Most people have asked the wrong question about Mel Gibson's new motion picture, "The Passion of the Christ." They've asked if it's anti-Semitic. They should have asked, instead, if it will incite its viewers to anti-Semitism.
The answer to the first question is irrelevant. The answer to the second is a resounding yes. The distinction is crucial. The film itself doesn't hate Jews. And whether Mel Gibson hates Jews doesn't matter. What matters is whether the film will incite a significant number of people to hate Jews. And that, very effectively, it will do.
How could it not? Many of its viewers will be believing Christians who, at excruciating length, in slow motion and repeatedly, will watch their Messiah -- the gentle and forgiving Lord of love and peace -- lashed, pierced, nailed to the cross. And those viewers will see the Jews as the people centrally responsible for that divine, ultimate and excruciating torment. Never mind that what they will see will be what Gibson cinematically created rather than what actually happened. In fact, we don't know exactly what happened. The Gospels, written well after the events, provide conflicting details.
And it's clear that it was important to Gibson to emphasize Jewish guilt for a crucifixion carried out, after all, by the Romans, and to present the Jewish authorities in a particularly odious light.
But it's the details and the story that Gibson so graphically presents that become, for the audience, what actually happened. That is the power of film. It's a uniquely persuasive power. One watches a deeply moving and highly detailed film -- especially a film about a historical event, and most especially a film about what is, for some, the most important historical event of all -- and one tends to believe that what happens in the film is what actually happened in history. After all, the scenes in the film happen before one's very eyes, in living color, and in ancient languages. The film's "reality" is deepened and magnified a hundredfold by the wrenching emotions that it evokes. Those emotions can't help but persuade us that what evoked them -- the story as Gibson presents it -- must be real and true.
And that story will lead some to a terrible place. Gibson says he wants the movie to lead people to a place of deeper faith. But for many it will lead to an inflamed, convulsed and abiding anger about Christ's torments, aimed at the perfidious, treacherous, scheming, sadistic and evil Jews.
If such anger at Jews had no history of murderous consequences, the film and its effects wouldn't be of such concern. But it's precisely that kind of anti-Semitic anger, provoked over the centuries by sermons and Passion plays, that has resulted in expulsions, inquisitions and pogroms. And it's that kind of anger that became the seedbed in which the anti-Semitism that flourished in the last century, and the Holocaust it produced, took root.
What Gibson has done has been to till and fertilize that seedbed, bringing dormant seeds up to the surface -- seeds that, after the magnitude of the Holocaust was revealed, an appalled world covered with a layer of shame and guilt and the Catholic Church, at Vatican II, said must be buried forever.
But Gibson -- perhaps wanting to satisfy his own need to imagine and portray extreme pain and extreme blame -- has brought them back to the surface, disregarding the long and murderous consequences of anti-Semitism and disregarding even the teachings of his own church.
Anti-Semitic anger is inchoate. But it can grow, and has grown, to lethal proportions. And at a time when for other reasons it has been growing around the world, Gibson's film -- powerful as only film can be -- could dangerously accelerate that growth, inciting passions to a degree and on a scale that only a perverted presentation of the Passion can incite.