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March 03, 2004

"The Passion" and gay marriage

Amidst the general gloom I am gladdened to see prominent conservatives whom I respect weigh in against Mel Gibson's bloodbath. William Safire does so brilliantly in last Sunday's NYT (full text copied below for posterity). He leads with quite a statement:

The word "passion" is rooted in the Latin for "suffer." Mel Gibson's movie about the torture and agony of the final hours of Jesus is the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen.
Because the director's wallowing in gore finds an excuse in a religious purpose -- to show how horribly Jesus suffered for humanity's sins -- the bar against film violence has been radically lowered. Movie mayhem, long resisted by parents, has found its loophole; others in Hollywood will now find ways to top Gibson's blockbuster, to cater to voyeurs of violence and thereby to make bloodshed banal.

Also notable is old-lefty turned Bush-defender Christopher Hitchens, who manages to savage the movie and tie in the gay-marriage controversy at the same time in an excellent piece in Slate. He does so to buttress a much more important arguement: that Gibson's anti-semitism also smacks of a homophobia that served as another pillar for fascism (as some might recall, a combination that has caused some trouble). To wit:

The gay movement in the United States—and the demand for civil unions and even for actual marriage—has had at least one good effect with which nobody can quarrel. The closeted homosexual is a sad figure from the past, and so is the homosexual who tries desperately to "marry" a heterosexual, thus increasing misery and psychic repression all round.

This may seem like an oblique way in which to approach Mel Gibson's ghastly movie The Passion. But it came back to me this week that an associate of his had once told me, in lacerating detail, that an evening with Mel was one long fiesta of boring but graphic jokes about anal sex. I've since had that confirmed by other sources. And, long before he emerged as the spear-carrier for the sort of Catholicism once preached by Gen. Franco and the persecutors of Dreyfus, Mel Gibson attained a brief notoriety for his loud and crude attacks on gays. Now he's become the proud producer of a movie that relies for its effect almost entirely on sadomasochistic male narcissism. The culture of blackshirt and brownshirt pseudomasculinity, as has often been pointed out, depended on some keen shared interests. Among them were massively repressed homoerotic fantasies, a camp interest in military uniforms, an obsession with flogging and a hatred of silky and effeminate Jews. Well, I mean to say, have you seen Mel's movie?

(It is interesting that this film premiered the same week that the Oscars mourned the passing of Nazi propgandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl; Hitchens makes a good case that Gibson is her true--if less talented--heir.)

Hitchens' article resonated even more after our viewing of "Capturing the Friedmans"--a treatise on the horrors of the closeted family man, among other things. What Hitchens makes so amazingly clear is that all of these wrongs--anti-semitism, fascism, homophobia--are just different sides of the same beast. Christianity, in many if not most of its forms today, is all too complicit in feeding the beast. While Christ offered the bread of life, Gibson offers a feast of hatred.

All of this frames the question I'll be asking all my conservative Christian friends and family is, "Whom do you want to break bread with?" Because we've come to the point where I cannot, and will not, share the table with people who worship Gibson's "Christianator" and think my marriage is the work of Satan. While I can make room for differences of opinion, it's just foolish to try to meet a Manichean halfway.

Safire is right, I think, to remind us that Christ said "I came not to send peace, but a sword," a verse he points out doesn't end up on a lot of Christmas cards. To me, that means that even the message of grace and redemption is something every Christian has to struggle for, lest it be drowned by the blood-dimmed tide. (Hearing so much Yeats in my head these days can't be a good sign.)

It is time to speak up against those who believe that professing faith in Christ earns them an infallible place on the side of Good, time to point out that they are as dangerous as any Islamist (and, in fact, share with radical Islam a twisted worldview that stands in opposition to the Western liberal tradition in its post-Enlightenment entirety). We would be wrong to see a Gibson's movie as anything other than a ferocious salvo in what has thus far been a cold war (give or take a few abortion-clinic bombings) between Christian fundamentalists and those arrayed against them. (And that coalition includes rational people of all faiths, and of course those with no faith.) Aligning oneself with people one doesn't fully agree with is a great exercise in spiritual humility; it's one of the clearest ways to say "I can know what's wrong without claiming to know all the answers." (While the evolving coalition of Protestant and Catholic fundamentalists is a bit disconcerting, I don't expect it will be too long before they get tripped up on dogma, the Pope's robes, and ever-contentious Mary.)

