Sins of the Father

So now we’ve arrived at the long-ignored elephant in the room. Is The Passion of the Christ antisemitic, and moreover, homophobic? To approach this question, we’ll need to dive into some old history from the early 2000s. The intent here is not to dredge up the past as a weapon. It’s merely to use some (quite possibly forgotten) background knowledge about the movie’s release as a tool for discernment.

In March 2003, The New York Times ran an article (“Is the Pope Catholic … Enough?”) in which it detailed how Gibson had been quietly bankrolling a traditionalist Catholic church in the mountains outside of L.A. The church, it seems, would conduct its services in Latin only … which suddenly casts a different light on the choice of Latin over Greek in The Passion of the Christ. Did an esoteric worship language preference, and not just a lack of comparative Koine Greek sources, partially motivate this decision?

As the Times notes, Gibson’s church “wasn’t affiliated with the Roman Catholic archdiocese.” In point of fact, it reportedly rejected the line of Popes from 1958 onward (a position called sedevacantism) and rejected the landmark reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.

Incidentally, one of the reforms in that council was a “Decree on the Jews,” which eventually morphed into a “Declaration on the Church’s Relationship to Non-Christian Religions.” This document, referred to as Nostra aestate (Latin for, “In our time”) was instrumental in re-framing the Church’s position on Jewish involvement in the death of Christ.

No more, the bureaucracy had decided, were Jews to be considered the deicidal cabal of Christ-killers. As a Jewish writer for the Times put it in another article (“Mel Gibson’s Martyrdom Complex”) published later that year: “The Vatican officially absolved us of the crime in 1965.” Never a man to mince words, Gibson once said he wanted to kill this same writer (and his dog).

Looping back to the first Times article, there’s some stuff in there that almost sounds like a deleted subplot from Gibson’s movie, Conspiracy Theory. Introducing him as “a rabble-rousing theologist,” it paints Gibson’s father, Hutton (then 84 years old, now 100), as a Holocaust denier who also believes there were no hijackers, just remote-control detonation, when the planes crashed on 9/11. The Times quotes Hutton Gibson saying that the Second Vatican Council was “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.” It stresses:

“Whether any of this has rubbed off on Hutton’s son Mel is an open question. A church elder at Holy Family [Gibson’s church] says that while the two share the same foundation of faith, Mel Gibson parts company with his father on many points.”

Before we get bogged down in too much more hearsay, let’s give Gibson the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he made The Passion of the Christ with the best of intentions, with nary an antisemitic thought entering his head. There’s still the fact that a joint Catholic-Jewish scholarly group and the Anti-Defamation League itself was issuing statements against The Passion of the Christ even before it hit theaters, based on a version of the script that leaked.

With all of this stuff out there in the media in 2003, Gibson had the chance to take people’s feelings into consideration well before the Ash Wednesday release of The Passion of the Christ in 2004. He appears to have resisted the rising tide of pre-release criticism.

In one part of the movie, he took out the subtitles but left in the Hebrew dialogue where the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, says, “His blood be on us and our children!” This is actually a line from the Bible and Gibson has gone on record in interviews to say that he doesn’t interpret it as a curse on the Jews but as a line directed at all of humanity. Yet he also admitted that one of the reasons he kept the Hebrew blood invocation in there was that he “didn’t want to let someone else dictate what could or couldn’t be said.”

That line of defense (“They can’t tell me what to do!”) sounds an awful lot like the one that fellow ultra-violence purveyor Quentin Tarantino has taken vis-a-vis his use of racial slurs in some of his movies. Maybe we should read it as a lesson in how not to react to frank criticism, circa the 21st century.

Maybe filmmakers, especially ones who fit the profile of “Caucasian male, strident in his views,” aren’t the ones who get to decide what’s appropriate anymore when they have inadvertent focus groups telling them their movie is racist. Rather than remain oblivious to the unconscious prejudices powering them, maybe they should try listening for a change when people try to point out their blind spots.

Anti-Semitism and Homophobia Symptoms

At a time when even cartoon characters like Apu on The Simpsons are held to a rigorous standard, it feels like The Passion of the Christ’s portrayals of Caiaphas, King Herod, and Satan would only be that much more controversial if they were shown in theaters today. Caiaphas is every bit the sneering, richly dressed Jewish villain. Rather than de-emphasize his role in the crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ overemphasizes it, showing how he and the other Jewish high priests are there every step of the way, conspiring against Jesus, watching his torture with rapt interest, and leading the bloodthirsty rabble in calling for his crucifixion.

Caiaphas even shows up at the foot of the Cross as the mouthpiece for quotes that the Bible itself doesn’t attribute to him. He’s the one who sputters, “You said you could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days … and yet you cannot come down from that cross. If he is the Messiah, I say let him come down from the cross so that we may see and believe.”

#NotMyCaiaphas. Contrast Caiaphas with the solicitous portrayal of Pontius Pilate and it makes the treatment his character receives even more questionable.

It’s true that Jesus (himself a Jew) was something of an anti-establishment figure who rattled off a whole list of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites entrenched in power. It’s also true, despite the movie’s Western-centric use of actors — its American Jesus (Caviezel) and Italian Mary Magdalene (Monica Belluci) — that The Passion of the Christ has some positive portrayals of Jewish characters.

Early on, among the Jewish high priests, there are some conscientious objectors, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who demand to know where the other council members are before the assembly kicks them out. Likewise, on the road to Calvary, the aforementioned Simon of Cyrene throws himself between Jesus and the Roman soldiers. When the soldiers spit the word “Jew” out at him like an insult, it’s obvious that they’re the real villains.

Keep in mind, too, that Mary, mother of Jesus, is portrayed by a Romanian-Jewish actress, Maia Morgenstern, who even managed to ad-lib a line from the Jewish Passover straight into the movie. “Why is this night different from every other night?”

Unfortunately (all the more so given Gibson’s past virulently homophobic statements), the movie trots King Herod out as bearded lady who keeps a cheetah on a leash in the ongoing pillow party of his throne room. Herod’s not just a fop, like the Prince of Wales in Braveheart (notice a pattern developing here?) You can see that there’s something going on behind his eyes, but the character comes across as a broadly drawn caricature, what a Times reader in 2004 called, a “tired old gay stereotype.”

It’s not the only instance where the movie traffics in such stereotypes. Through this lens, the visage of Gibson’s Satan is equally troubling: ambiguous, gender-wise, and therefore evil. When you put this and the other portrayals in the context of the greater overarching history of demonized groups of people down through the ages, it starts to feel like The Passion of the Christ is either ignorant and/or deliberately insensitive to the plight of the persecuted. To what end does Gibson, the embattled media figure, wind up looking like a bad-karma case?

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