Thursday, March 11, 2004

Passion of the Christ followup

I've said pretty much all about The Passion of the Christ that I want to say, except for this post. The front part of this post is a slightly edited email from Joseph Spiezer. I comment afterward.
A couple of points on the "Passion." Beliefnet has an interesting and well written article by Steven Waldman, the point of which is that Jews and Christians are watching two different movies when seeing the film. Jews see centuries of antiSemitism, Christians see an opportunity to experience God’s love. As a Jew, I really do understand the emotional bond that the movie seeks to convey for Christians. But let me explain my concerns about the movie:

1. Anti-semitism. Mel Gibson belongs to a church which rejects Vatican II. Vatican II said that Jews were not to blamed for the death of Jesus, and that antiSemitism was to be contrary to Catholic teaching. After Vatican II, the Church went so far as to say Jews were not to be targeted for conversion. After centuries of antiSemitism, in which normative Christianity viewed Jews as having murdered and rejected Christ, Vatican II is quite literally a Godsend to my fellow Jews and me. Since Gibson rejects Vatican II and all that followed, the natural concern is that he believes that the ideas that Jews are fundamentally evil and followers of Satan and therefore that is the message of the movie.

2. Anti-Judaism. Nothing is more important to me than my children. They represent the continuity of my life, the passing of my ideals. To the extent that missionaries of any religion try to change the values and religion of my children, they are violated me in the most gruesome and painful way possible. This idea, that Judaism is somehow inauthentic, since it does not accept the truth of the movie, is what I am most afraid of. The notion that missionaries will become reinvigorated not to seek to encourage fellow Christians to develop a more spiritual relationship with God, but to seek to convert my children to their religion. It is not so long ago, in the history of time, that the conversions were not through argument, but through force. The story of Pope Leo XIII, and the kidnaping of Edgardo is well known to Jews.

3. Not a concern, but my hope for the future. The difference between is really much more fundamental than Jesus. The basic difference is Christians believe in Original Sin, which breaks the relationship between man and God, a break which is only mended through the life and death of Jesus. For Jews, there is no break, hence no need for a Messianic Savior in the sense that Jesus is for Christians. Thus, Jews could not have rejected Jesus, because the whole concept of repairing a break doesn’t make any sense. If we can understand that basic concept, that really we have different starting points, that it makes no sense to try and convince each other of the logic of our arguments since we have different axioms, then perhaps we can get to the point where we can appreciate each other’s insights and beauties with being afraid of each other.
Joe, thank you for these thoughtful and indeed collegial points, which I am happy to post for everyone to consider. I'd like to make a few points.

Your observation that Christians and Jews seem to be viewing two different movies on the same screen is a good one. From my conversations with a few other Jews, it is obvious to me that Jews almost instinctively identify many threads of anti-Semitism that pass right by most Christians. I have either posted or linked to identifications of many of these elements in past posts.

I should say that few American Christians will pick up on the latent anti-Semitism. Some Jews have said they are much more concerned about the movie's effects on overseas audiences than domestic ones. The relevant images and dialogs will be much more evident to Euro audiences than American. European Christians have a deeply-rooted anti-Judaism that few Americans can understand.

See, for example, Jared Keller's review (via Bill Hobbs) of The Passion in which Jared writes,
My appreciation for His sacrifice - for His willingness to suffer physical torture, and inconceivable spiritual torment for the sake of my salvation - is now visceral, thanks to Mel Gibson. I put Jesus on that cross. He bore my sin, and lowered Himself for me - for humanity. Had I lived in that place, at that time, I would likely have been one of the throng shouting for his death.
But Jared is entirely blind to the anti-Semitic scenes of the movie:
What about anti-semitism?

There is none to be found. Caiaphas is certainly portrayed as amoral, but his corruption springs from his lust for political power - not his ethnicity, or his religion. During Jesus' first appearance before the Sanhedrin, there is a great deal of disagreement among the priests, with many storming out in protest over Jesus' treatment. The Jews are never portrayed as some sort of monolithic group.
What Jared does not see is the caricaturist portrayal of the High Priest, the overdone robes of the priests, the money-grubbing-on-his-knees Judas (not a biblical scene), how Judas is driven to suicide by demon-children dressed as Jews, the priestly elite bribe the people to denounce Jesus, the near-total absence of Jewish clothing worn by Jesus, and so on. Yet Jared, and I think a large majority of American Christian viewers don't recognize these things and focus less on such aspects of characterizations and dialog, and more on the deep meaning for Christian faith of Jesus' suffering and death.

