Yesterday Claire sent me a link to Christopher Hitchens’ recent piece about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. My thanks to Claire. I’d already read this article, and the one that it in turn refers to, about whether or not the Jews killed Christ; but I reread them and thought about the questions they discuss again. Indirectly, the two pieces illuminate one of my essential problems with the whole fuss.
One of the givens of Christianity is that “the Jews” killed Christ. It’s also completely central to the New Testament that Jesus was a Jew. He was Jesus of bleedin’ Nazareth. He was Jewish and the Jews killed him. He was a carpenter’s son and he died nailed to tree. If you profess to be a Christian, believing these things is not an optional extra.
I don’t know, not having seen it, but the film may well portray Jews as ugly, money-grubbing types, their faces twisted with hatred as they hound the Messiah to his temporary death. Problem is, the story of God is all about how ugly, money-grubbing and hateful humans are. That’s what “He died for our sins” is all about. As it happens, the vast majority of the humans around Jesus at the time were Jews.
It’s difficult for a faith not to be anti-Semitic when it was born out of reaction against Judaism and when its followers believe that their spiritual leader was killed by Jews. It’s difficult for a film attempting to depict faithfully the birth of that religion not to be anti-Semitic. Perhaps it includes a scattering of “sympathetic” Jews offering directions or cups of water along the road to Calvary to leaven the bread of condemnation—I vaguely remember learning about the odd one or two when I had to swot up my Stations of the Cross.
I feel pretty much the same way about people complaining about this film as I feel about Andrew Sullivan and co. complaining about the US President’s desire to ban gay marriage. The Christian institution of marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality. Why should homosexuals want to have anything to do with it? They should, of course, have equal access to a civil union that confers similar material rights, but it’s like them whining that they are excluded on the grounds of their sexual preference from putting on their pointy hats and burning crosses with the local chapter of the Klan. Sullivan keeps trying to to be a gay Catholic; I keep trying to be an atheist Gospel singer. The difference is I know I’m being stupid.
When you start believing any number of fairy stories there are no longer any rational criteria you can use to separate further fairy stories that you choose to accept as true from ones you choose to reject. The argument between those who think The Passion is an anti-Semitic distortion and those who don’t is like an argument between those who believe that Spiderman should shoot his webs naturally from his wrists (the movie) or from specially mounted electro-chemical web-dispensing devices (the comic books). It’s devoid of verifiable content.
The anti-Semitism or otherwise of the film is only really a problem if you accept that the film depicts the historical truth. In fact, that is the whole problem. Gibson upsets Jews and Christians because the truce between our cultures in the West is founded upon the polite lie that it is possible to be a Christian without being anti-Semitic. Being anti-Semitic is, in fact, one of the few ways that a film about a man who was born of God and who was crucified, but rose from the dead could be truthful.
UPDATE. Andrew Sullivan links to Boris Johnson writing in the Telegraph about how he couldn’t keep a straight face watching The Passion and wondered if the vocative of Judaeus really was “Judaee”. (Berlinski, Hitchens, Johnson and I all went to Balliol. It’s like a bloody common room debate around here.)