Seeing Through The Other's Eyes

By Marc Gellman and Thomas Hartman
Tribune Media Services
Posted on Sun, February 22, 2004

Mel Gibson's film focuses primarily on the last hours of the life of Jesus (played by Jim Caviezel).

The central problem we all must face regarding Mel Gibson's culturally and spiritually cataclysmic movie, The Passion of the Christ, is that although Jews and Christians can sit in the same theater, they cannot see the same movie.

Christians will see a powerful, inspiring movie about the sacrificial, redemptive suffering of their Savior and emerge wondering what all the yelling is about. Jews will see a threatening, ominous film reviving the medieval curse of deicide on the Jewish people and emerge wondering how this vile blood libel could surface again in our time.

Until we can see this film through one another's eyes, we can't find one another. If we can't find one another, we can't find God.

We believe, however, that there is a way for us to receive a new heart, new eyes and new compassion for one another and one another's stories.

The beginning of the way back is for all of us to remember and understand that the death of Jesus was not a murder but a gift. If his death was just the torturous murder of an innocent teacher, the central question of the Passion is indeed, "Who killed Jesus?" But if Christ's death was a gift to save the world from sin, the central question of the Passion is, "Who gave us this gift?"

We suspect that the reason Gibson is so bewildered by criticism of the film -- and why Jewish leaders are bewildered by Gibson's bewilderment -- is that they're asking different questions. Jews see The Passion as the story of a murder for which they've been blamed, while Christians see it as the story of a gift they've received to share with the world.

The answer to the question of who killed Jesus is simple, yet complex. Obviously, the Romans actually crucified Jesus because the Jews were under Roman domination at the time and because crucifixion was against Jewish law. However, the story taught to so many Jews over the centuries that the Jewish leaders were only passive observers to the death of Jesus is not true.

Jesus was a Pharisee, a member of a group of itinerant scribes and scholars who would become the founders of rabbinic Judaism. Caiaphas, the high priest, was a Sadducee, a member of the priestly ruling class who disputed the new Pharisaic teachings of a personal Messiah and life after death.

The Pharisees taught these new ideas by ascribing them to an oral law supposedly revealed to Moses when he received the written law on Mount Sinai. So Caiaphas hated not only Jesus but all Pharisees.

The leaders of the Pharisees also hated Jesus because, against rabbinic law, he taught in his own name rather than in the name of previous rabbis, and because his followers claimed that he was the Messiah even though he didn't gather the exiles or defeat the forces of evil in the world, as required by Jewish messianic teachings.

It is long past time for Jews to abandon the idea that no Jews at the time wanted Jesus dead; they are strong enough and secure enough to admit this.

Christians must also own not just their formative story but also its historical consequences. The Christian story has anti-Jewish elements at its core because it cannot comprehend how the people who knew Jesus best, and among whom Jesus was born and raised, rejected him as Messiah despite evidence of his resurrection and the messianic promise of their faith.

To say that the Christian story is anti-Jewish, however, is not to say it's anti-Semitic. Anti-Judaism is the view that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity and that Jews should be warmly welcomed into Christendom after they convert. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, does not seek to produce living converted Jews but only to produce dead Jews.

Did the anti-Jewish elements of the Christian story lay the groundwork for anti-Christian Nazi anti-Semitism? Yes, but this doesn't mean that Christianity is totally to blame for the immoral twisting of its teachings into the vile screed of racial genocide. It means that the Christian story has suffered dangerous but predictable perversions that must be admitted by every honest, sensitive Christian and zealously guarded against.

Pope John XXIII saw this clearly. That's why the 1965 papal encyclical Nostra Aetate absolved the Jewish people of collective guilt for Jesus' death.

Sadly, John learned from the work of sociologists at the time that the most religious Catholics were also the most likely to be prejudiced against Jews. His efforts and the recent efforts of Pope John Paul II to offer a sincere atonement and educational purification of Catholic teachings are compassionate and hopeful achievements.

We fear that The Passion, even without the now reportedly deleted scene from Matthew 27:25 in which the Jews say, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," may cause Christians -- particularly Catholics -- to forget these changes to their teachings. They may return to the wrong question about the Passion and reach for the old, hurtful answers.

Christianity did not end with the death of Jesus; it only began there and continues to evolve to embrace new and humane interpretations of its core story. Whether it grows to embrace its Jewish roots or falls into revulsion of them is the question that The Passion brings searingly into focus.

The challenge to Jews on their side of the ugly shouting match is equally poignant and profound. They must freely and finally grant to Christians the right to tell their story in their own way.

That story will always have rough edges because Christians came from Jews and must try to understand how and why the Jews did not come along with them in hearing the good news of the risen Christ. But Jews must be confident that the Christian story will never again lead to crusades, inquisitions or pogroms.

We are very concerned about the numbing power of the violence depicted in The Passion. The ocean of blood may make it difficult for audiences to emerge from this cinematic ordeal filled with Christian love rather than sharp, vengeful hatreds. A movie that forces us to witness hours of torture and only 15 seconds of resurrection is in danger of transforming Christ's blessed gift into nothing but a crude and mangling murder.

But even for this we don't blame Mel Gibson, nor will we join the chorus of those who call him an anti-Semite. We believe that he has the artistic and spiritual right to explore the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death because that suffering, in all its bloody reality, remains the truest and most moving measure of Christ's sacrifice and gift.

We call upon Jews to let Christians have their story, and we call upon Christians to show Jews that this story need not lead to cruelty. Mostly, we call upon Gibson to do something healing and hopeful.

If The Passion is used to foment violence against Jews, we hope that Gibson will embrace the sacred responsibility that comes from the privilege of making the film and stand up and say, with all the passion and force that have fueled his art and his faith:

"Have you no shame?! This is not the way I wanted my movie to be used, and your vile hatreds of Jews are not the reason Jesus came and died for me and for all of us. I will not allow my work to be used as a new tool for Jew-hating or as a manifesto for crucifying yet another Jew. I tried only to create a tool for the glory of God and the salvation of all sinners, including me, who live in our unredeemed, broken and sinful world."

Jews and Christians cannot watch The Passion with the same eyes, but we can watch it with the same heart. We can watch it with the love of the same God who bestows different gifts upon different people but the same hope to all humanity.

If this happens, then the approaching celebrations of Easter and Passover will not be idle rituals. Instead, they will be transforming fires out of which we can emerge speaking calmly about the ways we're different and singing joyfully about the ways we are all the same.

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Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, both of New York, co-author "The God Squad," a nationally syndicated newspaper column, and host a TV program also called The God Squad.
2004 Star Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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