I'm wading in here not because I want to cause a row (so back in your seats, polemicists
), but because all of the above writeups have gingerly paid homage to the fact that there is controversy
around this film, and accusations of anti-Semitism
connected with it, but no one actually said what the problem is supposed to be. Seeing as vague allusions and misunderstandings between Christians and Jews have a history of ending in big rows of the kill-them-all variety, I thought some elucidation was in order.
The whole problem hinges on two ancient theological concepts: the deicide and the blood curse. The first is the idea that the Jews are directly responsible for the killing - the murder, in essence - of Christ, and the second that they freely took the responsibility upon themselves and all their descendants through the ages, the whole "His blood be on us and on our children!" business. As everybody no doubt knows, these have been at the heart of centuries of persecution, most violently by the Spanish Inquisition (whom, of course, nobody expects) during the 15th century, who tried to do away with all the Jews of the newly Catholicised Spain first by forced conversion and then by wholesale exile.
It's important to understand that the inclusion of these two concepts in the film is objectionable not in and as of itself, but because they are inherently controversial. It is not political correctness that should have stayed Gibson's hand, but a serious examination of religious realities.
There are, for those of you who may not know, four Gospels - these are the four books who describe the life, teachings and death of Christ. They were written by four very different people at different times after the death of Christ and are not internally consistent or committed to a single narrative. Much historical and theological ink has been spilt examining and reconciling these differences, and the Church at different times took different parts of each one to be superior in Truth to the others. Therefore Mel Gibson had a choice of four different stories to tell - and only one of them, Matthew's, mentions the deicide and quotes the blood curse. It's worthwhile to mention at this stage that in other narrative choices to do with the movie he was by no means a slave to Matthew in general.
From a purely societal perspective, this puts Gibson's motives in a strange light. Why, one wishes to ask, do you give one quarter of your source material precedence in this one matter, when you could have forborne to include it and still been 75% scripturally correct? In particular, why antagonize and offend people when you could avoid so doing, unquestionably without compromising your religious integrity? It can only be seen as pandering - a strong word, I know - to the prejudices of the people whom Gibson sees as his target audience, together with strengthening the narrative by providing a picture book villain for the piece; very much the use to which medieval and renaissance Christianity put the Jews, arguably unnecessary in this more sophisticated age.
But there is a deeper and more troubling problem with this selective use of the text, and that comes not from subjective contemporary mores but direct from the Church itself. To explain, first off we need to mention that Mel Gibson is a Catholic, not a Protestant. And Catholics are not scripturalists. To them, by definition, the Church's interpretation of the Scripture is the only truth. If you have seen Kevin Smith's wonderful movie Dogma you know all about why the Church is always right. (For an example of what it is to be a scripturalist, look at the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers; they see no mention of churches in the Bible, in fact Jesus speaks explicitly against constricting worship in this centrally controlled way: so their places of worship are called Meeting Houses. Neither do they recognize to the authority of priests, something which Jesus was also known to object to. For the Catholic Church, however, this is all strict heresy, textual support or no. Churches there will be, and in churches good Catholics therefore worship.)
In 1962 the Catholic church had a big get together known as Vatican II. At this Council, many points of doctrine were discussed in depth, and several important ones were adjusted to a more modern interpretation. Most relevantly to this discussion, their documents state the following:
"...what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."
"...Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation."
"...the Church [...] decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."
In other words, They Didn't Do It.
We can argue till we're blue in the face about the motives behind this declaration, talk about the political motivations behind it, the residual guilt about the Holocaust etc. etc. None of this should have mattered to Mel Gibson. He is a staunch Catholic and as such should have followed the decisions of Vatican II as divine law: that is, in effect, what they are (if you're a Catholic, that is).
Again, the reaction to the producer's actions in this light draw nothing so much as bewilderment from me. Argue as much as we might, there is a very robust basis for saying that Mel Gibson contravened his own dearly held religious precepts just to portray the murderers of Christ in a traditionalist light. Coupled with the political problems he could not have but foreseen, his decision to structure the movie in the ways that he did are strange at least.
To finish where I began, and forestall heated argument, please understand that I am not accusing Mel Gibson of anti-Semitism, nor am I calling for the castigation of this movie on political grounds. He made it largely with his own money, and it's his right to do with that as he pleases. It's just that I am wary of leaving vague allusions to the anger this movie has raised in some Jewish thinkers and audiences dangling loose, afraid as I am of their being portrayed as an attempt to stifle free speech or discredit Christianity. Much has and is being said about the way some mysterious, faceless "Jewish Lobby" supposedly has a stranglehold on American culture and politics. By all means, let this film exist and thrive as a contravention of such frankly silly paranoia.
I've had no less than 25 messages telling me that Mel Gibson is in fact a member of a sub-group of Catholics who reject Vatican II. I must say I find the notion of "breakaway" Catholics a bit problematic - the whole idea of Catholicism as it has been explained to me by my resident Jesuit is that the Church is divinely inspired with truth and therefore dissent is literally impossible...
Still, I suppose it does shed light on my theory inasmuch as Gibson probably does not see himself as in conflict with his faith (although he is still in conflict with doctrine) when he portrays the responsibility of the Jews for the murder of Christ.
It also helps towards providing an answer to the main question about his own beliefs and feelings on the subject: if he rejects the Church's pronouncement that the Jews are not to be blamed fo the death of Christ in his life as well as in this film, that means that that is what he actually believes. In this light he can be said to have intended that the film should be interperted accordingly. To put it all less diplomatically, he casts blame on the Jews, and he wants his audience to come away with the same feeling. Which is a bit disturbing, to me at least.
Damn. And I used to be such a fan.
Something has just occured to me that has not occured before. According to everything I've been told, there are two ways we can look at the passion: either it's God willingly sacrificing his only son for love of his creation, or Jesus willingly sacrificing hiself for compassion and love of mankind. Either one of these great gestures would be at least tarnished, if not nullified, if a true "villain of the piece" could be credibly identified - for what is the value of a forced sacrifice?
Viewed in this light the Matthew/Gibson take on the subject seems to me to be not only un-Christian but rather childlish; some kind of glitch in their spiritual psychology prevents them from fully accepting that the terrible suffering of Christ is what God wanted to happen - he had deliberately set up his only son to undergo this dreadful pain, humiliation and sufferring. Not pretty. Up there with the Holocaust on the list of things to shake your faith, and so any rational person can be excused turning away from such a view. However faith is not rational; if you can get your head around the Trinity, you should be able to get your head around the Passion.
I'm not sure where Catholics stand on the whole subject of Grace, but I'm pretty sure that they too believe Christ suffered and died for our sins - all of us - so the part where he does it willingly is surely very central. To blame the Jews (or for that matter the much more likely culprit the Romans) is simply to sideline the whole crux of the Passion.
Am I wrong? Am I talking bollocks? Informed Christian friends, please advise...