February 24, 2004,
Koppel Tackles The Passion
Jesus, Jews, and the year’s most controversial film.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The episode of Nightline written about in this piece has been rescheduled to air on Wednesday night.
Is Mel Gibson's new film anti-Semitic?
The media is obsessed with the question. Diane Sawyer asked Gibson point blank on national television if he's an anti-Semite. A Newsweek cover story, "Who Killed Jesus?" called The Passion of the Christ a "powerful but troubling new movie" based on "Christian narratives" that have "long fueled the fires of anti-Semitism." New York Times columnist Frank Rich accused Gibson of promoting his film "by baiting Jews."
Several leading American Jewish organizations are driving the debate. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League simultaneously says Gibson is not anti-Semitic, then accuses Gibson of "classic anti-Semitism." He says the film "unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus" and warns it "could fuel the hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate." David Elcott of the American Jewish Congress said The Passion "reasserts offensive stereotypes about Jews" and "undermines the sense of community that has existed between Jews and Christians for decades in its unnecessary and destructive imagery of Jews."
Tonight, ABC's Ted Koppel who is Jewish and whose wife is Catholic tackles the controversy for a Nightline special (Channel 7 in Washington, 11:35 P.M. EST). Monday night, my wife and I and five others from McLean Bible Church watched a sneak preview of The Passion with Koppel at the Regal Cinema in Sterling, Virginia. We were interviewed by Koppel for about an hour afterwards about our perspective on the film and the debate surrounding it. Nightline also separately taped interviews with a number of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders for the program.
Koppel's team contacted McLean last week after learning the church rented ten local movie theaters to show The Passion on 40 screens over four nights. Members have purchased 11,300 tickets, primarily to bring non-Christian family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Each showing is followed by a five-minute talk by one of the church's pastors explaining how to become a Christian and inviting people to a three week Bible study called "Personalizing The Passion." Also of interest to the Nightline team: McLean's senior pastor Lon Solomon was raised Jewish and is on the board of Jews for Jesus. Of the 8,000 Washingtonians who typically attend one of McLean's eight weekend services, some 200 are from a Jewish background, including two of us interviewed by Koppel last night.
The Passion is a tough film to watch, and an even tougher film to be interviewed about immediately following. Tension builds from the first images. Gibson takes viewers on one of the most brutal and emotionally exhausting cinematic rides of their lives, earning his "R" rating along the way. The evil is real and palpable. The film is awash in blood. Lynn and I have three sons, and another baby on the way. We were in tears seeing Mary watch the endless, senseless torture and execution of her oldest son. And I think it's fair to say all seven of us appreciated all the time it took for the Nightline crew to wire us up for sound, adjust the lights, position the three television cameras, and work out the technical details for the interview. We all felt like we'd had the oxygen sucked out of us and we needed a few minutes to gather our thoughts.
Koppel, to his credit, was a reporter, not a tabloid talk-show host. He made no effort to sensationalize his interview. Indeed, he'd just seen the film for the first time himself, sitting side by side with us, and he let us begin by talking about our first impressions of the film. But soon he got to the central question of the night, and of the entire debate. Let me paraphrase his question, best as I can remember it. Now, two of you are Jewish converts to Christianity. Were you disturbed by what you saw, especially in that room when Jesus was dragged before the Sanhedrin and the Jewish priests were condemning Jesus to die? I mean, they were portrayed as a pretty nasty, pretty ugly bunch.
Fairfax County Supervisor Stu Mendelsohn, a Jewish believer in Jesus for the past eleven years, answered first. He was not disturbed by the scene to which Koppel referred, nor did he see the film as anti-Semitic. Yes, there were some Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus, but Mendelsohn noted there were others who thought the trial was a travesty and tried to defend Jesus. He pointed out that throughout the film (as well in the New Testament accounts) Jews as well as Romans had sharply different reactions to Jesus and what was happening to him. All of us agreed the Romans had the final say in the execution of Jesus, and Roman brutality couldn't have been more graphically presented.
My reaction was a little bit different. As I told Koppel, my father was raised Orthodox Jewish in Brooklyn as a first-generation American. His parents and grandparents escaped out of a brutal wave of anti-Semitism in Russia around 1905 when the Czar was wiping out town after town of Jews. By God's grace, his family got out of Minsk. By God's grace, they didn't settle in Poland, or Austria, or Germany. They got to Ellis Island and found religious freedom here in the U.S. My father (and mother) became believers in Jesus as the Messiah in 1973, when I was six. It took me until I was 17 until I wrestled it all out for myself, and became a believer as well. Thus, I'm sympathetic both to the Gospel and to the Gibson story line.
The Passion is not anti-Semitic, and I told Koppel that point blank. But that said, I also told him I understand the concerns Jews have that the film could be used by anti-Semites to justify their hatred and attacks. Horrible things have been done to Jews by people claiming to be followers of Christ while disobeying Jesus' command that his followers love their neighbors as themselves. It is critical at this moment in Church history that we not turn a blind eye to that history, but be sensitive to Jewish fears and outspoken about the true message of the Gospel, one of forgiveness and reconciliation.
One of the things I find so powerful about Gibson's film is that it presents Jesus as the Jewish Savior of the world. Jesus was Jewish. His parents were Jewish. His followers were Jewish. Most of the crowds listening to him preach were Jewish. Jesus said "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). Jesus said he was the Jewish Messiah (John 4:25-26). When the Romans drove the nails into his hands in the Gibson film, Jesus (played by James Caviezel) says, "Father, forgive them." When the Jewish High Priest tells Jesus to come down from the cross and thus prove to be the Messiah, Jesus again cries out, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
Koppel and I talked about how the Apostle Paul was himself a Jewish leader who persecuted Christians until he came to the realization that Jesus really is the Messiah. Paul went on to command the church at Rome specifically to be compassionate towards the Jews. "I am not ashamed of the gospel," he wrote in Romans 1:16, "because it is the power of salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile." Paul reiterated Jesus' point that salvation is from the Jews in Romans, chapter nine. Indeed, Paul specifically warned the church at Rome not to get arrogant, or to think that God has cursed the Jewish people. "Did God reject his people? By no means! God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew," he wrote in Romans, chapter eleven. He conceded that many Jews don't yet understand that Jesus is the Messiah, but added: "Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!"
How will Nightline finally present the controversy over The Passion, and how much of the interview with the seven of us from McLean Bible Church will make it on the air tonight? We shall see. But Lynn and I drove home from our evening with Ted Koppel last night struck anew by how important this national debate is. It is time for Christians to make it clear to our Jewish neighbors: We are all responsible for Jesus' death. The real question is: How do we respond to the news that He rose again three days later?
Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of The Last Jihad and The Last Days, and a former senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky.