Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism in the way that we did with the other great systems of hatred (racism, sexism, homophobia) when he told a national t.v. audience on February 16 that "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film (The Passion) but with the Gospels." Few Christians today know the history of anti-Semitism and the way that the Passion stories were central to rekindling hatred of Jews from generation to generation. Many are embracing Gibson's movie and not understanding why Jews seem to be so threatened. Gibson knows that for many Americans it is simply unimaginable to question the Gospels.
Those who wanted to purge hatred of Jews from the collective unconscious of Western societies after the defeat of Nazism in 1945 faced an impossible dilemma. The dominant religious tradition of the West was based on a set of four accounts of Jesus, each of which to some extent is riddled with anger at or even hatred of the Jews. The Gospels were written, many historians tell us, some fifty years after Jesus' death at a time when early Christians (most of whom considered themselves still Jewish) were engaged in a fierce competition with a newly emerging rabbinic Judaism to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Jews (some of whom were becoming Jewish Christians, retaining their Jewish practice but adding to it a belief in Jesus as messiah) and the minds of the disaffected masses of the Roman empire (some Christians already having given up on converting Jews and beginning to think that the real audience for their outreach should be the wider world of the Roman Empire).
The Gospels sought to play down the antagonism that Jews of Jesus' time felt toward Rome, so they displaced the anger at his crucifixion instead onto those Jews who remembered Jesus as an inspiring and revolutionary teacher but not much more (not a messiah, not God). The result: an account that portrays Jews as willfully calling on the Romans to kill Jesus, rejecting the supposed compassion of the Romans, and thereby earning the hatred of humanity for the Jews' supposed collective responsibility for this act of deicide. Conversely, Jesus' Judaism, his viewing the world through the frame of his Jewish spiritual practice and Torah-based thinking, is played-down or at times completely obscured, so that the message of these professional "convert the non-Jews" thinkers would not be undermined by a covert message (still advocated by some of the Jewish Christians at the time of the writing of the Gospel) that to be a Christian one should also become a Jew.
When Christianity gained state power in Rome in the 4th century of the common era, it quickly began to pass legislation restricting Jewish rights. And as Christianity conquered Europe in the ensuing centuries, spreading its story that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the Jews became the primary demeaned other of Europe for the next 1700 years. Jews came to fear Easter-because the retelling of the Crucifixion story often led to mob attacks on defenseless Jews who were blamed for having caused the suffering of Jesus.
In the aftermath of WWII, many principled Christians recognized that the Holocaust was possible in part because Hitler was able to draw upon the cultural legacy of hatred toward Jews nurtured by this kind of Christian teaching. The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations have sought to distance themselves from this long history of demeaning the Jews. But although anti-Semitism became unfashionable, only a few Christians were willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels and culminated in its historically doubtful account of the Roman imperialists, who ruled with an iron fist and crucified thousands of Jews, bowing to the will of a hateful Jewish mob determined to kill Jesus.
Even when the Catholic Church officially banned teaching hatred of Jews, it never ordered its dioceses to teach about the role the church itself had played in creating and sustaining those negative stereotypes.
Liberals and progressives in the late 20th century did an impressive job of confronting and educating the public about the literary, intellectual, and cultural sources of racism, sexism and homophobia. But they tended to shy away from anti-Semitism, both because of the mistaken assumption that it was no longer a real problem (after all, Jews were economically and politically flourishing in post-WWII America) and because such a confrontation would have forced a challenge to the dominant Western religion at the core of its most dramatic story: the crucifixion.
Nevertheless, ever since the 1960s there have been thousands of sensitive Christians, who, to their credit, have created a Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story and giving greater focus to the Resurrection than to the Crucifixion. Returning to Jesus' Jewish roots, and refocusing attention on the bulk of the Gospel, with its stories portraying a Jewish Jesus who builds on and elaborates the ancient Torah commandments to "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love the stranger," the Christian renewalists tended to see the two-thousand-year history of Christian anti-Semitism as a distortion of the deeper truth of the Gospel. Easter became a holiday to celebrate the rebirth of an ancient Jewish hope-that the forces of hatred and cruelty manifested in the Crucifixion could be overcome by a triumph of the forces of love, generosity and kindness whose Resurrection and ultimate victory were celebrated at Easter.
