You had strong feelings about the movie before it was released. Have your views changed since actually seeing the movie?
I was both more moved than I thought I would be and more disturbed than I hoped to be.
What disturbed you?
The movie is a story that is told beautifully, but it's told with a lot of anger, with a very clear sense that if the viewer does not believe what the storyteller is telling them, they are cursed. In the movie, when you have two people crucified next to Jesus, one recognizes his divinity, and the other one begins to laugh. The first one is told he'll sit with Jesus in Paradise and the second one has his eyes pecked out. That transcends Jews and Christians; that, to me, says that people who feel, think and practice differently than you do are cursed and damned.
You thought anger in the movie was directed more at non-believers rather than at Jews?
Yes. The Romans are portrayed much more horrifically than the Jews in this film. But the truth is, there haven't been so many Romans murdered in the name of Jesus over the years, so Italians are not quite so nervous. That's what Gibson has to be accountable for.
In what parts of the movie does it seem like he is not acting responsibly?
It comes out in a few places. The obvious one that people have remarked about is that in the courtyard when the Jews scream out quoting Matthew, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," Gibson has them shout it, but doesn't translate it. If you're going to say it, then say it straight and translate it. And if you're not going to translate it, maybe it shouldn't be said at all.
The place where that's even more pronounced is when they are arresting Jesus and bringing him to the temple, the Jewish guards scream at him in Aramaic, "Jew Bastard." So many people have been hurt over time as they listen to people scream at them, "Jew Bastard." Why put that in? How does that honor the story of the death of the Christ? In the end that has to be the question. It's not about which is historically accurate. The question has to be as you tell a particular religious story, who is being helped? Who is being hurt? And am I balancing those things appropriately?
What do you think of Gibson's response that he's just portraying the way it's written in the Gospel?
That's clearly not true. That doesn't mean he shouldn't do it. The issue isn't historical accuracy, or what's in the Gospel. If you live in a world in which a story is being used to cause more death than it is life, to cause more hate than it is hope, it just may be not the healthiest story to tell at this moment. Retreating behind the fact that it says so in the scripture is not for me a sufficient test of whether we should say it in the twenty first century.
How should Jews and Christians address these issues, now that the movie is out?
We need to have a genuine conversation, not debate, in which people begin to look at their own traditions and the relationships they have with followers of other traditions and new ways. We have an opportunity here to move past the last 40 years, which has been about negotiating what we won't say to each other, and begin to really talk honestly about what we feel.
We should talk about how we can honor the tradition of Christ on the cross. Then, how do you then honor that tradition without hating all those who don't come to your conclusions about the message of that moment? That's the challenge.
If I made a Purim movie and celebrated the murder of thousands of Persians, it would not be acceptable to say, "Well, that's what it says in the Megilla [the Scroll of Esther]." What we really have to figure out is how are we going to come clean about the fact that all of traditions have hateful text in them. This week when Jews read the Megilla, we're going to laugh with glee at the death of the bad guys. Then we'll go on to Passover and talk about the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea. The test cannot be: do you have those stories? Every tradition has those stories. The question is, what do you do with those stories?
No, but it's a very different message. I don't have a Christ figure in that story. So I would want the part with Jews defending themselves and killing the Persians in the movie, and I would want you to see both the necessity of it and the ugliness of it. It's both. It is necessary to kill those who come to kill you, but you must understand that you, too, are bloodied forever by that process. The fact that you may be in the right, does not mean you are not wounded by having done it. That's a covenantal telling of a biblical story as opposed to a Christ-like telling of the story.