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Mel Gibson, The Passion, and the Charge of Anti-Semitism

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Mel Gibson, The Passion, and the Charge of Anti-Semitism
by Rich Nathan

Christians around America have virtually been unanimous in their puzzlement concerning the charge of anti-Semitism leveled at Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion.” “Why,” Christians ask, “Would any right-thinking person be offended by Gibson’s movie?” Christians further feel that this is one more attack on the truth claims of scripture generated by a liberal media, and an overly sensitive religious minority that claims victimization when there is none. How dare they attack the most precious part of our Christian faith?

One of the most difficult things for human beings (Christians included) is to walk in the shoes of another person and see things from their vantage point. Have you tried to consider what a Jewish person might feel when he or she discovers that a major motion picture is going to portray the crucifixion of Christ? Most Christians have no idea of the history of anti-Semitism that has been engendered because Jews have been historically labeled “Christ-killers.”

St. Ambrose, who helped lead Augustine to Christ (in the 4th century A.D.), told his congregation that the Jewish synagogue was “a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God himself has condemned.” No one was surprised when his congregation went off and set fire to a synagogue. St. Ambrose accepted responsibility for this outrage saying, “I declare that I set fire to the synagogue, or at least that I ordered those who did it, that there might not be a place where Christ was denied. If it be objected to me that I did not set the synagogue on fire here, I answer it began to be burned by the judgment of God because Jews killed Christ!”

St. Simon Stylites lived for thirty-six years on top of a pillar fifty feet high. At the end of those thirty-six years he said, “I have given up all worldly luxuries except one-Jew hatred.”

St. John Chrysostom, who is considered the Father of the Eastern Orthodox Church, railed against Jews as Christ-killers saying, “The synagogue is worse than a brothel…it is the den of scoundrels and the repair of wild beasts…the temple of demons devoted to idolatrous cults…the refuge of brigands and debauchees, and the cavern of devils.” The synagogue, he told his congregation in another sermon, was “a criminal assembly of Jews…a meeting place for the assassins of Christ.”

John Chrysostom attempted to get the emperor to withdraw all legal privileges for Jews in Constantinople in the year 398 A.D. Chrysostom said, “You Jews are a people whom God has deprived of their inheritance. And why, then, did he rob you? Is it not obvious that it was because he hated you, and rejected you once and for all?” Chrysostom further added “God has three words for you Jews-God hates you!”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote some of the most beautiful hymns in Christian history, was the first Christian preacher to apply the word “deicide” (God-killer) to the Jewish nation saying, “The Jews have assassinated the Son of God! How dare you take part in their festivals? You dare to associate with this nation of assassins and hangmen! O Jewish people! A man crucified by your hands has been stronger than you and has destroyed you and scattered you.”

Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, wrote a brutal tract that in many ways laid the foundation for Nazi propaganda four centuries later. Luther’s tract, written in 1543, was titled “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Because of Jewish opposition to Christ and their supposed murder of Christ, Luther recommended the following:

First, their synagogues should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it…

Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed for they perpetrate the same things there that they do in their synagogues. For this reason they ought to be put under one roof or in a stable like gypsies, in order that they may realize that they are not masters in our land as they boast, but miserable captives…

Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught.

Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more…

Fifthly, passport and traveling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. If we are afraid that they might harm us personally, or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., when they serve us or work for us…let us drive them out of the country for all time. For as it has been said, God’s rage is great against them…therefore, away with the Jews…

Tragically, examples of virulent anti-Semitism by Christian leaders from the 2nd century to the 21st century can be multiplied many times over.

As a Jew, I do not believe that Mel Gibson’s movie is anti-Semitic. Rather, it appears to be an act of love and a genuine expression of Christian faith by Gibson. In fact, I would recommend Christians see this movie.

Nevertheless, when “The Passion” is put in the historical setting of 20 centuries of Christian violence against Jews (including the repeated charge of “Christ-killer”), it is not enough to respond to Jewish fears of anti-Semitism by stating: “The Jews didn’t kill Christ, rather each of us killed Christ by our sins!” Such a statement often comes across as painfully superficial and horribly clichéd. Rather, the meaning of the cross for us as Christian believers must involve walking in the shoes of our Jewish friends and neighbors and being willing to look at life (including Christian symbols) through their vantage point and not just our own. Isn’t that what God did in the incarnation and the cross? Didn’t he walk in our shoes and experience life from our vantage point?

If Christians ever hope to have any authentic dialogue with Jewish people, listening to Jews’ justifiable fear of anti-Semitism without defensiveness is a must! This movie provides a fantastic opportunity for bridge-building between two historically separated communities. If Christians will open their hearts and empathize with their Jewish brethren, the opportunity will not be wasted.

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