Whether Jesus is man or savior, rabbi or messiah, history or myth, his story is a beautiful telling of human redemption, oppression, revolution, love and transformation. It was my appreciation for story, myth, justice and history that drew me to go see Gibson’s The Passion of Christ as well as my interest in the dynamic of racism and to witness what the fuss was all about. I was immediately impressed with the decision to use the original languages; Aramaic and Latin, both unspoken today, but perhaps a harbinger of the effort towards authenticity that might be how the rest of the story might be told. I anticipated art, complete with controversy. I anticipated complexity, complete with human frailty, that perhaps any racism in the movie might be incidental, brief, unintentional in Gibson’s compulsion to provide something out of Hollywood that was motivated by a conviction greater than greed. I had hoped, as aware as I am of the archetype of the Jewish mob, killing Jesus, that like other artistic interpretations that came before, the blame the Jews scenario might consist of an objectionable but brief portion of the production, as it was, for example in Jesus Christ Superstar. But my hopes were dashed. In this movie, death by the Jews was the thesis. The Romans were not brutal occupiers, but rather frustrated but kindly leaders. It was the Jewish mob that brought about the death of the beloved King. The music; while brilliant in parts, was corny and predictable, the violence; unconvincing and pornographic in nature, the story; unabashedly racist and simplistic. I wanted to report; “Yes it was art, yes it was brilliant, but we have a problem with this archetype we must explore. (A footnote perhaps if not preceded by centuries of genocide.”) I cannot give that report. This movie is essentially flawed, not marginally flawed. It is racist in its conception. The use of the original Aramaic and Latin were brilliant and beautiful. (sparing the audience the thou’s and thy’s of most biblical retellings.) This I can state without equivocation, but that is as generous as I can be.
The first hour of the story told of the ruthlessness of the Jewish mob, demanding the death of Jesus, betraying him. The last hour was the torture and brutal death of Jesus. Members of the audience wept as he was excruciatingly brutalized. I thought; How can they not hate the Jews more having seen this sweet man, this beloved God, meet such a horrid death?” To drive the point home, the film opened on Ash Wednesday to be played to audiences through Lent and during the Easter Holy week. Evident by crosses written in their foreheads in ash, many audience members had already been to mass.
The inherent bigotry of this movie should concern more than just the Jewish community. While few of the actors were Jewish, the more evil the character, the more Semitic looking and darker skinned the actor. Jesus, on the other hand, divorced of any Semitic characteristics, could have been plucked off of the streets of Scandinavia. According to the official web page, much of the film was based on the paintings of Baroque artist Caravaggio, to emphasize the emergence of light from darkness. This focus on European images of what is in origin a story out of Western Asia and Eastern Africa, adds to the selective revisionism of the story. Small doubt that had the original Jesus been a White God, that detail would have made it into the biblical text. And yet this widespread revisionism, depicted in European art, and theater, is not nearly as subject to debate as the possible exclusion of the racist accusations against an entire people, for his death. One small consolation; at least Judas was not played by a Black actor, as is often the case. But he is played by one of the darker skinned, more Semitic looking actors in the movie. Furthermore, harkening back to European images of the demonic Jew, Jewish children were depicted as cloudy-white eyed, sometimes hairy, grotesque demons, often transformed from innocent looking children, in a matter of seconds. Finally, no review of the injustices perpetrated by this film would be complete without addressing the issue of homophobia. True to Gibson’s form (need I remind readers of his depiction of the evil king in Braveheart) Herod and his court were stereotypically gay, cross-dressers who wore makeup and were more concerned with debauchery than with the functioning of the Empire or the administration of justice.
