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The Passion: What's the Fuss?

The Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, will be released on Ash Wednesday. The movie covers the last 12 hours of the life of Christ: his arrest, trials, beatings, crucifixion. A film of graphic violence, earning the “R” rating. Months before its release several individuals and groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, raised concerns about the potential of the film to stir up anti-Semitism, what has sometimes been called, “The World’s Longest Hatred.”

Some concern is based on the movie itself: does it blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus? Other concern is focused on the director, Mel Gibson. Gibson is a “traditionalist Catholic,” who seems to prefer a form of Catholicism that predates the reforms of Vatican II. Gibson’s father has openly and publicly expressed anti-Semitic views, has questioned the extent of the Holocaust, and who practices a form of Catholicism not recognized by the Roman Catholic church, a form which rejects Vatican II outright; this is significant, because it was in this council (1965) that the Roman Catholic Church renounced the view that the Jewish people bear collective guilt for death of Christ.

Many Christians, unfamiliar with the history of anti-Semitism in the Church (especially in Europe,) wonder, “What’s the big deal? Why would a film focused on the sufferings and crucifixion of Christ, raise so much controversy?” Some, including the film’s director have expressed the view that objections to the film may be an expression of something akin to persecution against Christianity. The media’s typically shallow coverage of the issue has produced plenty of heat, but little light.

Two issues, in particular, require careful consideration. First of all, are the gospels themselves anti-Semitic? That is, do they blame the Jewish people collectively, for the death of Jesus? Secondly, why would the Jewish community be worried about the film’s potential to stir anti-Semitism? We’ll take the issues in turn.

Are the gospels, the passion account in particular, anti-Semitic? First, a bit of review on the passion account in the gospels. The Cast of Characters includes: Jesus, Judas (the disciple who betrayed Jesus), Peter (the disciple who denied Jesus,) Caiaphas (the Jewish High Priest) & his council, Herod (the puppet King of the northern region of Israel), Pilate (the Roman Governor), the crowd at the palace of Pilate, and the Roman soldiers who beat and crucified Jesus.

The order of events in Matthew’s gospel is roughly as follows:

  1. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, arrested
  2. Jesus brought before Caiaphas
  3. Jesus disowned by Peter
  4. [Jesus brought before Herod, not in Matthew]
  5. Judas returns “blood money”
  6. Jesus brought before Pilate
  7. The crowd cries, “Crucify him”
  8. Pilate decides for crucifixion
  9. The Roman soldiers mock & beat Jesus
  10. Jesus is crucified by Roman soldiers


Mt. 27: 11-26 provides the immediate context for the most controversial scene in the gospels, the one that has raised the most questions about whether or not the gospels themselves are anti-Semitic. It’s the scene where the Jewish crowd (of unknown size) cries out, “‘Let his blood be on us and our children!” (Mt. 27: 25) It’s the scene that under pressure, Gibson reportedly removed from the final version of the film. (Which I’ve not yet seen.)

This scene evokes an ancient concept called “Blood-guilt.” It first appears in the biblical account where Cain kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain with the words: “Listen your brothers blood cries out…now you are under a curse!” (Gen. 4: 10-11)

This is obviously an important concept to Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 silver coins, is later gripped by remorse, and returns the money to the temple authorities who gave it to him. “I have betrayed innocent blood….” he cries. The authorities respond, “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility” (Mt. 27: 3-4) Matthew is pointing out that Judas was trying to remove his “blood-guilt.”

Pilate does the same: washing his hands, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” (Mt. 27:24)

The irony here is that whether by giving the money back or washing of hands, blood-guilt is not so easily removed.

Any thoughtful reading of Matthew would conclude, for example, that Pilate had blood on his hands after washing them. He was after all, the only one authorized in Israel to have a person crucified. He made the decision, and that, despite a specific warning from God (through his wife’s dream) and in spite of his own conscience, both prominently noted in Matthew’s gospel. In biblical thought, the worst form of injustice is a judge who judges unjustly. (The very form of injustice we sometimes accuse God of.)

The irony in Matthew is that the crowd that is man or woman enough to say, “We’ll take responsibility!” is the least culpable. Their statement was a simple statement used to confirm a verdict, not to invoke an eternal curse on an entire people.

