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The passion and the fear

The Passion of The Christ has won both praise and criticism as a film. But like with any film purporting to deal with deeply held religious beliefs, Passion also has created more controversy than any film since The Last Temptation of Christ.

As someone who has not yet seen the film, I will leave it to others to pass judgment on its value. The question of the excessive violence in the film is personally interesting to me because it brings back some childhood memories.

I remember always feeling ill at ease at the Stations of the Cross when the suffering of Jesus was told in great detail. It was something I never forgot, just as I never forgot trying to adjust to the concept of drinking God’s blood and eating his flesh at Communion. Whether or not the violence is appropriate in the film, there is no denying the violence inherent in the story of Christianity itself.

For those who do not understand why some Jews feel only fear but others joy at Mel Gibson’s work, I want to share some personal experiences. As an Italian American, I have twice been mistaken as a Jew. I grew up in a largely Jewish section of South Philadelphia. When I was about 10 years old, two toughs apparently mistook me for Jewish while I was walking near my home. They ran up to me and surprised me by punching me in the stomach. "Christ killer!" they yelled as they ran away.

Many years later, while I was broadcasting in a Center City restaurant, a couple of neo-Nazis pelted my wife and my mother with food because they thought they were Jews.

I am not suggesting that Gibson’s movie will excite violent anti-Semitism across America. But while the vicious slur "Christ killers" is not thankfully something you hear much anymore, I cannot shake the feeling that anti-Semitism lurks just below the surface in this country. And in Europe where the Crucifixion was once used as an excuse for the mass murder of Jews, anti-Semitism is still very much a reality. Only now in polite company on both continents, hatred of the Jews has become acceptable by attributing all the ills of the world to Israel.

Also, I am not one to visit the sins of the father on the son, but the incredibly stupid and well-publicized comments of Mel Gibson’s father have only added fuel to the fire. Let’s face it, Gibson’s father is getting face time on TV only because of his famous son and his film. Gibson himself, while denying any anti-Semitism either in himself or Passion, is less than convincing when he admits that he doesn’t believe in anything issued by the Vatican since 1960. Included in that, presumably, is the Pontiff’s statement absolving the Jews of any guilt in the crucifixion of Christ.

Gibson says that if you believe his film is anti-Semitic, then blame the Scriptures. It is impossible to argue with someone who feels the debate is over because it is in the Gospels. But there is much in the Gospels that betrays the prejudices of the men who wrote them, and even their versions of events do not always agree.

My memory of my Catholic instructions is admittedly spotty as a public school student, but I do remember how we were told about the reluctance of Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. It was only upon the urging of the Jews that he finally relented. Yet historically Pilate condemned thousands of Jews to die by crucifixion. The idea that he would lose his nerve when it came to condemning Jesus to death seems far-fetched and likely the product of a prejudice against the Jews when the accounts were written years after it happened.

Logic dictates that if you believe God sent his son to die for our sins, then it was all foreordained. The Jews, Judas, even Pontius Pilate and the Romans were all necessary as part of the master plan. Maybe the players in the drama were just necessary pawns.

Some Jewish leaders believe it would be helpful for the Pope to reissue his statement absolving the Jews of any guilt in the Crucifixion. Presumably Christian ministers who are renting entire movie theaters so that their congregations may see the film also can reiterate after the film the innocence of the Jews. Such statements in this time and place should seem ludicrous and unnecessary. The fact that they are not is an indication of how far we all still have to travel to achieve tolerance in this troubled world.

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