Gibson played on this construct by traveling the country last year giving evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics sneak previews of the film. Well-organized Christian groups promoted the film through websites such as ThePassionOutreach.com. You got a sense from reading the defenses of the film that the movie had the makings of a rallying cry, akin to Judge Roy Moore's effort to display the Ten Commandments in the Alabama state capitol or to the fierce anti-gay marriage movement.
Liberal Christian and Jewish leaders saw the same potential as they began raising questions about whether the script was anti-Semitic. The National Council of Churches created a study guide for the movie that asked readers to confront historic Christian anti-Semitism and contemporary Christian-Jewish relations. Jewish leaders weighed in, notably Abraham Foxman of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, who repeatedly denounced the film's perceived anti-Semitism. The criticism-direct and implied-led to the start of a website called SupportMelGibson.com. It also led a Baptist businessman in Plano, Texas, to buy $42,000 worth of movie tickets to distribute free of charge on opening day.
Some people even predicted the movie would be a reflection of the political red state-blue state divide. Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in an interview with The Jewish Week, called the movie "a clear dramatization of the cultural polarization of America. And the two sides in the debate over this movie almost exactly mirror the partisan divide in this country."
Then the film opened. People went to see it in droves, and by the end of its second weekend (March 7), the movie was still number one at the box office and had taken in more than $200 million. "The Passion of the Christ" became the biggest debut ever by a film opening on a Wednesday-even bigger than "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" ($124.1 million). As a result, perhaps, the film's boosters have calmed down-DefendingMelGibson.com hasn't been updated since film opened. And we're not hearing much from Christian (and Jewish) critics who declared the movie a bloody, violent, anti-Semitic piece of trash.
What is happening? Surely not what culture warriors on either side expected. Christians-conservative, liberal, moderate, church-going, and barely observant-appear to be seeing the movie for the reason Mel Gibson created it: to struggle over their relationship with Jesus. And after all, the nation is still more than 80 percent nominally Christian.
The fact is, American Christians are deeply affected by their vision of Jesus, no matter which way they lean-politically, culturally, or theologically. In that way, the movie is a litmus test-it's just not a litmus test about the culture war. Instead, it's a focal point for debate over the sort of Jesus American Christians believe in. The suffering, bloody, redemptive Jesus of Mel Gibson's film, and of traditional Catholicism and evangelicalism? Or the compassionate, forgiving, social justice Jesus that liberal Protestants and Catholics embrace?
Christians attracted to "social-justice Jesus" tend to view him as a radical reformer trying to overturn the power structure that enslaved Jews in the Roman Empire and to bring about "God's Kingdom"-a place of mercy, compassion, and fairness. They are intellectual descendants of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Dorothy Day; they tend to view Jesus' physical, literal resurrection as either a myth or a question mark. Some of the groups typical of this kind of Christian are Methodist Federation for Social Action; Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group; and Sojourners, a liberal evangelical group.