Chicago Tribune


'Passion' shaping up as Gibson's lethal weapon

By Tim Rutten

Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

August 8, 2003


Watching Mel Gibson cleverly build interest in his unreleased film on

Christ's execution is like watching an unwholesomely willful child playing

with matches.

The immediate temptation may be to let the little brat learn the lesson

that burnt fingers will teach. That impulse, however, is quickly overcome

-- not only because no decent person stands idly by while pain is

inflicted, but also because, if the kid starts a fire, other people may be


And as the growing controversy over Gibson's "The Passion" spills more

widely onto the nation's op-ed pages, into political magazines and even

into the halls of Congress, more than rhetorical bruises are likely to be


Even in steady hands, the Passion narrative is as combustible as material

can be. Yeats got it about right:


Odour of blood when Christ was slain

Made all Platonic tolerance vain

And vain all Doric discipline.


For nearly 2,000 years, the synoptic Gospels' account of Christ's arrest

and subsequent execution by soldiers of imperial Rome -- and each of the

four Gospels offers a different version -- has retained the power to move

believers to extremes of self-sacrifice and hatred. Saints have made it the

focus of their spiritual reflection and the well-spring of their

self-sacrifice; bigots have made it the engine of their obsessive animosity

toward Jews. Millions have died as the result of folkloric or

intellectually wicked misreadings of the Passion.

Where on this spectrum does "The Passion," which Gibson co-wrote, directed

and financed with $25 million of his own money, fall?

The answer is unclear, mainly because Gibson has deliberately made it so.

But there already is ample reason for suspicion and apprehension for anyone

concerned with the renewal of anti-Semitism around the world.

Last March, interviews Gibson gave during the film's production in Italy

led officials of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith to ask a group of nine leading

scholars -- five Catholics and four Jews -- to read a copy of the movie's

script that had come into their possession. The organizations previously

have cooperated to assist Europeans who wished to revise local Passion

plays dating to the Middle Ages to eliminate anti-Semitic provocations.

Old deicide libel

What the Catholic scholars say they found when they read Gibson's script

was a repetition of the old deicide libel.

"When we read the screenplay, our sense was that this wasn't really

something you could fix," Sister Mary C. Boys, a professor at Union

Theological Seminary, told the New York Times last week. "All the way

through, the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty. We're really concerned

that this could be one of the great crises in Christian-Jewish relations."

Father John T. Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics and director of the

Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union,

called the script "one of the worst things we have seen in describing

responsibility for the death of Christ in many, many years."

In an article for the current New Republic, another panelist -- Paula

Fredriksen, the Aurelio Professor of Scripture at Boston University --

wrote that the entire group was "shocked" by the script's recapitulation of

calumnies from the worst of the medieval Passion Plays.

The scholars sent Gibson's Icon productions a letter expressing their

concern. When accounts of their reaction leaked into the press, Gibson

threatened to sue the scholars and the Catholic bishops. When

representatives of the ADL asked to see a cut of film, they were rebuffed.

In the weeks since, Gibson has screened a cut of the film with subtitles --

the dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, though the Roman soldiers who

crucified Christ spoke Greek -- for carefully selected audiences whose

members have signed confidentiality agreements. Among the elect have been

right-wing commentators Peggy Noonan, Kate O'Beirne, Linda Chavez, Matt

Drudge, Laura Ingram and Rush Limbaugh.

David Kuo, deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and

Community Initiatives, attended a screening, as did members of the National

Association of Evangelicals. Afterward, its president, Ted Haggard, told

the Guardian, "There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now. For

Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems


There is more than clever marketing behind Gibson's coyness. What he and

his co-workers need to avoid at all cost are discussions of the religious

convictions he has said led him to make the film. The actor often is

described as a "devout" or "serious" Catholic. He is not, in fact, a Roman

Catholic. He and his family are members of one of the so-called

traditionalist splinter groups that broke with the Roman Catholic Church

over the reforms made by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.

Among the conciliar declarations to which these groups most strenuously

object was the church's formal repudiation of any notion of collective

Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ.

American traditionalists

These objections are particularly strong among American traditionalists,

many of whom continue to be infected by the notions of the rabidly

anti-Semitic Boston Jesuit Leonard Feeney, who was excommunicated in 1953

by Pope Pius XII for preaching heresy.

Traditionalists, like Gibson, continue to maintain the old doctrine of

supercessionism, that is, the belief that the New Testament supplanted the

Old as the foundation of true faith. Here, for example, is a quote from one

of the most popular Web sites among American traditionalists -- one the

author offers as proof of the Catholic Church's apostasy since the council:

"The constant teaching of the church is that the New Covenant supercedes

the Old, but Cardinal Walter Kasper, speaking as the papally appointed

President of the Pontifical Council for Religious Relations with the Jews,

declared `the old theory of substitution is gone since the Second Vatican

Council. For us Christians today, the covenant with the Jewish people is a

living heritage, a living reality Therefore, Judaism, i.e., the faithful

response of the Jewish people to God's irrevocable covenant is salvic for

them, because God is faithful to his promises.'"

Meanwhile, Gibson maintains an equally studied silence about the views of

his father, Hutton, a well-known traditionalist "theologian," who also

happens to be a Holocaust denier and "sedevacantist," ("the seat is empty"

in Latin), who believes there has been no pope since the conclave that

elected John XXIII was subverted by a Jewish/Masonic conspiracy.

You can't make this sort of stuff up.

Perhaps the evangelicals and others rushing to endorse Gibson's film before

its scheduled Ash Wednesday release might want to consider that most of the

filmmakers' fellow traditionalists also still hold to Feeney's doctrine of

extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church -- his church, that is --

there is no salvation).

In other words, you can give him a blurb for the ad, but you're still going

to hell.


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