Hence, the primary reason Christians and Jews see two different movies on the screen is that Christians tend to see the movie as a theological drama while Jews tend to see it as an historical drama. The vast majority of Christians I have discussed the movie with can identify at least a few of the anti-Semitic scenes, but are by far struck much more strongly by the soteriology of the movie. As I have written, the movie's most powerful effect on me was a demand that I examine my life through the lens of the Christ's teachings and their relationship to his death.

As for Original Sin - I don't think that many Christians actually do believe in it, though it remains a doctrinal point of the Roman Catholic and many other churches. The Augustinian theory of O.S. simply is not tenable in this age. Hence, most Christians argue that the reconciling work of God is not really repairing a break due to O.S., but is understood in other ways.

That being said, the earliest proponents of Original Sin were actually Jews, not Christians, especially Paul. What many Jews (IMO) fail to recognize is that the New Testament writings of the apostles are Jewish writings, for all the apostles were Jews before they followed Jesus, and remained Jews until they died. In fact, no kind of decisive break between Judaism and Christianity occurred until after the destruction of the Temple in 70, long after the apostolic letters had been written.

Furthermore, a nascent backing of O.S. is found in the Jewish Scriptures, Psalms 51:5 for example, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

My point is that I don't think that Jewish and Christian thought about the human condition is quite as far apart as I think Joe is indicating. If the fundamental issue is human sin - as the long line of Hebrew and Jewish prophets all agree, as did Jesus - then only real point of departure of Christianity and Judaism is how sin is overcome.

For Jews, at least throughout the biblical eras (I am not as well acquainted with modern Jewish theology) the answer was Covenant. Beginning with Noah, God had made covenants with human beings. The covenants with Abraham and much later with the children of Israel at Sinai focused divine covenant upon the Hebrew people. By faithfully keeping the covenant the nation would be saved.

Christians also see their salvation as coming through divine covenant, except it is through neither the Sinai covenant or the Mosaic covenant, but the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (see Jer. 31). It is arguable that Jeremiah was trying to invigorate the Sinai covenant rather than foretell a successor or refinement to it. But in either event Jesus specifically tied his death to the new covenant at the Last Supper.

So for the Jews, the covenant of salvation is something akin to an agreement, a sort of meta-contract. But Christians understand the covenant of salvation is a person, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Hence, said the Pharisee Paul, whomever believes in his heart Christ was raised by God from the dead and confesses with his mouth that Jesus is Lord, shall be saved. For this faith is accounted to us as righteousness.

For Jews, Passover commemorates not merely an historical event but a deeply theological one. The Exodus was the principal way the YHWH identified himself to the children of Israel: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exod 20:2) is how God began the Ten Commandments, which are the very heart of the law. And while Christians understand the importance of the Exodus and deliverance, very few can comprehend the deep meaning of the Passover commemoration that Jews attach to the holy day.

Similarly, even Jews who understand the soteriology and christology of Christian faith really don't grasp the deep meaning to Christians of the person of Christ, whom we profess to be "one and the same" with God, "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form."

Now, having gone through that stemwinder, I have some closing thoughts about the movie again. I find that as more time passes since I saw the movie, I am more disappointed in it. Part of this disappointment no doubt comes from the fact that a lot of the scenes come from Catholic traditions that are rather opaque to me. That's not Gibson's problem, though; it's his movie, not mine.

Rather, there is nothing in the movie that cuts to what I believe is the crux of the unjust execution of the innocent Jesus: that it was Roman law and Jewish religion conspired at some level to deliver Jesus to the cross. For in all the world until that time, the Roman legal code was the best the world had ever seen, and across the entire ancient world Judaism was highly respected even by pagans as the finest of religious faith there was.

Jesus was put to death not by the worst that humanity had to offer, but by the best. The movie, though, concentrates on Christ's suffering without delving into the suffering's broader context. Furthermore, it is Jesus' death, not his suffering, that is the central element of the passion story, yet the movie so overwhelms with scenes of torture that Jesus' death is presented practically as an afterthought.

Yet the movie does seem to edify most Christian believers who see it, including me, so I still assess it as a worthy experience. There are many sequences that are exalting and deeply moving. But there are so many places where the movie is deeply flawed, and some, in fact, where it outright contradicts the Gospels. All this is to say that my disappointment is that The Passion of the Christ could have been a contender for something truly extraordinary, but sadly falls short.

Jesus is served

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