But about that cold war. Concerns about anti-semitism are not misguided, but misplaced. The battlefront is much wider, as Gibson makes clear when he tars every critic of the movie as a "secular humanist." It's us against them, and the Christo-Fascists have a lot more guns than we do. With fuel like "The Passion of the Christ" tossed onto an already raging fire, expect things to heat up.

Not Peace, but a Sword

The word "passion" is rooted in the Latin for "suffer." Mel Gibson's movie about the torture and agony of the final hours of Jesus is the bloodiest, most brutal example of sustained sadism ever presented on the screen.

Because the director's wallowing in gore finds an excuse in a religious purpose — to show how horribly Jesus suffered for humanity's sins — the bar against film violence has been radically lowered. Movie mayhem, long resisted by parents, has found its loophole; others in Hollywood will now find ways to top Gibson's blockbuster, to cater to voyeurs of violence and thereby to make bloodshed banal.

What are the dramatic purposes of this depiction of cruelty and pain? First, shock; the audience I sat in gasped at the first tearing of flesh. Next, pity at the sight of prolonged suffering. And finally, outrage: who was responsible for this cruel humiliation? What villain deserves to be punished?

Not Pontius Pilate, the Roman in charge; he and his kindly wife are sympathetic characters. Nor is King Herod shown to be at fault.

The villains at whom the audience's outrage is directed are the actors playing bloodthirsty rabbis and their rabid Jewish followers. This is the essence of the medieval "passion play," preserved in pre-Hitler Germany at Oberammergau, a source of the hatred of all Jews as "Christ killers."

Much of the hatred is based on a line in the Gospel of St. Matthew, after the Roman governor washes his hands of responsibility for ordering the death of Jesus, when the crowd cries, "His blood be on us, and on our children."

Though unreported in the Gospels of Mark, Luke or John, that line in Matthew — embraced with furious glee by anti-Semites through the ages — is right there in the New Testament. Gibson and his screenwriter didn't make it up, nor did they misrepresent the apostle's account of the Roman governor's queasiness at the injustice.

But biblical times are not these times. This inflammatory line in Matthew — and the millenniums of persecution, scapegoating and ultimately mass murder that flowed partly from its malign repetition — was finally addressed by the Catholic Church in the decades after the defeat of Naziism.

In 1965's historic Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI, the church decided that while some Jewish leaders and their followers had pressed for the death of Jesus, "still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

That was a sea change in the doctrinal interpretation of the Gospels, and the beginning of major interfaith progress.

However, a group of Catholics rejects that and other holdings of Vatican II. Mr. Gibson is reportedly aligned with that reactionary clique. (So is his father, an outspoken Holocaust-denier, but the son warns interviewers not to go there. I agree; the latest generation should not be held responsible for the sins of the fathers.)

In the skillful publicity run-up to the release of the movie, Gibson's agents said he agreed to remove that ancient self-curse from the screenplay. It's not in the subtitles I saw the other night, though it may still be in the Aramaic audio, in which case it will surely be translated in the versions overseas.

And there's the rub. At a moment when a wave of anti-Semitic violence is sweeping Europe and the Middle East, is religion well served by updating the Jew-baiting passion plays of Oberammergau on DVD? Is art served by presenting the ancient divisiveness in blood-streaming media to the widest audiences in the history of drama?

Matthew in 10:34 quotes Jesus uncharacteristically telling his apostles: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." You don't see that on Christmas cards and it's not in this film, but those words can be reinterpreted — read today to mean that inner peace comes only after moral struggle.

The richness of Scripture is in its openness to interpretation answering humanity's current spiritual needs. That's where Gibson's medieval version of the suffering of Jesus, reveling in savagery to provoke outrage and cast blame, fails Christian and Jew today.

