Panelists rain on Gibsons parade, blast Passion

With Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” already one of the highest-grossing films of all time, some critics find the phenomenon simply gross.

At a recent “Passion” forum in Oakland, panelists blasted the movie nine ways to Sunday.

The Tikkun Community sponsored the event, held Thursday, March 18, with Beyt Tikkun Rabbi Michael Lerner joining the panel. He opened the discussion by excoriating the film for its historical inaccuracies and what he considered its distorted, hateful depiction of Jews.

“The Gospels are about love,” he told the audience of 50. “But most Christians are not taught how the Gospels have been used to teach hatred of Jews. And because of that, they don’t understand why Jews feel the way they do about the movie.”

Lerner went on to criticize director Gibson’s emphasis on “suffering and cruelty.” In keeping with his well-known, left-of-center political views, Lerner also noted the link between the film’s biggest fan base — evangelical Christians — and the concomitant strong support for “President Bush’s right-wing policies.”

The Rev. Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest and founder of the University of Creative Spirituality, where the event was held, was even harsher in his assessment.

“This movie,” he said, “brings us to the ‘F’ word: fascism. It’s about the piety of fascism, which is pain. There is a connection between being a Nazi and praying to a victimized Jesus. It’s scary that this movie is

a hit.”

The panel’s sole Catholic, Sally Vance-Trembath, an assistant professor of theology at Jesuit University, wasn’t any kinder to Gibson. “Unless you’re a Christian, you don’t know the story of Jesus when you leave this movie.”

An expert on the Second Vatican Council (which absolved Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus), Vance-Trembath scolded her fellow Catholics for their general ignorance on the Vatican’s more-progressive attitude towards Jews, saying Catholics should embrace its “beloved root of Judaism.”

Victor Lee Lewis, a lay minister at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, called the film “an outrageously provocative piece of anti-Semitic art,” drenched with as much fascistic spirit as ‘Triumph of the Will'” — the notorious 1934 documentary about a Nazi rally in Hitler’s Germany.

Next up in the Gibson hit squad was Vincent Pizzuto, an assistant professor of theology at the University of San Francisco. Gibson “mistook the Gospels as primary historical documents. But the Gospels are not historical. They are theological and cannot bear the weight of history. The popularity of this movie says something about the power of religion in society.”

The only panelist offering an opposing view was the Rev. P.T. Mammen, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in San Jose, and a member of the San Francisco Association of Evangelicals. But even he would not flat out defend “The Passion.”

The most he would say was, “I came out with a positive feeling about the film.” Mammen was far more interested in preaching the Gospel and railing against anti-Semitism.

Attendees seemed to enjoy the lively exchange.

Said Mark Neiman of Alameda, “I’m not always crazy about Rabbi Lerner’s viewpoints, but I liked his historical perspective. This made me more curious to see the movie.”

John Kral of Hayward, looking on the brighter side, said, “The film is opening up dialogue like this, and that is a good thing.”

Phil Catalfo, a former Catholic living in Berkeley, wasn’t so sure. “I was disturbed by the film. I thought it was anti-Semitic, and was Mel Gibson’s way of expiating his own guilt. I think he should have called the movie ‘Lethal Weapon 33.'”

Interreligious irony

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.