The idea that this flash mob had power to invoke an eternal curse that lays collective blame for death of Christ on the Jewish people is not in any way supported by the text. It is an idiotic, not to put too fine a point on it, interpretation. And one, that like much idiocy, has provoked much evil.

Matthew is careful to point out that the crowd was prompted by a group of religious leaders. They were not acting spontaneously. They were manipulated. Ultimately they were stirred up by Caiaphas, who was a Roman Collaborator. Historians note that any High Priest under the Roman occupation, could only serve at the pleasure of Rome. And that Caiaphas, whose tenure was relatively long, must have worked closely with Pilate. It is perhaps no accident that soon after Pilate was removed from office, Caiaphas’ term was ended as well.

Supporting this view is the fact that all the gospels portray the Jewish leadership (actually, a small portion of the leadership centered in Jerusalem) as afraid of the popularity of Jesus with the Jewish people at large. (This is the reason that Pilate observed their “envy” of Jesus.) In John’s gospel, these leaders are quoted as saying, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) This prompted Caiaphas to say, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11: 50) It is clear from this that this group of leaders felt their own hold on power (which they had at Rome’s pleasure) was threatened by Jesus’ popularity. This all infers, of course, that Pilate, in spite of his ambivalence, understood that the Roman occupiers had a vested interest in getting rid of the “Jesus problem.” Thus, the gospels make plain that Pilate was not just a reluctant participant in the crucifixion of Christ, but that in the end, he allowed it to happen because he was operating in the interests of Rome. As a classic politician, his reluctance may have been a ploy to not unduly upset the large group of Jesus sympathizers among the Jewish people.

That ancient summary of faith known as the Apostle’s Creed, confirms that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” In terms of the immediate blame for the death of Christ, Pilate is held responsible.

Of course, biblically speaking, at a deeper level, the answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” is, “We all did.” Jesus was crushed by the weight of our sins. If one wants to press even further we would come to the awful conclusion that ultimately, God himself did. As Isaiah the prophet points out, “it was the will of Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief”

In short, the gospels themselves are not Anti-Semitic. The New Testament was written primarily by Jewish authors, describing an internal conflict within Israel. It is a conflict marked by highly charged, one might say typically Middle Eastern, polemics. Just as today in Israel one Jewish faction might claim that another is betraying Israel’s cause, and the cause of much of her grief. Reading the gospels through the lens of subsequent anti-Semitism, one might be tempted to interpret these polemical statements as anti-Semitic. But that would be a very superficial and historically inaccurate way to read them, just as it would be inaccurate to charge current Jewish internal critiques as anti-Semitic. (Of course, we try this in our own political polemics, charging those who disagree with us as “un-American,” but in our best moments, we know this is false.

But now we must turn to perhaps the more important question for us. Why would the Jewish community be so concerned about this movie’s impact? In my experience, many Christians are woefully ill prepared to understand this issue. One frequently hears, “We’re not anti-Semitic! What’s all the fuss?”

Consider this: In a study commissioned shortly after Vatican II, by the Anti-Defamation League, and conducted by the University of California, 11% of Roman Catholics agreed with the statement: “the reason Jews are having so much trouble, God is punishing them for rejecting Jesus.” Even more disturbing, 41% of respondents were not certain about whether the Jewish people were under a “curse,” but considered it a possibility. Clearly, something toxic was in the atmosphere as recently 30 years ago. It’s called anti-Semitism and it is not simply “out of the blue.”

Some early Christian teachers, John Chyrsostom, for example in the 4th century, accused Jews of all sorts of crimes. Chrysostom said that God always hated the Jews, etc.

The European Church in the Medieval period was rife with Anti-Semitism. Passion plays stirred up mob violence against the Jewish community. It’s estimated that 100,000 Jews were killed in mob violence in “Christian” France and Germany of the 13th Century. The Crusaders, of course, slaughtered thousands of Jewish people in the name of Christ.

