Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Divided Passions

It's becoming harder to pretend that it's "just a movie" anymore.

If forced to predict (something I'm not very keen on, to be honest) just what the real-world reaction to the radical Catholicism of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ would be, I'd have guessed that it wouldn't have resulted in anything concrete in the way of serious eruptions of anti-Semitism, not to mention hate crimes or other violence. As I said in my original review, the anti-Semitism in the film is not as overt or crude as what you might find in, say, Nazi propaganda. Its effect, I thought, would be more attitudinal -- as in cases like the one Atrios noted in the L.A. Times' letters. This effect was likely to contribute to a general atmosphere condoning violence, aimed more generally at liberals than at Jews specifically.

That assessment, however, may have been wrong -- at least in terms of the timetable and the intensity of the attitudes. Hate crimes have already popped up their ugly visage, as well as various iterations of anti-Semitism in differing degrees.

Most of the activity of note so far has occurred in Denver. First there was the suburban pastor who, shortly after the film's opening, put up a letterboard sign outside his Lovingway United Pentecostal Church that read "Jews Killed The Lord Jesus." He said the sign was inspired by Gibson's film. After both Jews and Christians voiced their outrage, he put up a sign of apology.

But that was just the start. More recently, someone last Friday night vandalized a Denver synagogue by painting about 10 swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols on it.
Ramon Saenz, a custodian for the synagogue, said he saw the Nazi symbols when he arrived at work about 8:30 a.m. Saturday.

Saenz said he checked the building for other damage but that everything seemed in order. Nothing was stolen, he said.

"There's a lot of crazy people in this world," he said. "I thought it might have something to do with the movie."

He referred to "The Passion of the Christ," released Feb. 25. Many Jewish and Christian religious leaders have expressed apprehension that anti-Semitism would result from the movie's portrayal of Jewish authorities and Jewish mobs involved in crucifying Jesus. The director, Mel Gibson, has denied being anti-Semitic.

Cohen also said the vandalism may have been sparked by the movie. "I do feel, after watching the film, that it sponsors the spirit of anti-Semitism," the rabbi said. "We need to be sensitive to images and stereotypes we portray."

On Sunday, about 300 people of various faiths showed up to assist in the cleanup effort. Some of the volunteers also pointed the finger of blame:
Elise Zakroff said she was sure the film inspired the graffiti.

"What Mel Gibson did is terrible," Zakroff said. "It is happening all over. We are tired of anti-Semitism. All we want is peace."

Nonetheless, the turnout was a good sign. A Jim Spencer column rather warmly describes the response as an effort to emphasize the "Not in Our Town" sentiments of the larger Denver community. It may seem to the undiscerning that such efforts are mostly "feelgood" measures to paper over the insidious nature of these acts, but this is in fact an important step for the community to take. Responding quietly or pretending it didn't happen -- which is often the response advocated by those who think such criminals feed on publicity, so why give them what they want? -- is always considered a signal of acquiescence and even tacit approval by the average bias criminal.

But it's apparent that, community-enhancement exercises notwithstanding, the situation is becoming volatile in Denver. Now someone else has vandalized the Lovingway Pentecostal church where the earlier controversy erupted by painting a pair of swastikas on a sign. Mind you, swastikas do not contain the same meaning for a fundamentalist Christian church as they do for a synagogue; nonetheless, it's hard clear that there was a retaliatory component to the vandalism. The threatening nature of both these attacks could signal that things are getting out of hand.

Is it fair to blame The Passion of the Christ for this? Perhaps not. There hasn't been enough of this kind of activity yet to certify a trend. But if it continues, and indeed manifests itself elsewhere, then it would be far more plausible to say the film has contributed concretely to the hardening of violent attitudes toward Jewish people.

A duet of essays by Mike Davis and Robert Jay Lifton at AlterNet tackle the two sides of why Gibson's film might inspire such changes. Davis' piece, "An Academy Award for Bigotry," details precisely the nasty nature of Gibson's stereotyping of the Jewish high priests and the rabble, which he believes may have been drawn visually from the notorious Nazi propaganada film Jud Suess:
To anyone who has ever seen Jud Suess (as I did in college), the most startling thing about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- even more than its relentless, shockingly eroticized cruelty -- is its fidelity to the anti-Semitic conventions of Hitlerian cinema.

Indeed, the high priest Caiaphas and his colleagues are such exact, blatant replicas of Suess that I suspect they must be direct borrowings. Moreover, Passion is one of the most manipulative films ever made and, after two hours watching mobs howling in delight at Christ's suffering, it is no wonder that many devout American viewers, like their German predecessors, have left theaters muttering, "I hate the Jews."

Davis' conclusions roughly parallel mine as well:
In short, Passion is the medieval vision of a pogromist, amplified by Hollywood special effects and the cachet of celebrity. It is protected by a formidable wall of enthusiastic endorsements from the American religious right as well as by the tolerance of ordinary Gibson fans who just can't believe that their goofy, handsome hero is really such a grotesque reactionary.

Even more incisive, however, is Lifton's analysis, "Violent Purification." (I happen to be an admirer of Lifton's work, especially his previous contributions on the totalist mindset, as well as his book Superpower Syndrome, which for my money is the best and most insightful of the post-Sept. 11 predicament yet published. I posted previously about his condensation of the book into an article in The Nation.)

Lifton puts the film in its appropriate context as an expression of apocalyptic belief:
At issue is the purification not just of Jesus or even of the sins he carries for others, but of the whole world. And that larger world can be purified, the film tells us, only by sustained cruelty and murderous violence. One must destroy the world, or in this case Christ, its divine representative, to save it. That kind of vision of all-encompassing violence as a means of spiritual renewal finds structured expression in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel and in the New Testament in the Book of Revelation.

Only in the twentieth century, however, could the apocalyptic mindset take on a more activist form as human beings acquired the actual means of purifying the world by destroying it and so could attempt just that, always claiming to be doing so in God's name. This was the mindset I encountered in the small but ambitious Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which in 1995 produced and released chemical and biological weapons (having unsuccessfully attempted to acquire nuclear warheads) meant -- at least in the fevered fantasies of its guru Shoko Asahara -- to initiate World War III and thereby bring about a biblical Armageddon. For his sarin-gassing of the Tokyo subways, only last week he was sentenced to death by a Japanese court.

Lifton too identifies the problem as the extreme dualism that the film is really about:
The problem of The Passion of the Christ goes far beyond the individual psyche of Mel Gibson, or even questions of biblical interpretation. The crucifixion here becomes a vehicle for a contemporary mentality that is absolute and polarizing in its starkly violent vision of world purification -- a vision that fits well with an apocalyptic, all or nothing "war on terrorism." While many will be moved by this vision, there may also be a backlash of revulsion and a reasoned rejection of the zealotry and love of violence the film promotes.

My friend Jean Rosenfeld, the religious-studies researcher at UCLA with whom I correspond, described her viewing of the film recently in an e-mail:
A Jewish friend and I went to see the Gibson film together for mutual support. We both felt we had to see it in order to speak authentically if asked. A few notes on it that I have not seen mentioned elsewhere:

The scene between Claudia and Pilate re his "catch-22" about rebellion by Caiphas against him or rebellion by the Jesus movement against him -- and Rome's warning that his head is in the noose if there is a rebellion -- is all Gibson and no scripture or tradition that I am aware of. It amplifies the anti-Semitism, which I could easily draw a red line around in the film and identify as a theology expressly rejected at Vatican II.

The scourging of Jesus in the film is a tactic by Pilate to convince the Jews that he has been punished enough and to avoid sentencing him to crucifixion. Thus, it is carried out *before* Pilate confronts Caiphas and the crowd. In the gospels, the judgment of crucifixion is rendered *first* and the scourging takes place afterward. This out-of-sequence presentation of events serves only the purpose of amplifying the perfidy of the crowd and the priests.

The anti-Semitism in the film is not all "in the Gospels" and it is not incidental.

If one is Catholic, all the iconography, symbolism and midrash is perfectly clear. Gibson makes powerful films and there is a great deal about this film that is artistic. It could have been a great film, but it completely missed the point of Christianity, and it resurrected the perverse blood libel tradition of European Christianity that James Carroll has so expertly exposed.

Gibson leaned heavily on the Gospel According to John, which is a highly symbolic text. Reading this Gospel literally leads to anti-Semitic excesses. It is also the most mystical and pious of the gospels, presenting Jesus as a "theos aner" or "divine man," a recognized archetype in the Greco-Roman empire of the first-century. I once wrote an article on "the Jews" in the John's Gospel. The key is that one cannot take this account literally, which is exactly what retrograde Catholics like the Gibsons do. They are Catholic fundamentalists, which explains the appeal of the film to Protestant fundamentalists.

The key dialogue in the film is between Pilate and Jesus about truth/veritas. To the mainstream Catholic, truth is the message of love and forgiveness that Gibson has Jesus speak. But the message of the film cinematically is that certain agents cannot be forgiven, because they are "of Satan." Among these are the priests, the crowd, Judas and the bad thief. They remain unredeemed and consigned to Satan's realm. (BTW that is the point of the raven pecking out the eye of the bad thief; it is symbolic, not gratuitous violence, as the raven is a satanic icon and the thief was blind to the truth.)

Gibson's presentation of the Jews skirts the theology of Christian Identity a little too closely for my comfort. The only good Jews are those that become Christians. As for the Romans, well, I suspect that Gibson was told by biblical scholars he consulted that Pilate was a brutal ruler who executed Jesus for sedition (a Roman, not a Jewish, crime), but I also suspect that he deliberately did not listen to them.

... My friend and I were grateful for all the discussion about the film beforehand, because it prepared us for the excessive violence. A sign at the box office warned against taking children to see it.

The film's divisiveness, at least, is spreading to some perhaps unexpected quarters as well, as Jim Lobe reports:
'The Passion' Incites New Divisions Among Neo-Cons

'The Passion', which could become the biggest grossing movie of 2004 and the surely the biggest ever with subtitles -- the actors speak in Aramaic and Latin -- appears to have pushed some very influential neo-conservatives over the edge.

Thus, 'Washington Post' columnist Charles Krauthammer this weekend denounced the movie as a ''blood libel'' against the Jews that challenges the Catholic Church's official doctrine that the Jews should not be held responsible for the crucifixion and constitutes a ''singular act of interreligious aggression''.

... While many neo-conservatives probably would have ignored 'The Passion' had it been directed exclusively to the small, traditionalist, pre-Vatican II Catholic constituency of the kind that Gibson and his far more outspoken father hail from, the fact that he marketed it aggressively to Christian fundamentalists through their churches and Christian Right leaders like Robertson -- with whom the neo-cons have aligned themselves -- threatens to raise new questions about their political judgment, particularly among U.S. Jews, most of whom have remained liberal.

The distinctly negative turn that neo-conservative reviews of 'The Passion' have taken since its release suggest that a process of rethinking may already be underway within its ranks.

Sounds like the legend of the snake devouring its own tale.

[Thanks to Warbaby in comments for the AlterNet link.]

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