Mel Gibson’s The Passion
An Appeal for Tolerance

Danusha Veronica Goska

Joseph Campbell, the myth scholar, first introduced me to the term, “upadhi.” Upadhi is sometimes translated as “disguise.” Upadhi is the flawed and transient vehicle behind which operates something eternal. This concept, of the essence that transcends the appearance, has long been essential for me living, as I have, in more cultures than I can count. I wish that understanding of this concept were demonstrated by those engaging in the firestorm over Mel Gibson’s The Passion. This earth, as finite as any elevator, is becoming more tightly packed. We live and breathe cheek-by-jowl with neighbors who adore what we revile. We can work to imitate the eternal, and move fluidly between cultures. Or we can continue to blow each other up, not just with tanks and bombs, but with inflexible stances and intolerant words.

I was familiar with the concept of the essence that hides behind disguise from early childhood. I grew up eating the flesh of the head of the pig: headcheese. I still like it, crave it. Every time I order it at the deli in the university town I live in now, there is a hubbub. Not just surrounding customers, but the deli clerks themselves, tossing to the winds the adage that the customer is always right, demand, “How can you eat this stuff?”

“How can you not?” I reply.

Inside my childhood home, “stol” was what, outside the home, was “table.” Inside the house, minor keys and complex rhythms were “music.” Outside, The Beatles were “music.” Through innumerable jokes, haughty looks, and snide comments, I soon discovered that Polka music is dumb, as are those who listen to it.

“Stol,” “table”: different sounds made in the mouth. The object is the same. The words don’t change the object. Headcheese, T-bone steak: different foods through which different humans experience exactly the same sensation: the delicious. The Beatles, Janka Guzova: one is not “sophisticated”; the other is not “dumb.” When a group of working class Polaks met in a church basement and danced all night to music that never let up, they weren’t being dumb. They were being as sophisticated as can be. They were insistently smiling through lives that might cause one to weep.

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Michael now manages a half-billion-dollar endowment for a San Francisco foundation. When I knew him he was my blue-jeaned teacher. One long night he went off on a rant about what a mess Catholicism is. “Listen to this,” he commanded. My teacher proceeded to recite, from memory, the lyrics to the “myrrh” chorus of “We Three Kings.” The “gold” and “frankincense” choruses celebrate Jesus’ kingship. The “myrrh” chorus describes his suffering.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Seal’d in the stone-cold tomb.

“No wonder Catholics are so warped!” Michael fulminated. “They wallow in suffering!”

Michael was the coolest teacher I’d ever had. He drank whiskey straight from the bottle. I cringed. I was one of those weirdo Catholics. And I loved “We Three Kings,” both its happy choruses, and its sad ones.

In telling that story now I do not cringe. I wonder how many years Michael had to keep, stored in his memory, that particular chorus of “We Three Kings” before he had a rapt audience of acolytes who’d give ear to his theories. And I do not cringe because I am no longer tempted to feel ashamed of the extensive Catholic catalogue of suffering iconography. Here’s why.

My brother was killed on my seventeenth birthday. He was an extraordinarily beautiful lad. His creamy face had crashed through a windshield. When I got the news I could feel myself plunge through a surface I’d been aware of all my life. This membrane had been the skin of a trampoline on which I’d been bouncing, never making contact with the – something – that awaited me below. Suddenly, without a passport or the intimidation of border guards, I was in the most foreign country anyone can ever inhabit. I was an unfortunate person in the land of the fortunate.

My best friend left town because she couldn’t face me. Fellow high schoolers jabbered a foreign tongue, suitable to uttering only inanities. My most stalwart teachers – they had been my brother’s teachers – looked sad, and then embarrassed, and then looked away. Cards and flowers arrived. The cards were black and white, the roses and lilies cardboard. And then a very Catholic card came. It was an image of Mary mourning her dead son. My eyes were riveted. I was no longer alone. Mary understood. This image pulled me back into the world, but with a much richer vocabulary, one that allowed me to be compassionate to those who did not, yet, understand the language spoken by the unfortunate.

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Sarada Kharki was one of the best people I have ever met. Her first name, “Sarada,” means “Autumn,” the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” That captures the warmth and generosity of Sarada, my next door neighbor in a tiny Himalayan village where I went to teach after college.

Sarada fasted every Monday. She did this in honor of Ganesh’s daughter. This is the kind of thing I’d find it easy to laugh at. I mean, Ganesh is an elephant-headed God, for heaven’s sake! In fact, if I approached Hinduism the way Michael had approached Catholicism, I would have found a lot to laugh at in Nepal. People worshipped idols. Heck, people worshipped rocks. A girl in my village never cut or brushed her hair; a sadhu walked around naked; there were fasts and feasts and colored powders thrown in the air and more days were holidays than not. It would be easy to laugh at people who festoon dogs with flower necklaces and consider that sacred worship. One thing made it a bit harder to laugh – people like Sarada, who was one of the best people I’ve ever met.

“Stol.” “Table.” The sounds change; the object does not. Red powder; rosary beads. The outward appearances change; somewhere, in there – and we can argue about where, exactly – there is universal and eternal essence.

Respecting that Sarada was, essentially, praying to the same God I was praying to was easier for me than granting merit to her art. Somewhere along the way, I had internalized this standard – if a work of art uses a lot of bright red and bright purple, right next to each other, it is a bad work of art. In the West, we respect somber tones. A stick figure, done in Rembrandt’s sepia and ochre, or Ansel Adams’ silver grays, would appear more like worthy art to many Americans than a Buddhist thanka with its brilliant and clashing colors. Too, composition decides art’s value. In Hindu and Buddhist art, typically, a divinity is central and facing full front. Attributes of the divinity are geometrically arranged around the margin. Western composition values asymmetry. An example: Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus.” St. Paul, the star of the narrative, is a footnote in the painting; a horse’s flank is central. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

I loved Sarada’s soul. I wanted to touch her soul. I could not. Her Monday fasts, her art, were as intimate a manifestation of Sarada’s soul as I’d ever be privileged to encounter.

One day I sat in front of a poster of Kali. I chose Kali because images of Kali repulsed me the most. I abhor violence; this was raw violence. The poster was in bright reds and purples; Kali was centrally and frontally posed. Her tongue was sticking out. She was standing on a dead victim. She wore a necklace of skulls. How could gentle Sarada worship this! I wanted to rush next door, to a billion Hindu next doors, pounding, announcing, “You’ve got it all wrong!” I would correct them.

I didn’t. Rather, I performed the following meditation. First, I chose to ignore the part of myself that loathed this art. Next, I said, “I value this. This is an expression of the human soul. What do I see?” And only after I’d performed that meditation, telling myself that I valued this image, did I find in myself the part of me that could, and that did.

Destruction? The old must die that the new might be born. Red and purple? We lived in a village made of wattle, lumber, and brick. Water was our only shiny surface; there was no glass or steel. These bright colors were like the plumage of tropical birds; accents against walls finished with sepia mud and ochre cow dung. Geometric placement of discrete, contrasting elements works on the ocular nerve, facilitating meditation. Dead enemies? My neighbors were illiterate. They could not read a text that talked about defeating abstractions like poverty or micro-menaces like weevils and fleas. This image offered them a chance to contemplate the vanquishing of their particular enemies of choice. They could get from this poster the kick a literate person like myself, blessed with leisure for reading, could get from Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” Both were equally unambiguous, in-your-face.

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I’m a lifelong student of what one author called “extraordinarily popular delusions and the madness of crowds.” I’ve never seen anything quite like the furor around Mel Gibson’s The Passion.

