Every people has its story. Every people has the right to its story. And every people has a responsibility for its story.
Muslims have their story: God's revelation to the final prophet. Jews have their story: the covenant between man and God at Sinai.
Christians have their story too: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Why is this story different from other stories? Because it is not a family affair of coreligionists. If it were, few people outside the circle of believers would be concerned about it. This particular story involves other people. With the notable exception of a few Romans, these people are Jews. And in the story, they come off rather badly.
Because of that peculiarity, the crucifixion is not just a story; it is a story with its own story -- a history of centuries of relentless, and at times savage, persecution of Jews in Christian lands. This history is what moved Vatican II, in a noble act of theological reflection, to decree in 1965 that the Passion of Christ should henceforth be understood with great care so as to unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ killers.
Vatican II did not question the Gospels. It did not disavow its own central story. It took responsibility for it, and for the baleful history it had spawned. Recognizing that all words, even God's words, are necessarily subject to human interpretation, it ordered an understanding of those words that was most conducive to recognizing the humanity and innocence of the Jewish people.
The Vatican did that for good reason. The blood libel that this story affixed upon the Jewish people had led to countless Christian massacres of Jews and prepared Europe for the ultimate massacre -- 6 million Jews systematically murdered in six years -- in the heart, alas, of a Christian continent. It is no accident Vatican II occurred just two decades after the Holocaust, indeed in its shadow.
Which is what makes Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" such a singular act of interreligious aggression. He openly rejects the Vatican II teaching and, using every possible technique of cinematic exaggeration, gives us the pre-Vatican II story of the villainous Jews.
His Leni Riefenstahl defense -- I had other intentions -- does not wash. Of course he had other intentions: evangelical, devotional, commercial. When you retell a story in which the role of the Jews is central, and take care to give it the most invidious, pre-Vatican II treatment possible, you can hardly claim, "I didn't mean it."
His other defense is that he is just telling the Gospel story. Nonsense.
His other defense is that he is just telling the Gospel story. Nonsense. There is no single Gospel story of the Passion; there are subtle differences among the four accounts. Moreover, every text lends itself to interpretation. There have been dozens of cinematic renditions of this story, from Griffith to Pasolini to Zeffirelli. Gibson contradicts his own literalist defense when he speaks of his right to present his artistic vision. Artistic vision means personal interpretation.
And Gibson's personal interpretation is spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus's scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson's movie this becomes 10 minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why 10? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10.
In none of the Gospels does the high priest Caiaphas stand there with his cruel, impassive fellow priests witnessing the scourging. In Gibson's movie they do. When it comes to the Jews, Gibson deviates from the Gospels -- glorying in his artistic vision -- time and again. He bends, he stretches, he makes stuff up. And these deviations point overwhelmingly in a single direction -- to the villainy and culpability of the Jews.
The most subtle, and most revolting, of these has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs -- merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people.
Perhaps this should not be surprising, coming from a filmmaker whose public pronouncements on the Holocaust are as chillingly ambiguous and carefully calibrated as that of any sophisticated Holocaust denier. Not surprising from a man who says: "I don't want to lynch any Jews. I mean, it's like it's not what I'm about. I love them. I pray for them."
Spare us such love.
For more on "The Passion" see: