Passion FruitMike Moore, General Secretary of Church's Witness to Israel (CWI)
When it was released in the UK, the advertising announced that The Passion of the Christ was the film the world was talking about. Had the claim been made for a Steven Spielberg blockbuster or a Quentin Tarrantino production, the blurb might have been dismissed as hype but long before it was released Mel Gibson's had become one of the most talked about movies ever, not least among the Jewish community.
It was widely reported that the film, written, produced, directed and financed by ultra-conservative Catholic Gibson would resuscitate the hoary accusation that the Jewish people are responsible for the death of Christ. After attending the first press screening of the movie, Rabbi Yitzhak Shochet of London's Mill Hill Synagogue appeared on one of Britain's prime time talk shows to denounce the film and its maker and to warn of the likelihood of assaults on Jewish people. The prognostications of Rabbi Shochet and others who feared there would be pogroms in Western cities have proved false. More than three months have passed since The Passion of the Christ was released in the States and there have been no reports of attacks on Jewish people stemming from it.
Many churches used the film as a springboard for evangelistic activity and distributed pamphlets to cinema goers. Others invited those who had seen the film to attend an Alpha course. In my town, the largest church arranged a "Making Sense of the Passion" discussion in the lounge of our local cinema following the final screening The Passion.
Jewish people, no less than gentiles, have been fascinated by The Passion and a number of Christians were aware that Jewish people were present at the screenings they attended. However, the suspicion of anti-Semitism made it all but impossible to invite Jewish people to see the film or even to initiate conversations. The people I know who have had opportunity to share their faith as a result of the film have done so in response to questions they have been asked about it. My Lubavitcher friend in New York thought he might see the film but changed his mind. His stepson, however, did go and apparently shouted his approval to the soldiers scourging Jesus.
Christianity of death
Two weeks before the Passion opened in America, Chosen People Ministries sponsored a debate at the Hilton hotel in Manhattan between Rabbi Shmuel Boteach and Messianic Jew Dr Michael Brown on the subject of who killed Jesus. More than 750 Jews and Christians gathered to hear a passionate (no pun intended!) but amiable debate, joking and often agreeing with each other.
Although Rabbi Boteach encouraged people to boycott the film, the feisty anti-missionary went to see it himself. Rabbi Boteach claims he was nervous about how the rest of the audience would react to someone in their midst who resembled the "murderous rabbis" in the film: "'Man,' I thought to myself, 'surely the people who are walking out are going to think that I was the one who did it.'" The closest he got to receiving an anti-Semitic comment, however, was when he asked a black lady what she thought of the film. She responded that it had ripped her apart and made her think, and then added, "But you probably wouldn't understand." Rabbi Boteach says he was repelled by "the Christianity of death" represented by The Passion of the Christ and, in what must be his first ever positive statement about Jesus, Rabbi Boteach made reference to the "incomparable ethical teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount".
The Chosen People Ministries website offered help to Christians wanting to respond to Jewish friends who were concerned about the impact of the film on the worldwide Jewish community. The page suggested some specific issues to address regarding the film and the charges of anti-Semitism, and offered a series of "Suggested Responses To Your Jewish Friend" and a list of "Do's and Don'ts" when answering those responses. Readers could also download the special mini-magazine, Why Did He Die? to help them witness to their Jewish friends.
Jews for Jesus also responded to the film and London's Christian radio station, Premier Radio, which promoted the film, invited Joseph Steinberg, the UK director of Jews for Jesus to comment on it. The JFJ website featured a beautifully designed page, based on the art of The Passion, on which Susan Perlman wrote a letter to Mel Gibson. In her inimitable style, Susan wrote to Mel about "the flack [he was] experiencing right now" and sympathised with him about the controversy the film had generated.
Susan explained that Jewish people were upset about the film because "many so-called 'Christians' " had blamed them for Jesus' death: "The hatred and persecution we've endured as a result is tragic, and that's made some Jews very defensive when it comes to the subject of the Passion." She assured him, however, that there were lots of Jewish people who were grateful to him for making the film. Because of The Passion, she said, "this important topic is being discussed passionately-and that's a good thing."
Whether Mel Gibson has read it or not, Susan's "letter" to him was a thinly-veiled tract in which she reviewed the messianic credentials of Jesus. The letter ended with a P.S. to "anyone else" who happened to be reading the letter and would like to talk further about the Passion of the Messiah.
"Your father the devil"
In the United Kingdom, articles in the Jewish Chronicle and other Jewish publications drew a line directly from the alleged anti-Semitism of Mel Gibson's film to the content of the Gospels. CWI organised a lecture in the heartland of Britain's Jewish community on the subject: Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic? Dr Steve Motyer of the London School of Theology addressed the issue before a modest gathering that included some Jewish people. Dr Motyer, the author of The New Testament and Antisemitism and Your Father the Devil, pointed out the incongruity of the charge of anti-Semitism when levelled at the New Testament. He pointed out that the authors of the New Testament were Jewish and that Jesus and the apostles were Jewish. How could Jews therefore be anti-Jewish? The conflict between Jesus, his first followers and the rabbis was an internal family affair. At the time of Jesus a number of religious factions existed, each believing its own adherents to be the true people of God and each arguing their case passionately and in uncompromising terms.
Dr Motyer tackled the thorny issues of John's references to "the Jews" and the "your father the devil" reference in John 8:44. He pointed out that the term, "the Jews" should not be understood as a pejorative term. As used by John in his Gospel, the term "Jew" is applied not to an ethnic group but to "Judeans", as opposed to Galileans, and to members of the various religious groups in Jerusalem, notably the Sadducees, Pharisees and Scribes.
Dr Motyer showed that the use of an epithet such as "children of the devil" was by no means confined to Jesus. Similar terms can be seen in other writings from the period such as when a father pleads with his son not to be a "son of Belial". In any case, the reference in John 8 was to those who were seeking to kill Jesus and there is no reason to conclude that Jesus was labelling all Jews in every age children of Satan.
When The Passion of the Christ opened in Sydney Australia, CWI missionary Paul Morris took advantage of the controversy surrounding the film by producing a leaflet dealing with the death of Jesus and by arranging two public meetings. The leaflet, entitled The Death of Jesus of Nazareth, was eagerly taken by many people, including Jews, from Paul's literature table in Bondi. A number of Jewish people talked with Paul about the issues raised by the film, including two ladies from Israel. After talking with Paul about the Messiah they asked for copies of the Gospels and other literature, and appeared positive when he invited them to a Bible study.
Paul organised two public meetings for both Christians and Jews dealing with the issues of the New Testament and anti-Semitism, and the question of who bore responsibility for the death of Jesus. Some Bible College students were shocked to hear that a Jewish Christian fellow-student had experienced anti-Semitism in Sydney during her teenage years.
Face to face
On the personal level, The Passion has presented many opportunities for CWI missionaries to talk about the issues underlying it. David Bond was asked his opinion of the film by several Jewish friends, including an Egyptian Jew who had not seen it but wanted to know if it was anti-Semitic. David finds it difficult at times to talk about the gospel with this man but after a few minutes, he raised the thorny question of who killed Jesus, which provided an excellent opportunity for David to explain that we all bear responsibility for his death.
A Jewish psychotherapist and her husband wanted to know Sarah Chan's opinion of The Passion because of the charges of anti-Semitism that abounded in the Jewish media. Sarah said she did not think the film was anti-Jewish and although her friends had not seen it they seemed happy with Sarah's assessment, both positive and negative. The conversation developed into a discussion about Roman Catholicism, the Reformation, Judaism, Christianity and the Gospels, during which Sarah was able to explain the meaning of the cross.
Because Richard Gibson had seen a pre-release screening of The Passion, he had a good conversation starter when he visited Jewish friends. During one such discussion he was able to talk to a couple about the sacrificial nature of the death of Jesus as the Lamb of God, and that the passion was expressed most intensely in his cry from the cross: "My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?"
Richard and his wife Rita also went with a Jewish couple to see the film. Their friends thought the way in which the film depicted the Jewish people was anti-Semitic. Although Reuben is a horror movie fan, he found The Passion difficult to watch. Richard suggested to him that the reality was far worse and that the film failed to convey the New Testament understanding that "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Although on other occasions Reuben's wife has changed the subject when the subject of a conversation has been the gospel, on this occasion both she and her husband listened intently to Richard.
The Passion of the Christ has created a climate in which not only is the death of Jesus being discussed but also the meaning of his death and who was responsible for it. In April, Time magazine carried a major article discussing the theology of the death of Jesus. Just as there was intense debate before the film was released, it seems that The Passion will be talked about for some while to come. It will be interesting to see the reaction when the video and extended DVD versions are released, no doubt with extra footage and peeks behind the scenes. Those engaged in Jewish mission will find it difficult to use the film directly as an evangelistic tool but, so long as the controversy rages, questions will be raised by our Jewish friends and we must be ready to seize the opportunities when they rise.