Some argue that Jews and Christians see the film differently. Were that true, it would be a powerful argument; anyone who liked the film would not be arguing with one person, but with all Jews, with Judaism itself. But Catholics like Father John T. Pawlikowski and Sister Mary Boys have spoken out against the film. David Horowitz, Michael Medved, Maia Morgenstern, Joel C. Rosenberg, David Klinghoffer, Julia Gorin, and Alan Nierob, all Jews, have spoken for it, or against attacks on it.

The day The Passion opened, NPR ran three separate reviews attacking it as a dangerous “snuff film.” The Saturday after it was released, in its thinnest paper of the week, The New York Times ran four separate articles condemning it; these were part of a long run of anti-“Passion” sermons at America’s newspaper of record. Perhaps the most virulent article was one by William Safire, who insisted that the only possible interpretation of the film was an anti-Semitic interpretation.

Those who argue that the movie must be seen as anti-Semitic point to various details as proof. For example, Rabbi David Wolpe at Beliefnet and Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe argued that the movie is anti-Semitic because it shows demonic Jewish children tormenting Judas to suicide.

Reading their descriptions, one might conclude that in a movie full of blond, Nordic folk speaking English, suddenly a group of demonic children appear wearing forelocks and yarmulkes, speaking Yiddish and singing tunes from Fiddler on the Roof.

But there’s nothing specifically Jewish about these children. The kids have dark hair; everyone in the movie, except Satan, has dark hair. The kids speak Aramaic; all the main characters, including Jesus, Mary, and Peter, all revered figures in Christianity, speak Aramaic. Nothing about the children’s clothing or dialogue makes them “Jewish” in a way that surrounding superior characters are not.

Safire and others claim that Pilate is a sympathetic character. Pilate’s shaved bullet head looks Mussolini-like. Pilate admits that he is afraid to kill Jesus, because doing so might enflame Jesus’ followers; he is afraid of not doing so, because that might stir up Jesus’ enemies. Pilate admits that it is only saving his own skin that he cares about. Finally, of course, Pilate delivers Jesus to his monstrous scourging. This is every bit the culpable Pontius Pilate of the Creed Catholics pray weekly. Jesus, we recite, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” We have, in Pilate, a leader without physical attractiveness, personal integrity, compassion, power, courage, or responsibility. No one will walk out of this movie thinking, “Gee, I want to be just like Pontius Pilate.” Had this character been Jewish, not Roman, no doubt The Passion’s detractors would be pointing to this character as proof that Gibson hates Jews.

Rather, it is the film’s major and minor Jewish characters who are sympathetic. The Passion gives us the most inescapably Jewish Jesus, and Jesus movement, Western popular culture has ever had. This is no Greek “Jesus,” this is the Jewish “Y’shua”; his mother is “Miryam,” played by Romanian Jewish actress and child of Holocaust survivors, Maia Morgenstern. Y’shua’s right hand man and ancestor of all popes, the future keeper of the keys of the kingdom, is no WASPy “Peter” but the short, dark, black haired, large, and hooked-nosed “Kefa.” A real anti-Semite would quake in his jackboots confronting that Mediterranean face at Heaven’s Pearly Gates. Miryam’s first line is “Shma,” the first word of the central Jewish prayer. The Last Supper is a Passover Meal; its central question is asked and answered. “Why is this night different from all other nights? Once we were slaves and now we are free.” Y’shua calls his God “Adonai.” The one character who is called “Jew” is so called because he is trying to do something kind. Simon attempts to help Jesus, and protest Roman brutality. A Roman soldier insults Simon by calling him “Jew.” Not all the high priests are hostile; one tries to put a halt to the railroading of Y’shua. The one character who looks Nordic enough to have stepped out of a Bergman film is Satan.

The film does not blame Jews for Jesus’ death. Jesus chose his own fate, in accord with God’s plan. Jesus says so in so many words. Mankind’s sins killed Jesus, the film insists, and that is why it is Gibson’s hand shown pounding a nail through Jesus’.

Some, including the American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi James Rudin, have argued that The Passion must be anti-Semitic because all Passion Plays have been anti-Semitic. This is a very troubling charge, as it condemns as essentially hateful a central Catholic prayer ritual and the central Christian narrative. In fact, this charge is incorrect. There have been notoriously anti-Semitic Passion Plays, at Oberammergau, for example. Most of The Passion’s critics mention Oberammergau’s notorious past, without ever mentioning that its modern planners have worked with Jews to expunge anti-Semitism from the production. For most, Passion Plays are a meditative device used to experience communion with the Christian savior, and bear no relation to anti-Semitism whatsoever.

Powerful scripture, no less than Eros, is a powerful tool. Like a hammer, it can build a house; it can break a skull. There is no scripture that has not been misused by someone. Fair assessment of any scripture factors in the best done in its name, as well as the worst. After all, when we read of rapes, crimes of passion, sex slavery, we vow to become better lovers, not eunuchs.

Finally, there is the disturbing charge that Christian theology is necessary and sufficient cause of anti-Semitism. This argument completely ignores the work of scholars like University of California sociologist Edna Bonacich on The Middleman Minority Theory. Scholars cite this theory in attempts to explain why Jews in Europe, Indians in Uganda, Chinese in Indonesia, Armenians in Turkey, and Koreans in South Central Los Angeles, all occupying comparable economic niches, have been the targets of exceptional violence. Evidence of the validity of this theory can be found in the American experience. America has among the highest Christian belief and church attendance in the world. Christian America’s greatest sins have been committed, not against Jews, but against African Americans and Native Americans.

This short essay can’t prove that The Passion is not anti-Semitic. It must be noted, though, that the accounts in the press attacking this movie and its viewers differ wildly from the accounts to be found from its actual audience.

I’ve been following the reviews, which sometimes become testimonials, offered by the film’s viewers at several websites, including www.imdb.com, www.aintitcool.com, and www.beliefnet.com. A large minority of posts condemn the movie as too violent and without plot. A small but noticeable number of fringe posts are protests or parodies. “I’d kill Jesus myself, if I could!” announces one. The majority of the posts indicate that the posts’ authors have heard and considered accusations that the film is anti-Semitic. These viewers respond to those accusations. A typical post makes the following points: I saw the movie; it isn’t anti-Semitic; I was deeply moved. I vow to be a better person from now on.

Again, those offering testimonials for the movie have heard charges of anti-Semitism, and respond to those charges with intelligence and patience. It’s evident, though, that the authors of the countless commentaries condemning this film and its audience are either completely unaware of, or indifferent to, the good will expressed by the films’ actual viewers, or the spiritual uplift it has provided so many. That complete disconnect between elite media voices and the people they are writing about is deeply troubling.

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Some years ago I moved to a small city to complete a Ph.D.  Shortly after I arrived, because I had missed four work days to attend my father’s funeral, I was harassed by the professor for whom I worked. The harassment was severe. I complained to a dean. I was asked to testify against the professor. Things were handled badly.

I got very sick. I often couldn’t move. My vision and hearing deteriorated. I vomited for days at a time. I lost my life savings. Doctors either couldn’t, or didn’t know how to, treat what they’d discovered I had – perilymph fistula. The Social Security Administration, against the advice of its own experts, denied me any funds. For six years, I was alone, and sick, and in intolerable suffering. I was called a liar, and crazy, and incurable. Finally, Indiana State Senator Vi Simpson responded to my many harried letters. I got an operation. I’m no longer ill.

Nothing earthly, I don’t think, can ever erase those six years. They were hell.

When I watched the scenes in The Passion that its detractors have slandered as everything but a dramatization of Mein Kampf, I wasn’t thinking about anti-Semitism or Jews. Because those scenes have nothing to do with anti-Semitism; the only pertinence they have to Jews is that Jesus was a Jew.

