Passionate About `The Passion'
Jews and Christians react to Mel Gibson's personal vision of the crucifixion of Jesus.
hough Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the
Christ, won't even be released in major mar-
kets until Wednesday, Feb. 25, the contro-
versy surrounding the movie already has
catapulted it onto the cover of Newsweek, prompted a
one-hour ABC News exclusive and spawned national
public and private debate.
Some examples: Anti-Defamation League National
Director Abraham Foxman slipped into an early
screening with hundreds of evangelical Christians and
emerged concerned the movie would "fuel and rein-
force" anti-Semitism. Locally, a trio of Jewish agencies'
directors were concerned the Jewish News would only
serve to promote the movie by putting this story on its
'Anyone who said a year ago that what the American
Jewish community needs most right now is an intense
public debate on the extent of our culpability in the
death of Christ, you would have said that person was
clinically insane and should be removed from position
of Jewish leadership," said film critic Michael Medved,
a Seattle Orthodox Jew who is a best-selling author
and host of a nationally syndicated radio show.
Yet here we are.
No matter the criticism, people already are anticipat-
ing the film. More than $5 million in advance tickets
have been sold a week before it opens.
"There's a bit of common sense that the Jewish com-
munity needs to remember," said Medved, who has
seen the film. "When standing on a train track with an
onrushing train, it's appropriate to get out of the way
Instead, he said some Jewish leaders have responded
to The Passion with "irresponsible demagoguery." Their
response will increase hatred and resentment toward
Jews more than the film itself, he said. And, by smear-
ing Gibson, he said, "we Jews will enormously under-
mine our own ability to respond to real threats that are
Dr. Philip A. Cunningham, executive director of the
Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston
College, disagrees with Medved. He understands why
Jews worry about a film version of the Passion Play, an
account of Jesus' last days leading up to his crucifixion.
Jews are well aware, even if they don't know the
details of the play, that its performance has triggered
violence and death to Jews," he said.
A Christian theologian, Cunningham was inter-
viewed, along with Gibson and Foxman, by Diane
Sawyer on her Feb. 16 Primetime ABC-TV show.
Crossing The Line?
Cunningham says Gibson is crossing the line with his
vision of The Passion, an account of Jesus' last 12
"The problem in this film is that it presupposes that
it's central to Christian doctrine that Jews are portrayed
negatively in describing the death of Jesus," he said.
Yet, in the past 40 years, the Catholic Church has
made it plain to Christians and Jews that the deicide
(killing of Jesus) charge is contradictory to the heart of
And any presentation of the Passion is regulated by
Catholic Church guidelines, whether in a high school
play or on Broadway. These guidelines are the result of
Vatican II (1962-1965), which decries hatred, persecu-
tions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against
Jews at any time and by anyone.
Cunningham, who read an early version of the
script, but has not seen. Gibson's movie, says films don't
need guidelines. But when they promote themes mak-
Photo above: Simon of Cyrene helpingJesus carry his cross.
All movie photos:Philippe Antonello. © 2003 Icon