After seeing the movie, I felt I had witnessed an authentic portrayal of the final hours of Christ's life. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that "The Passion" ranks with the most moving artistic experiences I have ever had. It is a brilliant film--a compelling vision of Jesus' ministry, a challenging depiction of the violence of Roman crucifixion, and most important, a heart-rending portrayal of sacrificial love.
Following the screening, I was immediately bombarded with questions about anti-Semitism. I was caught off guard, because while I knew fears had been expressed by some, I had not noticed anything of concern regarding the portrayal of Jews in the film--certainly nothing unusual about the role of the Jewish leadership in Jesus' death. It was consistent with the biblical accounts and in keeping with other Jesus movies and the hundreds of thousands of Passion Plays that are produced worldwide every Easter season.
I don't know that we should be focusing so much attention on Jewish-Christian relations as they relate to the fallout of one movie. With today's global tensions, it is more important than ever for Jewish and Christian leadership to stand together for democracy, freedom of religion, civil liberties, equal rights, protection of oppressed peoples, and other important issues. Jewish and Christian leaders have global responsibilities that should cause us to minimize, rather than maximize, the importance of a movie.
But those with concerns have not seemed to want to talk about the Gospels, history, other movies with the same subject, or the fact that evangelicals such as myself are very sensitive to a misrepresentation of the Bible or of Christ himself--and are strong defenders of Israel and consistent apologists for Jewish causes. Instead, they are unrelenting in their accusations that "The Passion" will create anti-Semitism.
I feel that those accusations are off-base for several reasons. First, Campus Crusade for Christ's Jesus movie has been seen by 5.6 million people worldwide, according to Campus Crusade's records. It has been translated into 800 different languages and screened in 236 countries. Some say it is the most widely distributed and viewed movie in history.
Campus Crusade says there has never been one--not one--report of anti-Semitism in connection with the film. In fact, the opposite is true. In the portions of the world where the movie is screened with success, there is a rise in concern for Israel. Thus, the largest example of a dramatic Passion portrayal in our generation indicates that the current criticism is unwarranted.
The barrage of attention to "The Passion" may not be good for decreasing anti-Semitism anyway. For the first time in my ministry, I received an e-mail that said, among other things, "Any suffering Jesus received was too little. As a Jew, I glory in the death of the Evil Monster Jesus . . . Cursed be Jesus forever and ever." This can't be a result of "The Passion," per se, because it has not been released yet. It is more likely a result of the unwise attack on the film.
I don't think it is worth it. There are greater causes that deserve our attention.
And with the film in mind, I can attest that charge of anti-Semitism seems beside the point. "The Passion" suggests--as Christians worldwide believe--that the sins of human beings are responsible for creating the situation that required the crucifixion of Christ. We do not blame the Jews for the death of Christ, nor are we compelled to do so--we are grateful for Jesus' death! We believe that his death was not due primarily to the political and religious authorities of his day, but to God's greater purposes for humankind.
All humans are responsible for Jesus' death--Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, and everyone else. I'm sure this universal theme is what evangelical viewers of "The Passion" will see, and that is the message that we will uphold.
I realize there is a history of anti-Semitism in connection with Passion Plays. That history is regrettable, and I am sympathetic to fears associated with it. Indeed, with the past in mind, I hope that evangelicals will lead the way in calming those fears and reaching out to the Jewish people. There should be little doubt about our support already--evangelicals have long been the most vocal supporters of Israel and Jews worldwide. Forexample, in Colorado Springs, where I pastor the 10,000-member New Life Church, Christians have publicly avowed to protect the Jewish people in our region from any anti-Semitic threats. We have tried to work with them to make life better for their communities, and I believe they understand that the Christians in Southern Colorado are for them, not against them. "The Passion" is rooted in the Gospels and in the history of the Christian understanding of the meaning of Jesus' death. It is an artistic rendering, and, like all art, it is not attempting to be a straight, literal history. However, it does adhere to the outlines of the story that we see in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are moments that emphasize one or another of the Gospels in particular, and moments that are clearly informed by Gibson1s Catholic faith. But the movie, like the gospel story itself, is much broader than that. Christians who view "The Passion" will see in it the very basis of their belief--the actual, historical life and death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Personally, I'm looking forward to the chance to dialogue more with Jewish leaders as the events and ideas surrounding the release of "The Passion" unfold. I think it will be essential for us to be in touch more and more as some groups may attempt to pit us against one another publicly over the supposed anti-Semitism of Gibson's film. I will certainly be encouraging the evangelicals in my circles to stay abreast of news on the movie and how all kinds of viewers are responding to it, and to work in support of dialogue among various groups. My hope is that the movie will get all of us talking--not about the finer points of history, and not about who was responsible for Jesus' death--but about the fact that Jesus did live, die, and rise again, and what that must mean for each of us.