When I saw the scenes that so many critics – who previously recommended to us gore-fests like Kill Bill and The Sopranos, found just too distressing for their delicate eyes – in Jesus’ articulate wounds I saw children, children I knew, slowly die of scabies in Africa. I never talk about that in America. We don’t have language for it. We don’t have eyes. I saw children, children I knew, die of stomach aches in Nepal. I never talk about that in America. When I saw the movie’s almost real time depiction of Jesus’ scourging at the hands of Imperial Roman troops, I saw a priest in my mother’s tiny village in Slovakia who had been tortured by the Soviets for saying something good about his own people. I never talk about that in America. When I saw the machinations of the powerful and the indifference of the many that conspired to murder a good man, I saw my own six years of agony in the richest country on earth. When I watched those scenes we’re being told are too violent for decent people to view, I saw people I’ve never met in places I’ve read too much about: Iraq, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Rwanda, Auschwitz.

America is clean and bright and rational. It is pastel. It is anti-bacterial kitchen sponges and ultra brite smiles. America is violent, but its violence is somehow okay, is art, because it is performed in stylized films like Kill Bill that have no meaning and address nothing real.

Critics have told us that Gibson did the violence wrong, because it is just too much, and the critics became numb. They turned away. They got bored. They responded to it clinically, wondering, “So, if you did whip a man with a whip like that, is that what he’d look like?” They were tempted to laugh.
Gibson didn’t do it wrong. This is how people respond. They turn away. They get bored. They rationalize. Gibson did it exactly right.

As I watched Jesus, a Jewish peasant, being whipped and tortured by a powerful colonial power buoyed a frenzied crowd, I felt that, image by graphic image, Gibson was handing me, word by word, the dictionary I’d require to speak the injustice, the inhumanity, the agony I’ve witnessed and experienced. Gibson was finally making humanity’s dirty little secrets plain as day. And he wasn’t doing this to say that violence is a style choice. He wasn’t doing this to enflame a desire for revenge. He was doing this to show us that one man, by enduring it all and praying for his tormenters to be forgiven, transcended. He was doing this to show us that no matter what has happened to us, no matter who we are, we can, by following the same path of non-violence, transcend, as well.

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I’ll admit – or shall I say, “I’ll confess”? I am Catholic. And, on this shrinking planet, I am your neighbor. I am the proud heir of a heritage of the iconography of suffering. I write this during Lent; my goal is, every one of these forty days, to devote some contemplative moments to the Stations of the Cross. Jesus, a good man, will be condemned to death, again, by a powerful state. Jesus will stumble and fall, again. Jesus’ face will be wiped by Veronica’s veil. I always pause during that station.

I ask you, my neighbor, please don’t let anyone else tell you what these prayers mean to me. And don’t let you tell me what these prayers mean to me. If you want to know what these prayers mean to me, ask me. Ask me and I will tell you that it is Jesus who makes me work for the human rights issues: gay rights, feminism, peace, that I’ve put time and energy into. Not just Jesus’ pretty words, which, of course, I value. But also his blood.

Look, again, my neighbor, at Catholic iconography. Attempt the meditation I described, above, to help me touch Sarada’s soul. Staunch your urge to judge and condemn. Through that meditation, I have experienced the numinous in the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of Mani Rimdu in Nepal’s Chiwong Monastery; in Rosh Hashanah services in the Remu synagogue in Krakow; in Muslim hospitality and Muslim architecture; in The Passion. When I worship the eternal through these shifting disguises, I pray the Hindu prayer: “Forgive me these my three sins. You have no name, but I call you by this name. You are everywhere, but I worship you here. You have no needs, but I offer you this.”

©2004 Danusha Veronica Goska
With thanks to Sue Knight and Don Freidkin

Danusha V. Goska, PhD, is an experienced teacher, an award-winning writer, and a published scholar. She can be reached at dgoska[at]yahoo[dot]com. Her web page is http://www.codypublishing.com/goska/goska.html

For more of her work in TheScreamOnline, visit the Talent Index

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