I am the product of a Jewish-Christian marriage. Following the religion of my Jewish father, I began life as a Jew. But the marriage ended bitterly after a few years, and I was raised from then on as a Christian.
I was an enthusiastic Christian as a child, especially in regard to my love of Jesus. So when a charismatic fundamentalist minister moved to my small town during my teenage years, I gravitated to his exciting message that Christ was returning soon.
Every night at my bedside I begged Jesus to accept me into his coming kingdom and waited for the trumpet of the apocalypse. But the end of days never came, and I began to feel worn out by all the anxiety. I also began to be repelled by that particular church's increasing insistence that the Jews, along with other non-believers (which by its definition included many Christians), were damned.
By then, I was completely convinced by my church that it represented the only true interpretation of Christian theology. So when I finally rejected it, I rejected all of Christianity as well.
After years of being essentially an atheist yet yearning for a return to religion, I was introduced to Islam. I was immediately attracted to its message of compassion and tolerance-though to listen to both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists talk about Islam today, you wouldn't know that such a message exists in it at all.
And that is my own point of personal departure for "The Passion of the Christ." These last few years have been emotionally taxing for most American Muslims. From abroad, we are stunned by religiously justified violence that defies everything we believe about our faith. At home, we feel attacked by hostile rhetoric about Islam that would never be accepted in the public square about any other faith.
Most distressing to me has been how highly respected Christian leaders have often equaled Islamic demagogues abroad in feeding mutual fear and loathing. Where is the love in these two self-professed religions of peace? Where is the compassion?
During my wait for it, I ignored the growing furor about the film's alleged brutality and its taint of anti-Semitism. On opening day, I settled into my front-row seat, still hoping for spiritual epiphany.
It did not come.
Within a few minutes, and for the rest of the movie, my stomach was clenched, as it became clear why many have expressed worry about the film's portrayal of the Jews. At one point, I found myself remembering an incident from childhood when a group of children once taunted me by throwing pennies at my feet, somehow knowing, I guess through their parents, that my father was Jewish.
Anti-Semitism is not ancient history. And knowing how much harm has come to the Jews by the same kind of emphasis on their alleged role in Jesus' death as in "The Passion" makes their feelings of alarm about this film completely understandable.
Deeply disappointed, I dismissed the film on those grounds alone. But I couldn't get its unflinching portrayal of Jesus' suffering out of my mind. And I realized that for me, as for most Christians, it would be Jesus' passion, not any caricatures of the Jews, that would have the lasting impact. Christians aren't flocking to the film to point fingers; they're going in search of some deeper spiritual connection with Jesus. Just as I was.
Yet, how can I, as a Muslim, even one who once prayed fervently for Jesus' return, hope to find anything transcendent from his story?
It is a surprise to many-it was to me when I first encountered Islam-that Jesus holds an exalted place in the faith. "Peace is on me, and on the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again," says Jesus in the Qur'an.
The Qur'an refers to Jesus as the Messiah and calls him the living "Word of God." It says he was born of a virgin, performed miracles, and raised the dead. So great is the reverence for him that when Muhammad conquered Mecca and ordered the destruction of all the idols and images, he spared a small mural of the Virgin and Child, covering it with his cloak, and ordering all other images to be wiped out except that one.
All that said, Muslims do not consider Jesus divine. It is an article of Islamic faith that God has no partners or children. Muslims also reject the idea that Jesus was crucified.
Says the Qur'an: "They killed him not. But (God) made it appear as if they had, and took Jesus up to heaven." In other words, according to the general interpretation, a crucifixion took place, but Jesus was miraculously spared its fate.
But what is really being rejected by the denial of the Crucifixion is the idea that salvation comes through Jesus' death. According to Muslim thinking, salvation cannot come by the sacrificial act of another; it is only possible by obeying God's will. Islam wants to emphasize that it is Jesus' life, not his death, that matters.
Anyone with that point of view could not find much spiritual uplift in "The Passion," and that apparently also includes many Christians who have criticized the movie's unrelenting focus on Jesus' torture and death. As the movie painfully illustrates, crucifixion was a degrading and horrific means of execution. Why such a focus on that, some have asked. Where is Jesus' great eloquence? Where are his parables and miracles? His message of compassion?
For a while, I was asking the same questions-not only as a Muslim, but as a soul looking for a message of hope from this story.
Not all Muslims reject the Crucifixion of Jesus. There is a minority interpretation that holds the Crucifixion did happen-otherwise you have to believe God has conducted a 2,000 year-long charade. And the movie has convinced me this minority view is right.
I'm still struggling with the film. It will be on my mind for a long time, as I'm sure it will be for many others. It will continue to be controversial and opinions will change. But at least this much I'm sure about: The amount of soul-searching his film has provoked would not have happened without Gibson's explicit portrayal of Jesus' torturous last hours.
One can be a passive bystander at the Sermon of the Mount. One can listen only half-attentively to Jesus' parables, react with quiet cynicism to the miracles. But his suffering and death stir emotions that cannot fail to move us.
By theology and belief, Jesus is a revered figure to both Christians and Muslims. And though much evil has been wrongly doled out against the Jews in his name, he is without doubt the most consequential Jew ever to have lived.
So, whether you regard him as a towering figure in Jewish history, the Son of God, or the Word of God, he reminds us all of the Abrahamic tradition's highest ideal and sets the standard for the most important gift we can ever hope to give or receive. After enduring torture and humiliation, abandonment, and betrayal, after being broken and bloodied and facing certain death, Jesus can look upon his tormentors and grant them-forgiveness.
As difficult and troubling as the movie is to watch, the message of mercy, compassion, and hope is perhaps there after all.