'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
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.
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
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