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The Redemption of `Passion'

I HAD the privilege of seeing "The Passion of the Christ" in very unique company: 120 clergy and lay leaders representing mainstream liberal, conservative and evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches, as well as clergy and lay leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist, and neo-Pagan communities. We sat down together to watch the movie, and stayed afterward to discuss our impressions. It became evident that our different life experiences and beliefs meant that in some very real ways we'd have different opinions of what was happening on the screen.


For the most part we agreed about the glaring historical inaccuracies, as well as the numerous places where Gibson strayed from the biblical texts he has claimed were faithfully followed. We universally found the level of violence to be over the top and unnecessary even for its expressed purpose of helping the audience to realize the depth of Jesus's sacrifice. But where I and many of my Christian colleagues saw merely bad Gospel and bad cinema, many of our Jewish friends saw danger.

Mel Gibson has defended his film from attacks of anti-Semitism, and I choose to believe that he is sincere, that he did not set out to make an anti-Semitic movie. Gibson's self-professed, passionate belief in the power of Jesus's suffering and death as an act of atonement for the sin guilt of all people c ould well mean that he does not see the movie he made as casting blame on any one group of people, past or present.

Yet, to paraphrase an aphorism about the craft of writing, the filmmaker knows what she or he intended to say; the audience knows what was said.

And in the audience with which I saw "The Passion" were Jewish leaders who spoke of the history of hatred and violence that has often followed on the heels of Passion plays, born out of the desire of Christians to exact revenge on the Jewish Christ killers. For hundreds of years, where Passion plays have been held, Jews have stayed inside during Holy Week.

I recognize that I was privileged to see the film in a unique setting with religious leaders who were willing to remove our robes and our roles and sit together as brothers and sisters, members of one human family. We were willing to open ourselves to experiences other than our own, and to recognize them as being as valid as our own.

And this, for me, was the saving grace of "The Passion of the Christ," because it was to exactly this kind of open, inclusive community, the kind we created that night, however briefly, that Jesus invites us. He called it the Kingdom of God; in my tradition we speak of it as the Beloved Community. But whatever its name, its spirit was nowhere present in the movie, and that may be "The Passion's" biggest fault.

That spirit was very much in evidence in tthe screening room that night, and that may be my greatest hope. If others have this same experience, then those two hours of suffering may have been redeemed after all.


Freeport, Maine

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