The prominent Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was also infected with anti-Semitism. He wrote a tract called, “The Jews & Their Lies” in which he described the Jewish people as ‘a plague of disgusting vermin.’ A famous painting of the time depicts Jesus bearing the cross, surrounded by his countrymen. In the painting, Jesus looks typically European while his countrymen are depicted with hooked noses, bulging eyes—something monster-like. It’s a painful example of the anti-Semitism of the time.

“Isn’t that all ancient history?” we might ask. No. As late as mid nineteen century Jews were held within ghettoes by the Papal States. They were made to wear armbands identifying them as Jews (a practice mandated by church councils for 600 years), a practice later used to chilling effect by the Nazis. Jews were also forbidden from certain professions. On occasion a Jewish infant was baptized by an Italian woman, say. When church authorities became aware of this, the family was taken from the ghetto, and if the parents didn’t become Christian, the baby was kept by the Church authorities to be raised as a Christian. Jewish men, as late as the 19th Century in Rome, were forced to listen to sermons from Catholic Priests, railing against what they had learned in their synagogue. These are shameful and painful events to recall.

Through the history of the church, powerful voices, of course, have renounced anti-Semitism. St. Paul spoke eloquently in Romans 9 of his love for the Jewish people, his own people. Clement of Alexandria decried Anti-Semitism as did Augustine. Some Popes did. The Chagall painting showing the crucified Jesus suffering along with the victims of the Shoah expresses this sentiment powerfully.

In recent times, Vatican II (1965) renounced the view that Jewish people bore collective guilt for death of Christ. Of course, the fact that this statement was needed is damning in itself. And that it needed to be stated as late as 1965. It should be noted that in the same documents, the Church did not take responsibility for past participation in anti-Semitism.

More recently, a Catholic document called “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” (1998) denounced anti-Semitism, and expressed great sorrow over the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. It many ways, it was a breakthrough document. But it failed, at least in my opinion, to fully own up to the church’s participation in anti-Semitism. It defined anti-Semitism as a modern phenomenon, driven by Aryan Pagan philosophy (which the Nazi version clearly was.) It admitted only to a certain guilt for “Anti-Judaism,” not “Anti-Semitism.” It was, I am afraid, a distinction in search of a difference. I’ve tried this technique (making a fine distinction that allows me to own up to a lesser charge while denying the more serious one) in apologizing to my wife through the years, and never found it particularly helpful. She has tended to view it as a dodge.

It doesn’t require a historian to conclude that the anti-Semitism carried by the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike) like a virus, made a breeding ground for Nazi atrocities. Yes, the Nazi’s were feeding philosophically from a Nordic-Pagan Aryan trough. But the sin of anti-Semitism like garbage left out, attracted the rats of Nazism. Sadly, the “We Remember” document did not take full responsibility for this reality. This, in spite of the fact that Pope John Paul II has been one of the most courageous Popes in expressing love for the Jewish people and regret for the sins of the “sons and daughters” of the Catholic Church.

(And by the way, though many of the examples raised here focus on the Catholic Church, we should remember that we are all part of the entire Church—the church universal, which includes our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. In this sense, “they” is “us.”)

When confronting something like anti-Semitism we must be sober about the nature of evil. There are profoundly spiritual evils that infect entire cultures. The Bible calls these “Powers & Principalities.” Forms of evil imbedded in human culture that transcend human culture. (A reality acknowledged by Carl Jung, the great psychiatrist and disciple of Sigmund Freud.) Hatred of women would be such an evil. Racism would be another. Think of it like an endemic bacteria, all around; one is not necessarily infected by it, but if one is cut, for example, or otherwise vulnerable, the infection easily sets in.

One of these primordial evils is anti-Semitism. Hatred of the Jewish people. It is linked, of course, to a great spiritual evil, the hatred of God. Not merely human, but surpa-human.

The New Testament, speaks of something called the “spirit of Anti-Christ.” In John’s first letter this is defined as that which denies that Jesus came “in the flesh.” Note, not that which denies that Jesus is the Son of God, but that he “came in the flesh.” That he came in real, particular, historical, physical, truly human flesh. Male flesh, in his case, first century flesh, and yes, Jewish flesh.

Now a form of evil such as this “spirit of Anti-Christ” to which John alludes would not tend to show up and proclaim openly “I am a spirit that is against Jesus.” More likely it would show up as friend of Jesus. Certainly Anti-Semitism would qualify as one expression of this evil that John called the “spirit of Anti-Christ.”

