The most concise thing I can say about my reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is: I loved the book, but hated the movie.
As an activist theologian, I feel some responsibility to defend the gospel against contemporary representations or reproductions that I judge to be particularly wrongheaded or dangerous. The problem is, there are too many of these to respond to. Given the (admittedly intriguing) pop cultural phenomenon surrounding this film, however, I have reluctantly been drawn into the fray.
There is much to be perplexed and/or enraged about in Gibson’s cinematic version of the trial and execution of Jesus. And there is plenty to deconstruct concerning the filmmaker and his psyche, not least his fascination for “ Braveheart -type” victim-heroes who suffer injustice and indignity, but ultimately wreak righteous and intensely violent payback on their adversaries. (One can speculate that such cosmic retribution would be the presumed “eschatological sequel” to Gibson’s Passion film; let us hope he never makes it!) But the public issue most stimulated by the film has been whether or not it would rekindle old and persistent embers of anti-Semitism, and that is far more important to address than Gibson and his theology.
In a recent forum in Oakland I did with Rabbi Michael Lerner and Victor Lewis on the film, Lerner rightly called on Christians to stand in solidarity with Jews in educating the public about the long and murderous history of Christian anti-Semitism. Of particular concern in this case is the medieval European legacy of pogroms that often followed on the heels of performances of a “Passion Play.” I write in the midst of Passover/Holy Week, and while no one thinks that we will see an increase of overt acts of anti-Semitism in North America right now, the shaping of prejudice is incremental and mysterious, and this film influences in the wrong direction. There are many things we can do to work against this film functioning as a “ Lethal Weapon V.” One is to try to set the record straight.