NYTimes.com Article: "Passion" Disturbs a Panel of Religious Leaders

"Passion" Disturbs a Panel of Religious Leaders
February 25, 2004

CHICAGO, Feb. 24 - An interfaith panel of eight Christian and Jewish clergy members and laypeople who gathered to watch "The Passion of the Christ" on Monday night admitted they had very different expectations for it. The Greek Orthodox clergyman said he was predisposed to like it; the Methodist minister and the Roman Catholic priest were curious, but wary of its claims of Gospel authenticity; and the Jews were afraid that it would inflame anti-Semitism.

But after the showing, in a late-night discussion around a table at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, the panel members were in full agreement: they were disturbed by what they had seen. They said the movie -which was produced, directed and largely financed by the actor Mel Gibson - deviated in bizarre ways from the Gospel accounts, fell flat emotionally and was numbingly violent.

The Christians said they had been dismayed to see the inspiring prophet Jesus reduced to a mere victim. The Jews said they were horrified to see the Jewish high priests rendered as bloodthirsty schemers demanding Jesus' death over the protests of a sympathetic Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

" `The Last Samurai' gripped me more than this movie did," the Rev. Robert H. Oldershaw, pastor of St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in the suburb of Evanston, said, referring to a Tom Cruise movie. "Mel Gibson says it's a literal interpretation. It's not. It's Mel Gibson's interpretation."

The Rev. Philip L. Blackwell, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, said: "I found myself distanced from Jesus because of the violence. I could not identify with him."

He and others said they checked their watches during the showing because they found it tedious.

For months, Mr. Gibson has sought to build an audience for his film by showing it to sympathetic Christians. Many invitees were evangelicals and some were Catholic, but most were theological and social conservatives who shared Mr. Gibson's sense that Hollywood was hostile to Christians. Many of these early viewers called the film a transcendent spiritual experience and promised to turn out crowds to share it.

But with the movie opening nationwide on Wednesday, religious Americans who were excluded from the promotional screenings are now getting a look, and judging from the group here, their reactions may not be so uniformly positive. Those at the table here, who gathered at the request of The New York Times, did not pretend to speak for the full range of religious Americans, but they did represent people who were literate in the Scriptures, devout in their faiths and concerned about the future of interreligious relations.

The round table dialogue was also a precursor of similar events scheduled across the country in response to debate about the movie. The eight people who convened to discuss the movie here had just attended a showing arranged by the Chicago office of the American Jewish Committee in collaboration with half a dozen churches. About half the audience was Jewish, and about half Christian.

A handful walked out during the film. One, a Christian, told companions she could not stand the violence.

Christian and Jewish leaders are planning a number of interfaith events in the coming weeks, in churches, synagogues and universities. They are using the film to re-examine topics like historical evidence on the death of Jesus, the role of Passion plays in fanning hatred of Jews, and the Vatican II teachings of the Catholic Church that absolved Jews collectively of the accusation of deicide.

After the film, over plates of cookies at the Methodist church, Emily D. Soloff, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the American Jewish Committee, told the gathering that the way Jews were portrayed in the film "made me squirm."

Other Jews and some Christians at the table agreed. They said they were appalled by scenes of an unruly mob of Jews and by how the Jewish priests looked like modern-day rabbis in full beards, some in the blue-striped prayer shawls still worn by Jews.

"This movie has the potential for undermining the progress we've made in relations between Jews and Christians," Ms. Soloff said.

She said she was not concerned about how the movie would affect Christian and Jewish leaders who had worked at building bridges, but about those who had not. "I'm worried about the movie as a popular culture artifact," she said. "How many people think of Charlton Heston as God? This is an ugly film to become your standard image of Jews."

With criticism of the film growing in recent weeks, Mr. Gibson tried to alleviate the concerns of some Jews by removing a scene of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas's declaration: "His blood be on us and on our children." The line is from the Gospel of Matthew and has often been cited as the definitive source for the deicide accusation against the Jews.

But Mr. Gibson removed the line only from the subtitles, not from the film, said Rabbi David F. Sandmel of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago. He is also a professor of Jewish studies at Catholic Theological Union.

The film's dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin, and for those who know Aramaic, the Jewish mob is still heard yelling the curse in Aramaic, Dr. Sandmel said.

"What happens when this comes out in the director's cut on DVD?" he asked, or when it is translated for release in other countries?

Mr. Gibson has depicted his film as a true recounting of the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. But the Christian and Jewish clergy at the table were troubled by embellishments that they said had no basis in Scripture.

Among them: Jesus is taken to the temple to be condemned by the priests. A raven plucks out the eye of the thief being crucified on the cross next to Jesus. And the wife of Pontius Pilate brings a pile of fresh linens to Mary to wipe Jesus' blood from the ground after he is whipped by sadistic Roman soldiers. The group agreed that the gesture underscored the film's sympathetic treatment of a Roman governor so brutal he was eventually recalled from his post.

The Very Rev. Demetri C. Kantzavelos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago, was disturbed that the actors speak Latin, and not Greek, the lingua franca. Inaccuracies like these, he said, undermine Mr. Gibson's claims to authenticity.

"I came predisposed to like it," Father Kantzavelos said. "I really wanted to like the movie, and I don't."

He and the other Christian clergy members agreed that the movie was based on a "theology of atonement" familiar to evangelicals, one that emphasizes Jesus' suffering and sacrifice over his resurrection.

They noted that the movie had opened with a passage from Isaiah: "With his stripes we are healed."

Mr. Blackwell, the Methodist pastor said: "If your theology is blood, and you're washed clean in the blood, then the more blood and suffering the better because the more salvation there is in it. If that's your theology, the more stripes, the more you are healed.

"For me the question is: Is unrelenting violence redemptive?" Mr. Blackwell said. "What happened to the revelatory preaching of Jesus and his love?"

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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