After weathering a volley of preemptive salvos and accusations of anti-Semitism in the fall and winter, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ hit theaters on the first day of Lent, and seemingly everyone in America took notice. Like a force of nature, the film and its message have been at the very top of the news, muscling out stories about the US presidential campaign, military offensives in Afghanistan and a new constitution in Iraq.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that long after its release, The Passion continued attracting fresh criticism from sources as varied as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and the more leftward-tilting Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic. The former calls Gibson’s film “a singular act of inter-religious aggression,” arguing that Gibson’s deviations from the Gospels “point overwhelmingly in a single direction—to the villainy and culpability of the Jews.” The latter condemns the film for its “bloodthirstiness” and “pious pornography.” A teaser for a follow-up piece howls, "The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film."
Unlike many who flocked to see The Passion, I didn’t simply go because I needed the death of Jesus brought to life for me, or out of some sense of obligation or duty. After all, movies are not sacraments. However, I did want to lay these charges of anti-Semitism against the backdrop of the movie itself. Anti-Semitism is a terrible, destructive and immoral philosophy. As a consequence, accusing someone of it is a serious matter. I hope that over time The Passion of the Christ will elicit reflection rather than religious hatred, but I cannot predict the future. Even so, of one thing I am certain: the motivation of this film was anything but anti-Semitic. And as Solomon reminds us, motives are what matter to God: “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.”
How can I be so certain that the motivations of the film, its producers and actors were not anti-Semitic? Partly because the film is based on the Gospels—four books written by, about and initially for people of the Jewish faith. Of course, there are those who say the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic. In this regard, it pays to recall that the chief protagonist of the Gospels—a carpenter-turned-prophet named Jesus—was born, lived, died and emerged from the tomb a Jew. He never renounced His faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and David. He never broke the Law of Moses, not even one letter of it: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” He said. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
What’s more, His followers were almost all Jews. Even after His death and resurrection, they argued about whether a person needed to become Jewish before becoming a follower of Christ. The anger they expressed in the Gospels and elsewhere were directed at men like Caiaphas and a handful of other leaders in a governing council known as the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas ordered Jesus to “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." When Jesus answered, "Yes, it is as you say," Caiaphas called Jesus a blasphemer, tore his garment in anger and sent Jesus off to Pilate. Caiaphas simply did not believe Jesus’ claims.
Of course, both Scripture and the film remind us that there were members of the Sanhedrin who were opposed to handing Jesus over to the Romans to be executed: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, for example, were not only prominent members of the council; they also followed the teachings of Jesus. Matthew’s account tells us that Joseph of Arimathea became a disciple of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel notes that he “went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” to provide his savior with a proper burial.
More evidence that the film strives to be anything but anti-Semitic is found in how Gibson tells the story of the Golgotha-bound Jesus. In only a few instances does the screenplay stray from the Scriptures, and even these extra-biblical moments remain largely true to the spirit of the Gospel story. One of those moments is the film’s embellishment of the role of Simon the Cyrene, the man who was ordered by Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross. Scripture tells us very little about Simon, but he probably was a pilgrim visiting the Holy City for Passover—a Jewish everyman. One Gospel account notes, blandly, “As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.” Another of the Gospel writers adds that Simon had two children. John’s Gospel doesn’t even mention him.
By adding poignant detail to the Passover Friday of this Jewish everyman, the film preemptively blunts the charge of anti-Semitism.
Gibson makes sure the audience knows Simon is Jewish by inserting a slur from a Roman brute. After trying in vain to go about his own business, Simon takes up the cross and begins the long walk to the Roman crossworks outside the city. Along the way, he sometimes carries Jesus, sometimes pulls Him off the ground, and sometimes exhorts Him. At one point, Simon protects the bloodied deity from a pack of drunken Roman centurions. At another, the Christ and the Cyrene are literally arm-in-arm supporting each other in the journey. And as this pilgrim walks with Jesus, he is transformed. The symbolism is poetic: In Simon, the children of Abraham are carrying the Son of God, and He is guiding them to a new covenant.
Just as Gibson’s Simon offers us a glimpse of the heart of the Jewish people, Pilate and his legions remind us that the Sanhedrin leaders were not the only ones with blood on their hands. Yes, Pilate is conflicted and uncertain, but in the film he concedes he has no conscience, no sense of “truth.” As a result, he is pulled in all directions, blown about like dry grass. In an exquisite profile in cowardice, he tries to pass the buck by sending Jesus over to Herod, a local potentate. Herod toys with Jesus, peppers Him with questions, and as Luke writes, hopes “to see Him perform some miracle.” Jesus refuses to play Herod’s game, and Herod sends Him back to Pilate.
Pilate wavers between indifference and self-pity as a tortured Jesus teeters between life and death. Indeed, the film makes it clear that it was Pilate’s indifference that allowed Jesus to be tortured—and Rome’s inhumanity and contempt for life that transformed its brutal criminal-justice system into a blood sport, a circus. Pilate finally chooses to go along with the crowd and crucifies Jesus in the hopes of staying in good stead with his boss. Pilate could have done more to save this innocent man—or less to kill Him. Either would have been better.
In the end, the unmistakable message of The Passion and of the Gospels is not that the Jews are guilty, or the Romans are guilty, or some faceless, nameless mob in first-century Jerusalem is guilty—it is that I am guilty.
I am the Roman torturer, tearing into Christ’s body every time I use words to stab or slander a neighbor, every time I lie or lust, every time I choose to sow strife rather than peace.
I am Herod, making Jesus into some magician to entertain me or a Santa Claus to give me what I want.
I am Pilate, seeking compromise rather than justice, rationalizations rather than the Truth, the favor of men rather than God.
I am Caiaphas, rejecting God Himself whenever I choose to be prideful and stiff-necked and arrogant.
And I am not often enough like a Jewish pilgrim named Simon or a Jewish scholar named Joseph. Rather than walking with Jesus, I too often go my own way, avert my gaze from the burdens of others, and avoid the crosses God asks me to carry. Rather than being bold and risking status for the eternal, I settle for the momentary.
But the good news is that Father of Abraham and of Jesus has given me and all the Pilates and Caiaphases and Herods a second chance. What we do with it is up to us.