How does one tell this story without fueling centuries of hate, so imbedded in the Western mind as to have become pathos? “The Jews killed Jesus.” I have heard it all my life, in the two languages I speak; English and Spanish. It was said to me as a child as I attempted to get home from the playground peacefully. I heard it from co-workers who let me know that it was why I was not invited to happy hour. I heard it from students when I told them I was Jewish “Los padres nos ensenan que los judios mataron a Dios.” (The priests teach us that the Jews kill God.) I have had close friend argue the point with me. (“It says it right there in the Bible Emma, you guys did it.”), and I have comforted my son when he comes home from school battered and accused for a murder committed almost 2000 years before his birth. It is not just Gibson’s obscure religious sect of some 100,000 members nationwide, but while not the official church doctrine, still an issue among many Christian denominations today. To say “The Romans killed Jesus,” though true to the story, does not produce the emotional reaction that is produced when one says, “The Jews killed Jesus.” This is the pathology of racism, the way it becomes part of our psyche. The way words trigger animosity and accusation just by their juxtaposition: Black rapist, Arab terrorist, Jewish banker. These are the archetypes that fuel bigotry at the service of those that benefit from the divisions produced by animosity and fear. Racism is an important construct in a society based on power and hierarchy. It keeps allies separate, fearful, mistrusting. It creates an “other” that can serve as fodder for the anger of the oppressed when the weight of the hierarchy becomes too much and it justifies injustices carried out by the state.
One can make quite a statement when one has $25 million dollars at one’s disposal and a sacred text to manipulate.
There is much danger in holding up any text as the literal word of God, of not allowing the possibility that it might be filled with human frailties, of motives, interpretations, agendas. Perhaps divinely inspired but by human, writ. To take myth as literal truth creates rigid social policy, and fundamental adherence to ancient doctrine. This is true for all texts; certainly the Hebrew Bible is full of examples as much as the Greek Bible. The power of myth lies in the lessons they provide for daily existence, for a greater understanding of our place in the world, the importance and nature of righteousness. Myth as story, as archetype empowers. Myth as dogma oppresses. In this case it was the fear of the Roman Empire that may very well have originally dictated this deadly telling of the story. 2000 years ago, to have contradicted the powerful Empire could well have brought about the death of the storyteller. To blame the occupied for the death of the hero would still have allowed the story to be told. As Christianity moved from a religion of dissent to a state religion, the religion of the Empire itself, the passages accusing Jews for the death of Jesus became an important tools of the state in its justification and perpetuation.
There is much debate about the historic accuracy of the story of Jesus. Herod died in 4 BCE (Before the Common Era), to name one of the most glaring contradictions. Regardless of the disputes surrounding the authenticity of the text, one thing is for sure: the Romans were the occupiers, and they were brutal. Yet in the movie, while the Roman foot soldiers were quite harsh, the Roman leadership, Herod and Pontius Pilate were cast as concerned and disempowered leaders forced to appease the Jewish rabble. That these men were quite pained by the persecution of Jesus, but that there was little they could do to interfere was an apparently important part of the story Gibson had to tell. In this story it is the occupier that appeases the occupied, not the other way around. But who were the high priests that were calling for Jesus’ death? Were these the appointed leaders of the occupied population, chosen without duress and with full self-determination, or were they those members of the occupied community that were most willing to serve the occupiers, chosen and permitted to rule by the Roman Empire because of their willingness to keep down insurrection and to turn over insurrectionists to the occupying government? What would have become of any leadership of the Jewish community under occupation, had they allowed for dissent and dissention? Like the Black cop on the beat who is more brutal than his White partner, these leaders had something to prove to the master they served. These were the house slaves, but the brutality was a product of the occupation itself, everything we know about hegemony and occupation tells us this.
Had this execution been a Jewish death sentence, Jesus would have been stoned to death. Crucifixion, a most violent and painful death, was a Roman execution. One dies of exposure, starvation, thirst. It can take days to die, naked, beaten, exposed, nailed. It is an execution to set an example. “Do not contradict this occupation or the pain of death will be worse than death itself.” It is how the Roman Empire dealt with dissent. It is how revolutionaries were killed, revolts quashed.
What was Gibson thinking, using very little of the film to tell the message of peace, love, justice, equality that is certainly the most essential of Jesus’ legacy? This focus on the Jewish rabble, the venomous Jewish high priests, the kind, ineffective Roman leadership, the focus of light over dark, light skin over dark skin, straight over gay. If we are consoled that in death one aspect of our immortality is that we live on in the hearts of those who come after us, with the thesis of this movie being one of bigotry and pornographic violence, one must ask;
In the making of this film, who really killed Jesus?