ reaches theaters as scheduled on February 25 in its present form, with its clear placing of blame for deicide on Jews, the ramifications of this film will reach far beyond Hollywood…(including) the possibility that it will fuel new anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said, “I can tell you this is a terrible film, a terrible portrayal of Jews and will cause tremendous harm and be a delight to all the enemies of the Jewish people.”
If these fears are fact-based then we ought to oppose this film, boycott it entirely. But are such fears well-founded? I have yet to see the movie, but I can tell you that the book is a must read. And I believe that is the real issue.
In the lead article for the February 16 edition of Newsweek magazine, author Jon Meachem wrote, “The Bible can be a problematic source. Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events. Gibson set out to stick to the Gospels and has made virtually no nod to critical analysis or context.” In other words, Meachem feels the film is too accurate a portrayal of the New Testament account.
But if the film really does stick to the source, the concerns about anti-Semitism are misplaced. While it is true that anti-Semites twist whatever they can find to pander their hateful blather, it is also true that no faithful rendering of the gospel accounts will, by themselves, produce anti-Semitism. And there are some Jewish spokespeople who recognize this.
Writing for USA Today, Jewish film critic Michael Medved commented, the “movie boasts a Jewish hero (or Hero)—not to mention many other sympathetic Judeans, including Christ’s disciples and mother. The fact that persecutors and bigots have distorted teachings of the New Testament for their own cruel purposes doesn’t mean that those Gospel texts, sacred to all Christians, must be scrapped, revised or ignored.”
Jewish author and radio commentator Dennis Prager stated, “A Christian who hates Jews today for what he believes some Jews did 2,000 years ago only reflects on the low moral, intellectual and religious state of that Christian. Imagine what Jews would think of a Jew who hated Egyptians after watching “The Ten Commandments,” and you get an idea of how most Christians would regard a Christian who hated Jews after watching ‘The Passion.'”
It is gratifying to hear these contemporary Jewish community leaders giving balanced statements about the Passion. But the most positive, salient and prescient commentary on “The Passion of the Christ” came from Jewish leaders hundreds of years before the Crucifixion occurred. These leaders never raised a doubt about who would be responsible for the tragic suffering and death of Messiah.
Writing some 700 years before the actual events of the passion, Isaiah predicted: “His visage was marred more than any man. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Then Isaiah squarely places blame for this suffering, telling us, “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put [Him] to grief.” Isaiah pointed his finger straight to God. The Passion was His idea. The Crucifixion fulfilled God’s divine strategy. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah, all who believe on Him can be forgiven, healed and saved. This stunning fact changes the entire debate.
My friend and colleague, Susan Perlman, wrote “An Open Letter to Mel Gibson From a Jew for Jesus.” Her letter focused on what I expect will be the best thing about Mel Gibson’s movie, *The Passion of The Christ.* I hope you will read her letter at:
So far Susan’s letter has appeared on the back cover of “Variety” magazine (they upgraded the inside space we originally purchased at no extra cost due to the number of ads in that edition). Please read more about this letter and our “Passion outreach” after this article.
The most crucial thing to remember about the Passion is the very happy ending—the Resurrection. Jesus is alive today and that dramatically ends the debate about whom to hold accountable for His death. As Susan’s letter says, how can you punish anyone for the death of someone who is alive?
On the other hand, there is plenty of guilt to go around. If Jesus truly died so that our sins could be forgiven, a person would have to be sinless in order have no part in the Passion of Christ. Who among us has never lied or cheated, or held bitter, even murderous thoughts in our hearts? We all have done things as well as leaving things undone—things that are sinful in the eyes of God. It was the sin of the whole world that nailed Him to the cross.
Yet, had God not intended it, Jesus’ death would not, in fact, could not have happened. The Lord of glory would never be an unwitting victim of our misdeeds. He willingly endured the passion for our sakes. He said, “No one takes it (my life) from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sin and mine. He rose again from the dead so that we could be delivered from the power of sin and be assured of a place in heaven with God. It is because of the goodness of God and His love for us that these things happened. And God’s goodness is always good for the Jews, and for everyone else.