Gibson’s The Passion
An Appeal for Tolerance
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.
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?”
can you not?” I reply.
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.
“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.
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.
is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Seal’d in the stone-cold tomb.
wonder Catholics are so warped!” Michael fulminated.
“They wallow in suffering!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
earthly, I don’t think, can ever erase those six years. They
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
With thanks to Sue Knight and Don Freidkin