The drum beat of criticism against Mel Gibson and his film The Passion of the Christ has echoed in the media for months. Interestingly enough, this criticism was given before some of the critics even saw the film. That prejudice against the Messiah Jesus and the Gospel itself is fueling this negative criticism seems certain. The hypocrisy of Hollywood is amazing. First they criticize the film for being unnecessarily violent. What hypocrisy for Hollywood people to say this! Then they laughed at Gibson for losing 25 million dollars of his own money to make the film. Now they are critical of Gibson for profiting from the movie. At the point of writing, the movie has grossed 300 million. What has drawn millions to the theaters? Here are the facts.
The film gives a powerful portrayal of the suffering of our Lord in the last day of his life. It is painfully realistic. Yet none can possibly portray the depth of His soul suffering for our sins.
The film is most meaningful to believers by far and will be a means of witness through believers' interaction with unbelievers. This is because the events of the last day of Yeshua's life are given their meaning in a larger interpretive context in the Bible. This context is readily in the mind of the believer but not the unbeliever.
The response to this film shows how much spiritual hunger there is in the larger public. By no means are all the viewers born-again believers. Many are not.
The film is not anti-Semitic since both the good guys and the bad guys are Jews. Only one figure is negatively called "Jew" and he is portrayed heroically. That was Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross. It is clear that Yeshua, the disciples, Mary, Simon Peter and other followers are Jewish.
There is artistic liberty. The Gospels do not say that Yeshua was beaten as severely as portrayed in the movie, but it is possible. We know that the Romans did this sometimes. We have no knowledge that the High Priest witnessed the scourging. This could be seen as overdone. The portrayal of the Sanhedrin leaders who were involved in seeking the crucifixion of Yeshua was terribly negative. However, the portrayal of such leaders (most of whom were Sadducees) is also negative to the extreme in the Talmud. There are also Catholic traditions in the film, such as the interaction on the Via Delorosa when Veronica ministered to Yeshua.
I believe that the making of this film is overwhelmingly positive. Yet as a Messianic Jew, I must say that I am concerned with the large chorus of Jewish leaders (and there are some exceptions) who claim that this film is anti-Semitic and will increase anti-Semitism. The response to this claim is seen in the response of the French to not show this film in their theaters. Israeli theaters have decided not to show it as well. Many Jewish people see this film as anti-Semitic. How should we respond to this claim?
Some Christians have been enraged by this claim and have defended the film without kindness and tact. The stance of the Jewish leadership, however, is a crucial matter which most supporters of the film have failed to understand.
First of all, the film is somewhat tainted by the fact that Mel Gibson's father holds anti-Semitic views. His father believes in a Jewish conspiracy and is also a denier of the reality of the Holocaust. Gibson, who is not anti-Semitic, will not speak against his father. He is torn between his desire to follow the command to honor his father and to disassociate himself from anti-Semitism. His only response is to say that this movie is about love and we are to love all human beings and this includes Jewish people. Hatred and anti-Semitism according to Gibson are contrary to the Gospel.
I am reminded of one of our colleagues who was trained in anti-Semitism by his grandfather. He made it clear that he repudiated such views. I believe that this is the right stand and honouring one's father takes second place to disassociating from gross sin.
"The response of the Jewish leadership, however, is a crucial matter which most supporters of the film have failed to understand."
Secondly, the perception of this film is primarily a matter of historic experience. Jewish people have a long memory. They have learned about the Crusades of the 12th century which targeted Jews, killed, pillaged, and burned synagogues on the way to the promised land. In addition, Crusaders rounded up the Jerusalem Jewish community and burned them alive in their synagogue. This was because they were portrayed as Christ killers (deicide) and thus deserving persecution. Then came the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the end of the 15th century. Then came centuries of pogroms. Crowds were whipped into a frenzy by governments to beat and kill Jews in Russia, Poland, Rumania and Moldova culminating in the worst pograms in the 19th century. Lastly came the Holocaust. Every Jew knows this history as if it was a liturgical litany. Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms and Holocaust. In this context, the Jews experienced beatings and even death after passion plays in Europe in which the Jews were portrayed as devils. The plays re-enacted the last day of the life of Yeshua! This history produces an interpretive framework where the following axiom can be asserted. Any portrayal of Jewish people in a negative light in a Christian context, even if another group of Jews is portrayed in a positive light, will be perceived by the Jewish community as anti-Semitic. This is the heart of the matter.
This key axiom leads to the right response of Christians. It is not to argue against Jewish people. It is rather to say, "I understand why you see this film as anti-Semitic. I do not believe it is, but I want you to know that I repent of the terrible history of Christianity with regard to the Jewish people and repudiate every act of anti-Semitism in that history as contrary to everything for which Yeshua stood. I am terribly ashamed of this part of our corporate history." Only such a response will open doors to the message of The Passion of the Christ. It is a message of God's great love for all, even to suffering the horror of the sacrifice of his Son, the Messiah. This is the message of His great love and the costly sacrifice that procured our salvation.
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