Though Mel Gibson’s controversial film “The Passion of Christ” was not released in theaters until Ash Wednesday of 2003 (Feb 23), a national outcry over the film’s content began six months earlier, when leaders of Jewish congregations who had seen excerpts of the film in advance argued that it explicitly blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. Rabbis expressed particular concern over a scene (later removed by Gibson) in which the Jewish high priest Caiphas cursed the Jews, saying of the crucifixion: “His blood be on you and on all of your children.” Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called the film an “unambiguous portrayal of the Jews being responsible for the death of Jesus.”
Fearing the possibility of a violent backlash against the Jewish community in the wake of the film’s release, Jewish and Christian communities across America quickly mobilized to create dialogue groups promoting mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence. Along with a campaign against the film led by the ADL, religious leaders initiated movements in Kansas City, Boston, and Pennsylvania, among other cities. In Washington, Jewish and Christian leaders designed a viewer’s dialogue guide to the film, hoping that the movie could provide a catalyst for theological exchange between Jews and Christians. And in Kansas City, Rabbi Levin, Leader of the Reform Congregation Beth Torah, told congregants: “ Imagine when the movie comes out… if there are scores, even hundreds of people who have been in dialogue who can testify that they have come to a new understanding and that Jews and Christians can live together peacefully, as friends without blaming one another.” (Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, October 24).
Criticism of the film’s content also came from representatives of the Catholic Church, who argued that Gibson misrepresents official Catholic church teaching on anti-Semitism. Gibson, like other members of the Traditionalist Catholic Church, rejects the reforms of Vatican II, which state that Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus. In February, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rushed into print a collection of documents clarifying the Catholic Church’s teachings on the death of Jesus and the “sin of anti-Semitism,” distributing the 110 page document to churches across America (Anti-Defamation League, Feb 23, 2004). In the meantime, Gibson’s decision to bypass the Catholic market and to target the film almost exclusively to evangelical Christian Churches, who began a spirited grassroots campaign to use the film to evangelize, reflected the growing political and cultural alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. (Religion News Service, Feb 19, 2004, New York Times, Feb. 5, 2005).
The Feb. 23 release of the Passion was followed immediately by events that characterized both the dramatic successes and the challenges still faced by proponents of Jewish-Christian dialogue in America. A billboard unveileled Feb 23 on the property of Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Colorado read: “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus” and the word “Settled!” By the following day, crowds of protestors had filled the parking lot, eventually taking it upon themselves to tear down the sign (ABC News Denver, Rocky Mountain News). On the eve of Purim in early March, 10 white swastikas and other Nazi symbols were spraypainted on the walls of BMH-BJ Congregation, a synagogue in Denver, Colorado. The next day 300 people lined up to help wash off the paint. In addition, a series of anti-semitic acts at Rehoboth Beach in Deleware prompted members of Christian and Jewish communities to come together to promote interfaith activities, and in Dallas, Jews and Christians sponsored a joint blood drive.
Nonetheless, the state of anti-Semitism in America remained grim, with both the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center reporting an increase in hate messages directed towards their centers since the film’s release. In April, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that more than one third of Americans who had seen “The Passion of Christ” said Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. The number of Americans who hold the Jews responsible rose from 19% in 1997 to 26% today.
“ADL Praises Catholic Bishops for Document on Anti-Semitism and the Death of Jesus
Anti-Defamation League,” Anti-Defamation League.
“Gibson to Delete a Scene from the Passion,” The Denver Post.
“Swastikas Sprayed on Denver Synagogue,” The Denver Post.
“Passion Sparks Interfaith Dialogues,” The Miami Herald.