An evil this evil, can’t be adequately renounced by one man. John Paul II did his best. But he did not finish the job. It’s certainly too big a job for Mel Gibson. Too big a job for any single one of us.

As a Christians, we are identified with whole body of Christ, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We get to choose our friends, but not our relatives, including our spiritual relatives. We bask in the glow of Mother Therese, but we also carry the shame of our fathers. We try to throw it off, by saying “I’m not anti-Semitic!” That was then, this now! That was them, this is me!” And that may be true for an individualistic understanding of guilt. But it doesn’t take care of the shame that we carry as Christians.

In fact, it lifts that shame about as well as the water in Pilate’s basin.

This whole controversy over the movie is a metaphor. We have a powerful story (the film), told by a storyteller (Gibson) with a shadowed past (Gibson’s anti-Semitic father.) The gospel is a powerful story, a true story, told by storytellers (us, the church) with a checkered past. Like the church, the story-teller of the gospel, is afflicted with the anti-Semitic sins of its fathers.

We have to let the power of the story, the power of this forgiveness, embolden us to own up to sins of past. We have to own up, in other words, to the skeletons in our family closets. In many of our natural families there are skeletons in the closets. Family secrets or dark deeds that carry with them a certain family shame. Often these skeletons gain more power when we fail to acknowledge them, to confront them, to shine the light on them.

If you see the movie, remember, he’s carrying our individual sins (lying, lust, greed, etc.) but he’s also carrying “our” sins. The sins of our fathers. Family sins. Sins of church. The church through history. That we belong to. Whose Name is greater than we can bear, sometimes. And whose shame is too.

Out of this controversy, I would hope that 3 things would come:


  1. That as Christians we would open our eyes to the skeleton in the closet called anti-Semitism. We must understand that Anti-Semitism has stained the soul of the church. And it has polluted relationships with the Jewish people. Why, for example do we find this fear and mistrust of Christianity on part of so many Jewish people? Not because a small crowd 2000 years ago, manipulated by their own leaders in league with Rome, rejected Jesus. But because the Church in history has been a major carrier of anti-Semitism.
  2. That we would resolve in our hearts, to give no place to this hatred. You might say, “No danger there!” But think again. Anti-Semitism is not garden variety evil. It is more like what the New Testament refers to as “Powers and Principalities.” Evil in high places. If you think you are immune because you are reasonably enlightened and decent person, think again.
    • I had a wake-up call on this issue some months ago when I read a transcript from the Nixon tapes in which one of my heroes, Billy Graham, a great lover of the Jewish people, who has done much to advance Jewish-Christian relations, was caught ingratiating himself to Nixon by going along with one of Nixon’s anti-Semitic diatribes. If Billy Graham, who apologized for his words, is not immune to this thing, then neither are we.
  3. That we would have a humble-contrite heart toward the Jewish community. Humble-contrite means “non-defensive.” Not treating concerns about Mel Gibson’s movie, for example, as a form of persecution against Christianity (or Mel Gibson.) Humble enough to understand the concerns of the Jewish community sympathetically.
    • Perhaps as the topic comes up, it would be helpful to share your thoughts with a Jewish friend, relative or co-worker. To say something like, “’This controversy surrounding the Mel Gibson movie has reminded me of the awful history of anti-Semitism in the church. As a Christian, I want you to know how ashamed I am of that part of my spiritual family history.”


After all, the sins of the church, cannot be renounced adequately by commissions, or councils, or leaders. They were committed by the church, the people of God, and have to be confessed and renounced at that level—a work of the Spirit that we should be open to ourselves. Perhaps this movie, and the controversy surrounding it, is an opportunity for cleansing and healing

“Let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt. Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you” (Col. 4: 6) Perhaps God is stirring the pot of the culture through this movie. Co-workers, friends, family members will be seeing the movie and talking about it. So let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt. Be alert, be open to opportunities. And for those who are troubled by the movie because of the past complicity of the church at large in anti-Semitism, let this be an opportunity to express the humility of Christ, who bore this shame for us all.

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