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:
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.
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."
Gibson's own comments have not been terribly reassuring. "Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people." This "s--t happens" view makes Jews feel like Gibson still doesn't get it.
Worse, Gibson seems to be actively inflaming matters by casting his critics as opponents of Christianity. Before the movie opened, Gibson said, "There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there, and they don't want it. It's vicious." On Jay Leno last week, he said he would try to forgive even "those who persecute you," and said he was being "picked on." That he would choose to cast criticism of his movie as "anti-Christian" is terrifying to Jews, who view that as a first step toward demonizing them.
2) This is not ancient history
Bill Donohue, the respected head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has said, "Those who are sounding the alarms over anti-Semitic violence are historically ignorant: the last time Jews were assaulted after the production of a Passion Play was in the Middle Ages." A number of posts on Beliefnet's message boards encouraged Jews to stop "whining" since the horrible misuse of Passion plays happened in the distant past.
But there are enough directly relevant examples of far more recent anti-Semitism to make Jews worry. "One of our most important tasks will be to save future generations from a similar political fate and to remain forever watchful in the knowledge of the menace of Jewry," said Adolph Hitler on July 5, 1942. "For this reason alone it is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans."
Beliefnet member Shira writes, "My father could not go near a Catholic school around Easter because he knew he was going to get beaten up." It wasn't until 1965 that the Catholic Church officially declared that the entire Jewish people were not guilty of deicide. Moreover, anti-Semitism is right now on the rise in Europe and the Mideast.
Though the Passion has so far not led to violence or even widespread negative commentary against Jews, there's been enough to make Jews nervous. A church sign went up soon after the opening saying, "The Jews killed Christ. Settled." Relatively few posts on Beliefnet have been anti-Semitic, but the exceptions are chilling:
"The past cannot be changed, so those crying foul should deal with it and keep their accusations to themselves. Could it simply be because Hollywood is primarily Jewish controlled that these anti-Semitic cries are being heard?" Or, "Let's give up the anti-Jew kick. The whole world is done with that. It has been shoved down our throats long enough."
3) Christian support of Israel is irrelevant
On July 24, after seeing a screening of the film, the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, commented: "There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now, and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted." One Beliefnet member gently reassured Jews that Christians would not turn on Jews because "born again Christians are the best friend Israel and the Jew has."
Obviously, supporting Israel does not give anyone a free pass to tolerate anti-Semitism in other realms. Besides, while most Jews delight in and appreciate Christian support for Israel, they are also quite aware of their mixed motives. (Many evangelicals support Israel because they believe the nation is a necessary precondition for the apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus.)
The Passion has already exposed some deep, closeted misunderstandings between some Christians and Jews. Whether the movie will become a positive or negative force will depend largely on whether we keep talking past each other or attempt to actually see the film through the eyes of the other.