“Passion” and Prejudice

The secular Left has derided Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion of the Christ, as an inflammatory polemic designed to subtly goad its sympathetic audience to hate the movie’s antagonists. I must confess, I fear I’ve succumbed. I’m afraid Mel Gibson’s movie left me with a burning hatred…for Roman soldiers.

They are the only people the casual viewer of The Passion could possibly come to disdain. Far from giving rise to anti-Semitic feelings, the movie leaves its viewers deeply prejudiced against first century Palestinian Gentiles.

How could the Left interpret this cinematic triumph as anti-Semitic? All logic screams out against it. Nearly all the film’s heroes are Jewish. Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, Mary Magdalene, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the weeping women of Jerusalem are all sympathetic characters – and all Semites. The lone righteous Gentile is Pontius Pilate’s wife, Claudia. Far from poisoning one’s mind against Jews, one could be excused for deducing from Mel Gibson’s film that virtue is an exclusively Hebraic trait.

Indeed, Gibson should be commended for producing the first Hollywood religious epic with anything like a Jewish-looking Jesus. Passion leading man Jim Caviezel is not the standard Aryan Jesus, like Max von Sydow (The Greatest Story Ever Told) or Jeffrey Hunter (the blond Jesus with piercing blue eyes in 1961’s King of Kings). Not one of this film’s bit players warbled in a John Wayne accent, “Shorely this wuz the Son of Gawd.” The Virgin Mary was portrayed by Maia Morgenstern, who drew on her Jewish background in preparing for the role. It was her suggestion to have Mary ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” – the question asked on the evening of the Passover.

No, it is the film’s Gentiles who are portrayed as one-dimensional, infantile sadists. The film’s longest, and most talked-about, scene features bloodthirsty Gentiles mercilessly whipping a holy Jewish man. The soldiers revel in the beating, cackling like the simpleton Dim in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Their rampage is only halted when an overseer tells them they were only to scourge, and not kill, Jesus.

But their savagery does not end with the scourging. These vicious Gentiles thrust a crown on thorns into Jesus’ brow, whip Jesus as He buckles under the weight of His cross, and strip off Jesus’ clothes. The lead centurion brutally rips Jesus’ arm out of joint as he shows his young understudy the “right way” to drive nails into a convict’s hands. The calloused guards then nonchalantly dump Jesus on His face as they prepare to sink the cross into the parched soil of Mt. Calvary. For the filmgoer, this is brutality on an unimaginable scale; for these Roman soldiers, it is just another day’s work.

With the Roman soldiers firmly established as the film’s villains, Gibson has them slur the film’s Jews. Most explicitly, when St. Simon of Cyrene – the man the Romans compelled to carry Jesus’ cross when Jesus could no longer go on – implores them to stop whipping Jesus, a soldier responds by barking, “Jew!” (This despite the fact that some ancient commentators believed St. Simon was a Gentile.) His attitude immediately conjures up an image of an SS guard in Hitler’s Third Reich. And this motif runs throughout the Romans’ interaction with the population of Judea. For example, when a kindly Jewish woman – remembered in Christian tradition at St. Veronica – stops to wipe Jesus’ face, Gibson depicts her as a dark-skinned Mediterranean. (According to Christian tradition, the image of Christ’s face remained on her cloth.) He contrasts her Semitic kindness to the inhumanity of the fair-skinned Roman soldier, who brutally shoves her aside.

Some object that although the Romans carry out the Crucifixion, the High Priest Caiaphas is portrayed as chiefly responsible for turning Jesus over to their custody. They allude to the medieval Passion plays, which occasionally sparked anti-Semitic outbursts (as though anyone outside of fundamentalist Islamists were living in a comparable society). First of all, the Passion plays of old depicted the antagonists dressed in the contemporary Jewish clothing of the day; Gibson portrays Caiaphas in ancient priestly garb, which strikingly resembles the Byzantine liturgical vestments of the Orthodox Christian Church.

More importantly, as Gibson and the Gospels make clear, Jesus always claimed the Crucifixion was voluntary. The Passion purposefully intersperses the life of Christ via flashbacks, one of which records Jesus telling the Apostles, “I lay down my life, no one takes it from Me.” When given the cross, Jesus holds it tenderly, inspiring the Romans to ask, “Why do you embrace your cross, fool?” In perhaps the movie’s most touching scene, Jesus meets the Virgin Mary on the Via Dolorosa. As she begs for an escape, Jesus sets His shoulders with new resolve, stands upright, and comforts her, saying, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). He then trudges off to Golgotha to taste death.

He then specifically forgives everyone involved in the Passion, both Jew and Gentile. In one scene, brutal torture is juxtaposed with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “I tell you, Love your enemies.” From the cross, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Some of the film’s opponents object that Caiaphas is depicted as a wealthy “religious” man, exploiting his spiritual position for the wealth and position they bring him. Hollywood should recognize this character; this is how the film industry has portrayed Christians for decades – from Elmer Gantry and Leap of Faith, to Stigmata and Dogma. In every major studio film, priests and ministers are painted as manipulative, money-grubbing, libidinous monsters clothing themselves in the sacred cloak of the ministry in order to feed their lusts.

Leftist scriptwriter Lawrence O’Donnell of The West Wing recently demonstrated how far afield Hollywood liberals have drifted from reality. He recently panned The Passion on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, calling it simple-minded and saying, “Everything is black-and-white. There are no shades of gray here.” What exactly did he expect from a film whose two main characters are God and the Devil? Nonetheless, there are no shades of gray in Hollywood’s depictions of the faithful (of whatever faith); they are all self-righteously covering their own deep depravity. If Hollywood hates the stereotype of Caiaphas, they know exactly who’s to blame for creating it.

(Of course, the critics ignore the fact that in Caiaphas’ case, the depiction happens to be true; he was hated by the Religious Right of his day, the Zealots, for selling them out to the Romans in return for preferential treatment; that is, wealth and power.)

Others object that the crowd calling on Pilate to “Crucify Him!” is made up of ignorant Jews led, like puppets, by Caiaphas. Forget for a moment that in a besieged and highly religious society, the High Priest did, in fact, exercise no small measure of influence. It is a favorite image of the Left to depict religious believers as ignorant pawns of their sacerdotal hierarchs, imbibers of the “Opiate of the People.” Was it not The Washington Post that only a few years ago blithely described Evangelical Christians as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command”?  These stereotypes are the stock-in-trade of the Left.  If The Passion contains this class of anti-Semitic stereotypes – and I don’t believe it does – it is the Left that popularized them against Christians.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ masterfully recounts the immense suffering of a heroic figure who shuns the temptations of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” to offer Himself for others. It is both visually stunning and emotionally transcendent. Tens of thousands of people are going to see the film, and leave pondering its deeper implications, which exist on a level leftists cannot begin to fathom.

This article originally appeared as the weekend lead on Friday, March 5, 2004, on FrontPage Magazine.