Passion plays poorly with local Jewish leaders

With Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” about to premiere, the phones have been ringing off the hook at the Anti-Defamation League.

“One woman called with an angry voice, saying, ‘If the Jews didn’t kill Christ, who did?'” notes Jonathan Bernstein, the ADL’s regional director.

For months, many in the Jewish community have been worried that Gibson’s cinematic epic about the last hours of Jesus might inflame anti-Semitic feelings, perhaps even inciting violence against Jews. They might be right. Or they might be wrong. The film opens on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

So far, few local Jewish or Christian community leaders have seen the film. But at least one has.

The Rev. Mark E. Stanger, canon precentor and associate pastor at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, attended a screening in January, and he gives it thumbs down. Way down.

“I think it’s Hollywood trash,” says Stanger, who objects as much to what he saw as the film’s distortion of the Gospels as much as any anti-Semitic imagery. “It’s a $30 million piece of truncated and lurid propaganda.

“The focus on physical scouring is a partial truth,” he adds. “The stomach-turning violence on the screen is not justifiable. It reinforces the image of a God waiting for gallons of blood to make him happy. It says that somehow Jesus’ sufferings were more than of any other human being, which is ridiculous. Our story would stand if he died from a bullet to the head.”

As for anti-Jewish imagery, Stanger believes the movie has plenty. “The strongest [impression],” he says, “is that the Roman authorities and Pilate were almost guiltless. There’s a deliberate image of Pilate washing his hands, while the images of the Temple authorities really linger. One is always shown as the cheerleader for the crowd. The movie shows him yelling, ‘Crucify him.'”

Most troubling to Stanger is what he sees as Gibson’s overly literal understanding of the Christian Bible.

“The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts,” he says. “Rather, they are reflective accounts, each with its own theology. I cannot read any part of the Bible literally because it’s disrespectful. The Bible is divinely inspired, but only when it teaches about salvation. It doesn’t teach about earth science or biology or human history or geography. It demands interpretation.”

Though they have yet to see the movie, many other Jewish and Christian leaders in the Bay Area have nevertheless expressed strong feelings about the potential impact of Gibson’s work, especially regarding interfaith relations.

To stem any potentially anti-Semitic tide, the local ADL has been meeting with Bay Area Hillel directors, synagogue leadership and the JCRC. In March, ADL will co-sponsor a Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco with a panel that includes Caryl Stern, ADL senior associate national director, and the Rev. Steven Merriwether from the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

The archbishop of San Francisco, the Rev. William J. Levada, also weighed in with a commentary in the Jan. 30 edition of Catholic San Francisco, a community news weekly, later excerpted in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“We ought to do what we can to make sure that this movie does not contribute to anti-Semitic feelings, much less anti-Semitic actions,” writes Levada. “I hope that [Jews] will know that there are Christians committed to stand in solidarity with them against any resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own country or abroad.”

So will Gibson’s movie turn out to be a cinematic lethal weapon, or not? It depends on whom one asks.

The Rev. John Mabrey, an ordained Catholic priest and associate pastor at Grace North Church — an ecumenical church in Berkeley — is active in local interfaith work. Though he has not seen the film, Mabrey isn’t worried about it fomenting anti-Semitism.

“I see the hubbub as a non-issue,” he says. “From what I’ve gleaned, [the film] follows the New Testament pretty closely, and if Gibson is faithful, then it’s no more or less anti-Semitic than the New Testament, though there are portions in the Gospel of John that portray the crucifixion of Jesus in a very anti-Semitic light. I expect the bark of this movie will be worse than its bite.”

Beyond Gibson’s Catholic base, the film has enjoyed enormous advance good will from Protestant quarters, so much so that many evangelicals plan to use it to entice converts. The Rev. Billy Graham has called “The Passion of the Christ” “a lifetime of sermons in one movie,” Newsweek reported.

That doesn’t thrill some in the Jewish community.

David Biale, professor of Jewish history at U.C. Davis, says, “The New Testament is an anti-Jewish book because of its origins. The community that wrote [it] was a marginalized, heretical society in the Jewish world. We know from history that the Passion plays did ignite anti-Semitic outbreaks. Whether that’s true with a 21st-century movie is debatable.”

But, adds Biale, “There’s a hypersensitivity in some quarters of the Jewish community to any sign of anti-Semitism, inflated sometimes to a hysterical level. So anything that smells vaguely of anti-Semitism will be magnified in the echo chamber of the Jewish community.”

The ADL’s Bernstein says he knows from personal experience that movies do have the potential to incite violence. He points out that the national hate-crime legislation was ruled constitutional thanks to a Wisconsin test case involving movie-inspired mayhem.

“A group of African Americans went to see the movie ‘Mississippi Burning,'” says Bernstein. “They left the movie, then looked for and found a white person to assault. I’m not saying this will happen with this film, but it can lead to very serious consequences.”

Mabrey takes a different view. “Based on what I’ve seen,” he says, “relations between Christians and Jews have never been better. We have a great sense of common purpose, shared historical identity up to a point, and we share a common vision for a united peaceable kingdom.”

Reason to worry? Jews ready for passions to flare as Gibson’s film debuts

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‘Passion’ spoof sparks spat

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.