For local clergy, 'Passion' inflames, inspires
by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 4, 2004) -- Since the release 10 days ago of Mel Gibson’s controversial hit film, “The Passion of the Christ,” local clergy have found themselves in the unique and for some the uncomfortable role of movie critic.

“I don’t go to Mel Gibson movies, and I really didn’t want to go see this, but I felt a responsibility as a leader to my community,” said Rabbi Lynn Liberman of Congregation Knesset Israel, speaking last Wednesday in a roundtable discussion in the Eagle’s conference room, where over a dozen area clergy gathered to share their experiences and reflections on the film, which is expected to surpass $200 million at the box office by the end of this weekend, putting it on the fast track toward becoming one of the most commercially successful films in history.

While some strongly disliked the film and are urging their congregants not to see it, others came away from “The Passion of the Christ” with newfound appreciation for the story that inspired it.

“For me it was a faith experience,” said Rev. James Joyce, a Catholic priest at Sacred Heart, who has prepared study guides for congregants who take him up on his recommendation to see the film. “It has enriched my faith in the sacrifice my Lord made for all of us.”

Echoing those remarks was Rev. Michael Shershanovich of St. Joseph’s, also a Catholic priest, who has told his congregants that seeing “The Passion” would be “a wonderful Lenten practice” in tandem with a reading of the original accounts of Jesus’s final hours as described in the Christian Bible.

Others expressed unease over whether or not to recommend the film. “I am fearful of people who will go to this who have no faith or knowledge of Christianity and will think that this film is historically accurate,” said Rev. Robert Kyte of First Congregational Church in Dalton. “It is a story of faith, not of fact. For the people who know nothing and go to a passion play, I’m not sure they’re getting the whole story, and certainly not the whole message of Christian theology.”

Liberman said the film left her “numb” and “sleepless” over what to tell her congregants, and she has decided neither to encourage nor dissuade congregants from seeing it.

A few others, however, take stronger issue with the film. “Frankly, I haven’t encouraged my people to go,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Rennie of First Baptist. “I’ve said save your six bucks.”

“I can’t imagine I would recommend that anybody see it,” said Father Jim Dannals of St. Stephen’s Episcopal. “I think it’s far worse than a lousy movie – it’s cheap art.”

Dannals feels that the movie’s relentless violence comes at the expense of any redemptive aspect to the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. “A good passion play conveys some powerful message of forgiveness, mystery, and paradox,” said Dannals. “This movie does the opposite. There is no message of forgiveness… and that to me is horrifying.”

Or as Rev. Linda Shaw of Morningside Baptist said, “I didn’t think this movie provided any representation of redemption in balance for the suffering.”

The Rev. Ashley Smith of First Baptist termed the film’s violence “pornographic.”

“It went way over the top of what was necessary, like a lot of Mel Gibson films do,” said Smith. “And that got in the way of the message.”

“On one level he is trying to glorify God, but mostly he succeeded in glorifying violence,” said Rev. Joel Huntington, of South Congregational.

Russell Moody, an evangelical pastor at Church of Christ, however, found the violence to be an honest reflection of the story. “Sacrifice is killing and brutal and there’s a lot of blood,” said Moody. “I think it’s fair to say that the death of our lord was a brutal one.”

Among those seated at the table, opinions varied as to whether the film’s portrayal of the role played by Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus is overtly anti-Semitic.

“If I were a Jew watching this with a history of being brutalized by that story, I would be sickened by it,” said Rev. Steve Perry, a United Methodist minister.

Moody disagreed. “Gibson left room for us to see a diversity of opinion among Jews,” he said. “I didn’t see the Jews as the villains.”

“I didn’t get a sense of the anti-Semitism at all,” said Joyce. “Jesus himself was a Jew. We have to remember that.”

“I don’t use the word anti-Semitic to describe the movie,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. “What concerns me is the kind of response that could come out of it. Knowing what we know about eight-hundred years of this story being used in a way that has incited horrific violence against Jews, how can you responsibly respond to this movie without considering the possibility that it could do it again?”

Rabbi Matthew Kraus, a classics professor at Williams College, viewed the film as “a plausible interpretation of the gospels.”

“Gibson made choices that portrayed Jewish leaders in a negative light, but those options are available in the gospels,” said Kraus. “If you already have a proclivity to be anti-Semitic, then I think this movie certainly won’t change your feelings in any way.”

Some didn’t want to let Gibson off the hook so easily, pointing out that he played fast and loose with conventional notions of the events of Jesus’s last hours, and that he knowingly violated the parameters of how to stage a passion drama as outlined by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, guidelines that were drawn up precisely to end the centuries of anti-Jewish passions stirred up by these dramas.

Shershanovich said the film is clearly a “violation” of Vatican II. “It wasn’t the Jews who crucified Jesus; it was everyone who turned their back on God,” he said.

Rev. Joel Huntington, of South Congregational, views the “slippage” away from the more tolerant standards of Vatican II with some foreboding.

“A parishioner pointed out the way the Third Reich came to power wasn’t by saying at the beginning, ‘We’re going to kill all the Jews,’” said Huntington. “It was a slipping, inch by inch, that enabled people to tolerate more hatred, brutality and intolerance, as it inched its way along.”

In response to the suggestion that Gibson’s view of the story is more in line with medieval than contemporary theology, Rev. Jill O. Graham of United Church of Christ, who was particularly troubled by the film’s portrayal of the Jewish high priests as present throughout the entire passion, said, “He’s stuck in the middle ages.”

Some saw a cynical, manipulative hand behind the film’s violence and in the controversy that preceded the film’s opening. “If it weren’t so violent, it wouldn’t have made such a splash,” said Huntington. “The Passion story awakens my soul. This movie numbed my soul.”

“The controversy sold the movie. Jesus pays,” said Rennie.

One thing all agreed on was the need to use the buzz and controversy surrounding the movie as an opportunity to promote dialogue.

“This is a teaching moment,” said Kyte. “If we miss this opportunity, shame on us,”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 7, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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