Mel Gibson has not even finished his movie The Passion, a super-realistic depiction of the crucifixion of Christ, and already he is under attack.
The film, which will not be released to the public until 2004, is realistic to the point of having its characters speak in Aramaic. Its vivid portrayal of the suffering of Christ-showing what crucifixion entailed and the extent of the tortures Christ endured-is, according to those who have screened the movie, extraordinarily moving.
But this cinematic passion play has stirred up enormous controversy. Part of it is doubtless due to what WORLD's Marvin Olasky has termed "Christophobia." In today's culture, vague spirituality, do-goodism, and multicultural appreciation for the world's religions are acceptable, but focusing on Jesus Christ is just too shocking to bear. He remains the stumbling block.
But the specific attacks against Mr. Gibson's movie have to do with worries about how it might portray the Jews. Because of its fidelity to the Gospel accounts, many people just know that it is going to be anti-Semitic. This is because it will show Jews, as well as Romans, involved in the decision to crucify Jesus.
The Anti-Defamation League, which fights prejudice against Jews, is castigating the project. But so are pundits who are not Jewish. According to Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, "a faithful repetition of the Gospel stories of the death of Jesus can do damage exactly because those sacred texts themselves carry the virus of Jew hatred."
Most of these critics have not even seen the movie. One group, though, an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, an association of liberal Catholics and Jews, did receive an early copy of the script. One of the members, Boston University religion professor Paula Fredriksen, blasted the film in a New Republic article titled "Mad Mel." She called it an "anti-historical, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic film about the crucifixion."
A good part of her complaint stems from her higher-critical approach to the Scriptures. She insists that the Gospels are not reliable historically. Therefore, Mr. Gibson's reliance on them is "anti-historical" and "anti-intellectual."
The anti-Semitism charge goes back to the way Jews have been persecuted in the past as "Christ-killers." It is understandable that many Jewish people would be nervous, lest a powerful depiction of Christ's suffering stir up that old excuse to start a pogrom.
In light of those fears, groups seeking to improve the relationship between Christians and Jews have shifted the blame to the Romans, specifically to Pontius Pilate. They argue that execution by crucifixion was a distinctly Roman punishment designed to terrify conquered peoples from rebelling against their rule. According to this position, the Romans were punishing Christ for being subversive of the rule of Caesar.
The blame game, though, completely misses the point. The crucifixion of Christ was indeed horrible, tragic, a subject worthy of the greatest lamentations. But, according to Christianity, Christ's crucifixion is one of the best things to ever happen.
Many people assume that the death of Jesus cut short a great life, that if Jesus had only lived longer, who knows what a great influence He might have had on society. But the importance of the cross is that with His sufferings, Jesus atoned for the sins of sinners from "all tribes and peoples and languages," pulling onto Himself all of the punishment that they deserve so that they can have free forgiveness and everlasting life.
Every Christian must confess that "it was my sins"-not Jews or Romans as such-"that put Jesus on the cross." Indeed, this is exactly what Mr. Gibson has been saying in trying to address his critics, a confession that confirms his personal faith. When the mob shouted, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25), they did not realize it, but they were invoking the only hope anyone can have. The blood of Christ "on us" is our-and their-salvation.
The anti-Semites who murdered Jews as "Christ-killers" clearly knew nothing of the gospel of the cross, and so can hardly be described as Christians. Christ died "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23) and by Christ's own will (John 10:17-18). The whole point of the cross is that blame of every kind is removed.
The controversy over the Mel Gibson movie is a testimony to the failure of Christians to communicate effectively what they believe. Secularists, by and large, think Christianity is all about moralism, with good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell. They have no idea that Christianity is really all about grace, forgiveness, God becoming flesh, Christ giving His life and rising again for the salvation of sinners.
Maybe a movie on the centrality of the cross can set the record straight.