On July 28th a long-running debate about Mel Gibson came to an end with an alcohol-induced anti-Semitic rant recorded by Los Angeles county sheriffs deputies. As the actor and director spouted lines like, “F***ing Jews… The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” Gibson evinced a profound and hostile anti-Semitism.
If Gibson were just a movie star, this statement would be a gossip item published next to Tom Cruise’s embarrassing stab at psychiatry. But Mel Gibson is more than a movie star. After his movie The Passion of the Christ became the biggest religious blockbuster of all time, Gibson advanced as a major international religious figure. He has been embraced by a wide array of Christian leaders, from Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, to Paul Crouch Jr. of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, who declared in his broadcast that, “Every Christian MUST go see this movie and hold Mr. Gibson up in prayer.”
Like Mel Gibson, we are Catholics. We come from a large Midwestern Catholic family. Our father was a diocesan priest and our mother was a Franciscan nun who left their positions in the clergy to get married and have children. Two of our uncles are priests and a third attended seminary before pursuing another career. Our younger brother now runs a religious center for the working poor.
When the controversy around The Passion of the Christ began almost three years ago, we were alarmed by the Anti-Defamation League’s warning that the film “portray[ed] Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.” Other critics charged that Gibson’s father had made statements denying the Holocaust and that Mel Gibson himself had made some disturbing off-the-cuff remarks. But, at the time, a wide-ranging group of people defended Gibson.
Beyond evangelical Christians, mainstream Catholic groups like the Knights of Columbus came to Gibson’s aid. Even Jewish film critic Michael Medved decried the “crucifying” of Gibson and “the reckless maneuvering of real-life Jewish leaders whose arrogance and short-sightedness has led them into a tragic, needless, no-win public relations war.”
Now we have to face the truth. Many religious scholars have expressed concern that the movie tells the story of the final hours of Jesus’ life in a way that focuses the blame for his death on Jews instead of the Roman authorities. Others say that the movie fills in many details about the events of Jesus’ death in ways that reflect anti-Semitic medieval Catholic folklore rather than actual biblical scholarship. During the release of the movie, there was a real question about whether the decisions that Gibson made in making the film were mere expressions of personal spirituality or whether they reflected a latent hostility toward Judaism. Now that Gibson had broadcast such hostility to the world, the Christian community needs to rethink its embrace of The Passion as a tool for evangelism.
One can find an instructive parallel between the controversy surrounding Gibson and his landmark film and D.W. Griffith’s 1915 civil war epic, The Birth of a Nation, the first blockbuster in American cinema. Griffith’s film, which was adapted from the racist play The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, also caused a national uproar when it was released. Groups like the newly formed NAACP decried the negative portrayal of African Americans in the film and the positive historical light in which it cast the Ku Klux Klan, but their call for the removal of objectionable scenes in the film met with little to no success.
Like Gibson, Griffith objected vehemently to accusations that he or his film were bigoted in any way, and he was largely supported by both the film community and the viewing public. The problem is that Birth of a Nation is an obviously racist movie, and film historians today cringe at the thought that America ever embraced it.
Let’s hope that, with Gibson’s anti-Semitism now on overt display, it will not take decades for us to come to similar reevaluation of The Passion.