Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is reminding me more each day of the O.J. Simpson trial. Back then, white and black friends I deeply respected talked past each other, utterly unable to understand each other's viewpoints. The lenses through which most blacks and whites saw the trial were so very different that interracial conversations, even among friends, became difficult.

I fear something similar is happening with The Passion. Most of my Jewish friends have had violently different reactions from many of my Christian friends. Many Jews profess no interest in seeing the film at all. And on the message boards of Beliefnet, I see a widespread sense that the other faith simply "doesn't get it."

Perhaps we can improve this dynamic if we take stock of the differing worldviews involved.

What Jews tend not to understand about the Christian response:

1) Christ's suffering is important

Many Jews (and some Christians) have criticized the movie on the grounds that the violence is gratuitous, unspiritual, and misses the point of Christianity. "He virtually ignores the entire life of Jesus, preferring instead to tell us that what made Jesus special was not that he lived righteously and meekly, but that he died bloodily," Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes.

What Jews fail to realize is that for many Christians the death--and the suffering--is as important as the life of Christ. Christians believe that Jesus died so that sin wouldn't destine humanity to hell. As a Beliefnet member, "anointed prophetess," wrote:

"I walked out of the theater with a tear streaked face, a broken heart and a renewed purpose: to make sure that I do not let the blood that was shed for me be in vain."

The movie's violence brings many Christians into Jesus' world and helps show just how much he had to give up in order to give us the gift. In that sense, the violence is extremely spiritual.

2) Most of this really is in the Bible

Gibson certainly inflamed the situation by adding all sorts of new material, but the core elements of the movie--including the parts that have been used against Jews in the past--are, indeed, in the Bible. According to the Gospels:

  • Caiaphas and the other Jewish priests did plot to kill Jesus.
  • Pilate was, in fact, reluctant to crucify Jesus.
  • The priests did strike Jesus (Mk 14:65).
  • The crowd did cry "Crucify him!"

    It is quite possible that much of what's in the Bible is not historically accurate, but Jews need to understand that when they say that this basic plotline is anti-Semitic, they are saying the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic and hateful.

    3) Most Christians don't even entertain the question of blame

    Most Christians believe that Jesus went to his death willingly, so the identity of the killers is utterly irrelevant. Jews are sensitive to being blamed because they have been, but they also need to realize that most modern American Christians view that as a peculiar sideshow. By expressing so much anxiety about being blamed, Jews give the impression that they think anti-Semitism is pervasive and always ready to explode.

    Most Christians view Hitler and others who twisted Christianity to justify hatred as diabolical. As one Beliefnet member put it, "I find it frustrating to be told that my perceptions (and that of all us Christians who read this story every year in church) are no different from a deranged dictator or someone from the Middle Ages."

    Christians need to be able to love the movie without feeling that Jews will therefore view them as anti-Semitic.

    4) Christians feel persecuted

    This may be the hardest one of all for Jews to understand. How can the majority religion in a religiously free country feel persecuted just because people are raising questions about this movie? But any given individual Christian may feel like his or her personal relationship with Jesus--that which gives them hope and strength--is being challenged. When Jews criticize the movie, they need to realize that, unless carefully worded, their complaints will feel like not merely theological disputes but personal insults and attacks.

  • What most Christians tend not to understand about the Jewish reaction:

    1) Mel Gibson is terrifying

    Christians need to understand just how scary a person Mel Gibson is to Jews. The comments from his father, Hutton Gibson, don't represent ordinary country-club anti-Semitism but David Duke, neo-Nazi anti-Semitism. Of the Holocaust, Hutton Gibson said, "It's all--maybe not all fiction--but most of it is." The Jews, he said, "weren't killed, they simply got up and left! They were all over the Bronx and Brooklyn and Sydney and Los Angeles. They have to . . . go where's there's money." While no one expects the son to repudiate the father, it's terrifying to many Jews that one of Gibson's defenses of his dad was that "My father has never told me a lie."