A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO
"THE PASSION" AND PASSION PLAYS

By Bridges for Peace
(A Christian Zionist group based in Jerusalem)

Jews and Christians share, as Martin Buber so succinctly put it, "a book and an expectation." The interpretations of the Book and the details of the expectation vary widely but there is a common source code for both communities. In our generation, many Christians have been rediscovering the Jewish roots of their family tree and finding in that root system a sense of reconnection to the land and people of Israel. This rediscovery effort has caused many, particularly within the Evangelical churches, to take a fresh look at the very Jewish world of Jesus and the early church.

In this flight back through history, some have flown too quickly over the intervening time span between the twentieth century and the first. As we in the Evangelical world search for our Jewish roots in ancient Israel, we should fly low over medieval Europe and consider the cesspool of anti-Semitism, which prevailed in the world of our Christian forebears.

One of the classic vehicles for the transmission of Jew-hatred in the Middle Ages was the Passion Play. Taking the text of the Gospels out of its original Jewish world, where nearly all of Jesus' early disciples were Jewish, and into the milieu of Gentile Europe guaranteed the canard that "the Jews killed Christ" would create within the minds of the local viewers an unsympathetic view of their Jewish neighbors.

Customs of observing Christian feast days by tormenting and terrifying local Jews became common in Europe. Myths about Jews killing Christian children in order to get blood for ritual sacrifices abounded. Enforced ghettoization, occasional burning of towns and synagogues, crusades, inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and ultimately the Nazi Holocaust, characterized the Christian relationship to the Jews for centuries in Europe.

Fast-forward to 2003 and enter Mel Gibson and his soon-to-be released movie, "The Passion." A feud is already beginning to brew over this controversial portrayal of the last days in the life of Jesus Christ. Elements of the script have apparently been leaked and a few scholars and film critics have previewed it. Conflicting reports are bouncing around on the internet and in the press. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, both traditional watch-dog agencies in the field of anti-Semitism, are worrying aloud about the impact of the film on the Jewish community.

Christian theologian, Paula Fredriksen, says in an August 4 New Republic article that, "when the film appears with translated subtitles in countries like Poland, Spain, France and Russia, savagery will erupt."

On the other hand, Jewish commentators such as Michael Medved and David Klinghoffer are defending the rights of Christians to tell their own story from their own point of view. Both of these writers are encouraging the Jewish community to, in effect, take a deep breath before over-reacting to the film.

No one in our organization has actually seen the film, so we do not feel qualified to comment on the content. However, knowing the history of two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism, we at Bridges for Peace would like to weigh in with a cautionary note. As we gaze back over 2000 years of church history, we feel ill-equipped to instruct the Jewish community as to what might be their appropriate reaction to perceived signs of on-going anti-Semitism. In our effort to light a candle rather than curse the darkness, our organization has been in the forefront of the battle to educate the church about its own dreadful history. Christians need to know that, even in America, there are few of our modern Jewish neighbors who have been spared some form of anti-Semitic experience.

As Christians we rejoice when the Gospel story is well told, and while really sound dramatizations of Bible stories are few and far between, we hope that Mel Gibson's new effort will be the faith-building inspiration that its makers apparently intended.

However, we would like to encourage our fellow Christians to take a sober view of Medieval Christian history before getting into a feud that could seriously damage newly developing relationships with our Jewish friends and neighbors. There are reasons why we make our Jewish neighbors nervous. We advise Christians to learn the history before joining the chorus in defense of a new Christian film. Bridges for Peace can provide you with resources for this journey.

(By JoAnn Magnuson, BFP - US Community Relations Director, August 2003)



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