Yet that renewal movement is now being effectively challenged by a Christian fundamentalist movement with deep ties to right-wing politics. In post 9/11 America, many people have given up on the hopeful vision of social change movements. They have turned to a deep pessimism in which the idea of a world based on love, cooperation and generosity to the Other is alternately ridiculed and disdained as unrealistic and dangerous. A cynical realism holds sway in the media and mainstream American culture and political institutions, placing American progressive and visionary thinkers on the defensive. No wonder, then, that many Christians are attracted to interpretations of their religious tradition which emphasize the danger and cruelty in the world while sidelining aspects of the Gospel which teach compassion and solidarity with the oppressed.
I've written about this struggle in another context (see my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation). Inside the Jewish tradition there has always been a struggle between those who have heard God's voice as the voice of accumulated pain and cruelty of the universe passed on from generation to generation, and those who have heard God's voice as a voice of love, compassion, generosity and transcendence. Even in our Torah, there are moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own accumulated pain and hence hear a voice that talks a language of power, domination and cruelty, and other moments when the people hearing God's voice are hearing it through the frame of their own capacity to respond to God's revelation of love and generosity.
For many Jews, it is particularly painful to watch those who have been deeply scarred by the memory of the Holocaust now appropriating Jewish texts to justify the Occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people, ignoring the deep Torah commitment to "love the stranger" and "pursue justice." And so it is through history that we find in virtually every religious tradition the people who distort the message of love of their own traditions and instead portray God as the voice legitimating domination, power over others, cruelty and violence. The George W's, the Osama Bin Ladins, the Ariel Sharons are found in every tradition. And they don't even need the frame of religion (some people like to blame these distortions-but the truth is that the Nazis, Stanlinists, and Vietnam-war mongers of the US did not need religion to act out the legacy of pain and cruelty in the world). There is no religious tradition, no ideology of liberation (including Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, etc.) that cannot be appropriated by a distorted consciousness and transformed into its opposite, that is, into a mechanism or a justificatory ideology to dominate and act out of cruelty.
So let's understand that the attempt to revive Christian enthusiasm around the part of the story that is focused on cruelty and pain is not only (or even primarily) a threat to the Jews, but rather a threat to all those decent, loving, and generous Christians who have found in the Jesus story a foundation for their most humane and caring instincts. It is these Christians who are under assault by Mel Gibson's movie, and by the particular form of Christian evangelicalism that it is meant to stimulate. Yet, in a deeper way, the Gibson movie is likely to stimulate a broader assault on all of us who seek to build a world based on caring and love, cooperation and generosity, by giving strength to the part within each of us that despairs, the voice within each of us that tells us that cruelty is what is "really how the other is, really how the world is," the voice inside each of us that feels that there is no point in struggling to transform the world because it is too hopeless and too dominated by craziness (and that is the point of the Jews in the Gospel calling for Jesus to be killed, because it is saying "even the Jews, his own people" do this, because evil is dominant in the world and always will be, and the only way out is to believe in Jesus and find salvation in another world, and despair of changing this one).
So, part of the struggle is to reclaim and reaffirm the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who retains hope for building love right here, the Jesus who unabashedly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived (which is to say, that it is here on earth, that the world right now can be based on love and kindness, and that we don't have to wait for some future time or "the end of days" as described by Isaiah, because it is here now, we can make it happen right away by the way that we live our lives). And it is this voice of Jesus that The Passion movie seeks to marginalize or make invisible.
I hope Christians will take the lead in organizing people of all faiths to leaflet every public showing of Gibson's film with a message that runs counter to the anger at Jews that this film is likely to produce in at least some viewers. I hope that every morally sensitive Christian minister and priest will use the weeks ahead to preach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism until most parishioners can understand why Jews would feel worried about the popularizing of the Gospel story. But I hope also that the discussion isn't reduced to that-that Christians take on the underlying challenge and affirm their commitment to the Jewish Jesus, the Jesus that preaches that a world of love is possible right now, right here, through our actions.
The best hope to avoid a new surge of anti-Semitism will not come only from de-coding the anti-Semitic themes in Mel Gibson's film, or the Gospel on which it was based, but rather by re-crediting the ancient Jewish vision of Jesus-that in place of the Old Bottom Line of money and power, a New Bottom Line of Love and Generosity is possible. People of all faiths need to shape a political and social movement that reaffirms the most generous, peace-oriented, social justice-committed, and loving truths of the spiritual heritage of the human race. It is only this resurrection of hope that can save us from a new wave of global hatred.