February 12, 2004
‘Passion’ Response Dos and Don’ts
"The Passion of the Christ" opens Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday on the Christian liturgical calendar. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the controversy over the film's portrayal of Jews, we have an unusual opportunity to be recognized and heard in the public sphere.
Moreover, we have the rare chance to communicate with Christian groups that are not normally part of Christian-Jewish dialogue, such as the evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants who are behind much of the initial enthusiasm about "The Passion."
However, our success in those endeavors depends on our willingness to rethink our existing strategies of engagement and to use creative approaches that will encourage our conversation partners to listen to what we have to say. In that spirit, I offer 10 dos and don'ts for Jewish responses to the issues raised by "The Passion":
1. DO what Jews do best: study the sources. Read the Gospels for yourself, as well as Paul's letters, especially his Letter to the Romans.
2. DON'T accuse the Gospels of causing the Crusades, pogroms or the Holocaust. The powerlessness of early Christianity -- and the persecution the earliest Christians suffered at the hands of the majority -- made for a very different sort of religion before the Roman Emperor Constantine joined church and state.
3. DO talk with your Christian friends about your concerns. For most Christians, Jesus' message was about faith, hope and love -- not fear or hatred.
4. DON'T forget that there are many different -- even opposing -- groups that call themselves Christian. Mel Gibson is a schismatic Roman Catholic who rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Episcopalians, Mormons and Southern Baptists have even less in common than Reform Jews and Chabadniks.
5. DO ask your Christian friends to introduce you to their religious teachers and leaders so that you can convey your concerns personally. Consider requesting that they incorporate the problem of anti-Semitism into their "Passion"-related sermons. You might remind them that the persecution suffered by early Christians is a much more recent memory for Jews.
6. DON'T forget that it isn't always about the Jews.
7. DO take advantage of the opportunity to strike up friendships and alliances with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other religious minorities in the United States and abroad who may share many of your misgivings about "The Passion."
8. DON'T denounce Christianity as wrong, false, a misinterpretation of Judaism or even worse, avodah zarah (idol worship). Christianity is one of the three great monotheistic religions and deserves the same respect that we demand for Judaism.
9. DO talk about these issues with Jewish religious leaders and teachers in your local community and make sure that they are representing your concerns in the way that you want. The Jewish response to "The Passion" will strongly influence the future of inter-religious dialogue.
10. DON'T be afraid to stand up for yourself and the Jewish people, but do not be surprised if Christians wish to do the same for their faith.
For more information, please consult the following Web sites:
Official movie Web sites:
"The Passion of the Christ" official outreach Web site: www.thepassionoutreach.com .
"The Passion of the Christ" official movie Web site, latest news: www.thepassionthemovie.com/latestnews/text.php .
Non-partisan academic and news media Web sites:
Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning: www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/education/PASSION_resources.htm .
Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies resource page: www.icjs.org/clergy/gibson.html .
Beliefnet.com's coverage of "The Passion" controversy via its Christianity page: www.beliefnet.com/christianity.
PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly's coverage of "The Passion": www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week722/news.html .
Christian Web sites
North American Missions Board (Southern Baptist Convention) Web site on "The Passion": www.passionchrist.org .
Lutheran Church (ELCA) backgrounder: www.elca.org/ea/Interfaith/gibson_background.html .
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs: www.usccb.org/seia/index.htm .
Jewish Web sites:
American Jewish Committee's resource manual on "The Passion": www.ajc.org/upload/pdf/AJC_The_Passion_A_Resource_Manual.pdf .
Anti-Defamation League frequently asked questions: www.adl.org/Interfaith/gibson_qa.asp .
J. Shawn Landres is a lecturer in Jewish and Western Civilization at the University of Judaism (UJ). This semester, he is teaching the UJ's first undergraduate course on the theology and history of Christianity. He holds degrees in religious studies and social anthropology from Columbia University, Oxford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara.