Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding
of Muhlenberg College

Use Passion film's controversy to build understanding --------------- January 25, 2004

Mel Gibson's film, ''The Passion of The Christ,'' is on its way, and it will arrive in a big way. Bigger than ''Bad Santa'' and ''Big Fish,'' said a Morning Call story last week, because of the controversy swirling around the film. With the Lehigh Valley's legacy of leadership in Jewish-Christian relations, it is especially important for us to understand the controversy and to engage in civil, meaningful dialogue about its release and its content.

The controversy isn't a conflict between Jews and Christians. The first red flags went up from scholars who evaluated the film script according to the ''Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,'' published in 1988 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Since then, a Lutheran interfaith panel and the nationwide Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations have published statements of concern, and the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations has published a study guide on Passion portrayals.

The controversy is not over censorship. Nor is the controversy an anti-Christian campaign by the forces of secular humanism or political correctness. All these misrepresentations of the flap have surfaced, not least in promotional material associated with the film's production company; terrific publicity, but not what the controversy is about.

Two things make any Passion portrayal controversial: the heritage of the Passion play and the nature of the Gospels that are its primary sources. Those who have expressed concern about Gibson's film have not singled it out; similar issues have animated revisions of the famous Oberammergau play since 1980. Neither have they accused Gibson personally of anti-Semitic motivations. But experience with Passion portrayals shows that intentions are only part of the story. In the Middle Ages, Christian leaders sometimes warned Jews to stay indoors on Good Friday to protect them from attack by Christians who had learned to call them ''Christ-killers'' and would be emotionally stirred by the Passion story.

Anyone who is free to tell the Passion story also has a responsibility to guard against its potential for incitement. Bishop Edward Cullen of the Allentown Diocese knows that well, and is outspoken in his conviction that the Roman Catholic Church's teaching must be clear and unmistakable: the Jews are not to be blamed for the death of Jesus. That teaching is contained in the 1988 Bishops' Conference ''Criteria.'' The Catholic scholars who critiqued Gibson's script were calling a son of the church to accountability according to official church standards and the application of Catholic standards to a film under production by an outspoken Catholic.

Moreover, the controversy stems from a lack of detailed knowledge about what actually happened. The Gospels themselves tell the Passion story in remarkable brevity. In English, John's account is shorter than this essay. Scriptwriters, directors and producers provide the filler that will make for a compelling narrative. Nor do the four Gospels agree in many of the details of the story. When Gibson set his aim on making the most accurate historical portrayal of the Passion that is possible, he stumbled into a quagmire of historical and literary debate. Inevitably, like anyone undertaking such a project, he must make choices and must introduce elements for which there is no specific evidence. How he does so raises concern, when a staple of the Passion genre has been demonized Jewish leaders and a frenzied, blood-thirsty Jewish crowd.

Finally, the controversy is stirred by people of good will who have recently seen discredited anti-Jewish charges used by anti-Semites against Jews and Israel. These charges were born in the churches' lamentable heritage of blaming the Jews, its ''teaching of contempt,'' which has provided a reservoir of images and accusations that continue to be mobilized in anti-Semitic rhetoric. No contemporary film of the Passion should add to that reservoir or encourage the dipping of poison from it.

 The Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College is committed to providing resources and opportunities for learning and dialogue. A public forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Moyer Hall will feature Mary Boys and Michael Cook, two of the scholars who reviewed Gibson's script. They will also lead a workshop Jan. 28. A study guide is available from the IJCU and can be downloaded from Following the release of the film, there will be several public dialogue sessions where Lehigh Valley neighbors can discuss the film. 

This controversy has generated tremendous interest. That interest can lead us to deepen our understanding of the Passion story in the Christian faith and in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Area clergy, both Christian and Jewish, and the leadership of the IJCU aim to provide helpful resources for meeting the challenge of all Passion portrayals: to experience its power as the Christian good news without creating bad news for Jews. 

Peter A. Pettit is director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Copyright (c) 2004, The Morning Call
This article originally appeared at:,0, ory?coll=all-newsopinionanotherview-hed