Posted by jay at March 3, 2004 01:48 PM | TrackBack
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"Concerns about anti-semitism are not misguided, but misplaced."

Sorry, Jay, but from where I sit, in the middle of a country that used to be home to a vibrant Jewish community, it's hard to see the concerns about anti-semitism as misplaced. The passion play has its roots in this part of the world and some historians suggest that it was used as a tool to fan the flames of anti-semitism. In spite of the Catholic Church sanctioned revisions to the passion play, the Jewish community still feels called upon to deconstruct, over and over, their depiction in the death of Christ. Once again, we're called to tell the Christian community that it wasn't our fault.

(Frankly, I'm confused. Isn't the death of Christ a cornerstone of Christianity? Without his death, would Christianity exist as a world religion, or would Christ have been yet another cultish figure, dissolved in to history at the end of the Roman empire?)

I had been trying to let the whole controversy pass me by while taking a WTF attitude (What the f**k?). But it's increasingly difficult to ignore it as I ponder the impact the film will have in a part of the world that has used the propoganda of the passion play as an anti-semitic instigator in the past.

I can't speak for the (limited) Jewish population of Austria, but I do know that as the only Jewish girl in my Central European neighborhood, the idea of a frenzied bit of glamorous anti-semitic propoganda washing up on the shores of Europe makes me damn nervous. We've got high unemployment, an increasing foreign population, conflict over religious issues, economic xenophobia grounded in EU expansion, a population with well documented antisemitic tendencies... and soon, we'll have a flashy production that depicts the Jews as villians. I'm heading back stateside in just under two weeks, and I have to say, I'll be happy to be back in the US when Mel Gibson lands on the beach at Normandy.

BTW, the ADL, an organization that tends to be pretty shrill, actually has some interesting resources on the movie [link]. Worth a look.

Posted by: pam on March 3, 2004 11:29 PM

You offer an invaluable perspective from where you sit, and I certainly don't want to downplay the dangers of resurgent anti-semitism. But what I meant was that whatever anti-semitism there is (to Hitchens' point) symptomatic of a larger "Christo-facist" emergence that is just as frightening to me as Islamo-fascism (incidentally, the other and arguably more serious source of anti-semitism globally, as this article about anti-semitism in France points out. (I read it last night after I'd written this post; it probably would have influenced my articulation of the argument a lot).

I would still argue that current anti-semitism is not the same as historical anti-semitism, in that instead of being solely about Jews it is now rooted in a broader critique of modernity, Western enlightment values, and progressive multiculturalism--and the really scary thing is that this critique is to an amazing degree consistent among fundamentalists of every stripe (Christian, Islamic, and even Jewish). Basically, I'm arguing that today's anti-semitism is essentially backward looking... a nostalgia for the good old days when everyone hated Jews (and were able to assert political power by demonizing them). My view on this is influenced by my reading of current anti-gay sentiment in the US, which is strongest in the South. With racism against blacks no longer socially acceptable (or politically profitable), conservatives need a new group to demonize. To paraphrase Freud on anti-semitism, if the conservatives circa 2004 didn't have gays, they would have to invent us.

It isn't a stretch to point out that the crisis in the middle east has been inflamed at every turn by Fundamentalist-inspired policy: Sharon's visit to the Dome of the Rock (a move inspired by religious zealots wanting to press Jewish claims on the Temple Mount), the US's entirely uncritical support of Sharon's escalations (enforced by hardline Christian politicians who see a pro-Israel stance as accelerating Biblical prophecy), and of course the outpouring of support for groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Wahabbist Saudis.

All that said, Safire's column points out that the "Blood Libel" is still in the movie, just not subtitled for US release--and that if it is included in other countries, it certainly will help fuel anti-semitism.

And yes you are right, as I've argued in other posts, for Christians the crucifixion is required: no death, no resurrection, no intercession.

Posted by: jay on March 4, 2004 10:30 AM
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