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Anti-Semitism and Mel Gibson’s Passion

Click on image to hear original song by Rosemary Vuono "Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (based on Jesus' lament in Matthew 23:37)

The spector of anti-Semitism which has colored much of the Christian-Jewish dialog of the past fifty years has been raised again in connection to the upcoming release of Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion.  This may well be a good moment in which to examine in a bit more depth what the various parties mean by “anti-Semitism”, and what the implications are for Christians and for true love of the Jewish people.

One can readily identify at least five distinct, although partially overlapping, attitudes toward Jews and Judaism which, although very diffferent, are all at times referred to as “anti-Semitism”. Taking these in turn:

1.    A hatred of the Jewish people and a desire for their destruction. 

Such a hatred cannot credibly be associated with any current activities taking place within the Christian community, and in fact was rare even in past “Christian” persecutions of the Jews.  It is, on the other hand, readily observable in much of the Arab world today in the anti-Semitic tirades found there.  It was also the form of anti-Semitism which lay behind the Nazi (which was, however, not Christian but anti-Christian in nature) anti-Semitism.

2.    The belief that there is something intrinsically erroneous and defective about the beliefs of the Jewish people.

This belief, although often referred to as “anti-Semitism” is, on the contrary, an intrinsic element of the Christian belief system.  Since Christianity holds as a core belief that Jesus was the Messiah longed for and expected by the Jews, to which He came as one of their own, logically those Jews then, and now, who maintain that the Jewish Messiah has not yet come, or that there will be no Jewish Messiah, are in fundamental error, although not necessarily through any fault of their own.  It is no more fair for Jews to call Christians, on the basis of this belief, anti-Semitic than it would be for Christians to call Jews anti-Christian because Jews quite naturally believe that Christians are in fundamental error about who Jesus was.  In fact, the Christian belief that Jesus, the Jew, was God incarnate is an exaltation, not a diminution, of the intrinsic dignity and importance of Judaism and of the Jewish people, although it does at the same time imply that those who reject Jesus are in error.

3.    The perceived need to treat the Jews differently from others; in particular to exclude them for certain aspects of social, political, or economic life.

This belief is somewhat more delicate to deal with, for it runs very counter to contemporary attitudes towards fairness.  However, within the fundamental Christian belief system is the notion of a “state of grace”; that one’s values, moral compass, and moral illumination – one’s conscience if you will – is transformed by being a Christian in a state of grace, and hence enlightened and inhabited by the Holy Spirit.   This state is not available (at least under normal circumstances) to non-baptized persons or to baptized persons in a state of serious sin.  In today’s culture there is no expectation that leaders – whether judges, politicians, or teachers – will be in a state of grace, and so excluding Jews from these roles because they cannot be in such a state is unfair.   However, as recently as the nineteenth century it was expected in Christian countries that such leaders, especially those explicitly given the task of making moral judgments, such as judges, should be, and that their job function required an indwelling and responsiveness to the Holy Spirit.  Hence, in those societies and given those very Christian beliefs about grace it was simply logical that Jews could not fill those roles, any more than a color-blind person could be a paint-mixer.  It may be that that Christian understanding of the working of grace was erroneous, in which case the outcome was unfairly prejudicial to Jews, but the belief itself, and the resultant social policy, was not intrinsically anti-Semitic in the sense of being based on a hostility or animus or ill-will towards Jews.

4.    The desire to see the Jews convert to Christianity, and the pursuance of active endeavors to that end.

Again, this attitude flows logically from the core beliefs of Christianity itself, and given those beliefs is an act of charity, not hostility, towards the Jews.  If “no one comes to the Father except through me”; if “unless you eat my body and drink my blood you have no life in you”; if “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (all words of Jesus in the Gospels, John 14:6,6:53, and 3:5), then seeking the well-being of Jews implies seeking their baptism and entry into the Church.

5.    Creating an environment in which Jews are forced to be exposed to Christian images, prayers, or beliefs despite a desire not to be.

This is the most pernicious of the false “anti-Semitisms’ which has been permitted to influence Jewish-Christian relations and Judeo-Christian social life, and is at the heart of the controversy over the Gibson movie.  Allow me to speak, for a moment, as though the reader were a Christian (it will nonetheless be useful for Jews or non-believers to hear the logic). 

We know that Jesus came originally, preferentially for the Jews; that He holds a special love for them; that they were His originally “chosen people”; that their rejection of Him caused Him particular pain; and that He never ceases to “stand at the door and knock”(Rev. 3:20).  If this is all true – especially that He continues to knock at the door of their hearts – then it is only logical that the impulse within them to remain Jewish reacts with horror to being exposed to images or environments which might open the door a crack.  We have all heard of the “spirit of the Christmas season” which puts most people, even non-Christians, in a joyful or ebullient mood.  But what does this phrase mean?  Seasons which are a reflection of changes in nature might have “spirits” – spring, for instance, with its warming and budding growth might naturally produce such an ebullience – but why should the dreariest, darkest part of the year,  the start of winter, have such an effect?  The “spirit of Christmas” which people feel in the air is actually intrinsically, supernaturally related to the coming of Christ, to the joy of all Heaven at the event 2000 years ago and the echoing of that joy in its commemoration, in all of Heaven and among much of mankind, today.  Small children feel that spirit, that joy, and it results in a longing for the Christ child – exactly as it is supposed to do.  That longing can be deflected by alternative targets – such as the celebration of Hanukkah and the receiving of gifts – but the potential for that spirit to evoke a direct yearning for Jesus is always a danger, and I would argue is much more common among Jews than one is generally aware of.  “Methinks she doth protest too much” – one does not protest fervently against things which pose no danger (and what danger would a baseless belief in a fraudulent would-be Messiah pose?) but against things which have intrinsic power to influence. 

It is not surprising that Jews should wish all reminders of Christmas to be excised from public life, especially those which evoke genuinely religious Christmas images, such as crèches, in an attempt to isolate themselves, and even more vulnerable children, from the potential infection of belief, of sensing the sweetness of the Lord knocking at the door of their hearts, and opening the door a crack.  What is shameful is that we as Christians should go along with that “political correctness”, and hence deny God the right to approach His own people through His (i.e. our one-time Christian) culture.

Which finally gets us to Mel Gibson’s Passion.  For it is not only the sweetness of our Lord’s birth which has the power to draw hearts, but also the beauty. love, and sweetness, in another form, of the love which He showed us in being willing to undergo His Passion for our sakes.  The sight of His suffering, of His gentleness (“like a lamb He was led to slaughter”), of His forgiveness (“Father, forgive them….”) had the power to convert hardened hearts at the time, and still does today.  It is in my mind more than probable – it is certain – that the root motivation of some Jewish groups’ opposition to the Passion is not the fear that it will cause Christians to hate Jews, but that it will cause Jews to love Christ.  That this motivation should be so twisted and misrepresented as to garb itself in the almost unassailable mantle of “anti-Semitism” is not surprising, given the cleverness of the one who most directly opposes Christ, but that Christians should be duped into going along with this reversal  – that is, calling the greatest good which could befall any non-Christian, that of falling in love with Christ, anti-Semitism, an act of hostility to Jews –  is shocking and shameful, and a dereliction of the Christian’s duty to show true love to all, especially to the Jews who brought us Christ, and an act for which the Christian will be called to account when he comes to judgment before that Jew Jesus.

(These themes are explored in much greater depth in the author's book, Salvation is from the Jews, recently published by Ignatius Press.)