Of course I can't seriously comment on Mel Gibson's new film without seeing it, and I'm not sure that I want to do that. It has seemed to me somewhat missing the point to accuse Gibson of not taking account of the position of the Second Vatican Council in his depiction of the Passion. Gibson is fairly clearly the type of traditionalist who would instinctively distrust Vatican II, and generally not be favourable to the pontificate of John XXIII (who showed his intentions earlier still by removing reference to 'perfidious Jews' from the Good Friday liturgy), and there's no artistic reason to criticise a director for not reflecting the position of his Church. I'm taken aback, however, by the force of Leon Wieseltier's scathing observations in The New Republic:
The only cinematic achievement of The Passion of the Christ is that it breaks new ground in the verisimilitude of filmed violence. The notion that there is something spiritually exalting about the viewing of it is quite horrifying. The viewing of The Passion of the Christ is a profoundly brutalizing experience. Children must be protected from it. (If I were a Christian, I would not raise a Christian child on this.) Torture has been depicted in film many times before, but almost always in a spirit of protest. This film makes no quarrel with the pain that it excitedly inflicts. It is a repulsive masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film, and it leaves you with the feeling that the man who made it hates life.
On the particular point of the film's alleged antisemitism, Wieseltier says this:
In its representation of its Jewish characters, The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson's Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images. In this regard, Gibson is most certainly a traditionalist.
This does strike me as worrying, and worrying especially at this time, because the stock images of Jewry that have been passed in Christian tradition from at least St John Chrysostom's Orations Against the Jews are far from extinguished (as there was reason to hope they might have been in the decades after the Holocaust), and extend a good deal further than antediluvian traditionalist Catholicism. It's customary - and of course, as the statement stands, true - to distinguish criticism of the modern state of Israel from traditional antisemitism, but as Melanie Phillips remarked in The Spectator a couple of years ago:
Criticism of Israel’s behaviour is perfectly legitimate. But a number of prominent Christians agree that a line is being crossed into anti-Jewish hatred. This is manifested by ascribing to every Israeli action malevolent motives while dismissing Palestinian terrorism and anti-Jewish diatribes; the belief that Jews should be denied the right to self-determination and their state dismantled; the conflation of Zionism and a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ of vested interests; and the disproportionate venom of the attacks.
That she is right in this can be verified almost weekly by examining Church statements - and the most egregious generally come from liberal Protestantism. Here, for example, is a statement released by the World Council of Churches last week, condemning the construction of what it preposterously terms Israel's annexation of Palestinian territory:
The WCC Executive Committee, meeting in Geneva from 17-20 February, 2004 guided by the teachings and Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility and by his death and resurrection has promised one new humanity on the foundation of faithful witnesses for people of every race; having received an updated report on Israel’s construction of the wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and in and around East Jerusalem, since April 2002, which is in departure of the Armistice Line of 1949 ( Green Line) and is in contradiction to relevant provisions of international law is;
Gravely concerned about the fundamental violations of human rights of the Palestinian people, the confiscation and destruction of their land and resources, the disruption of the lives of thousands of protected civilians and the de facto annexation of large areas of territory and in particular its devastating humanitarian consequences on the life and dignity of innocent Palestinians....
You wouldn't think from this statement that Israel has any particular pressing need to construct a barrier (most of which is not a 'wall' but a barbed-wire fence) to shield its civilians from terrorist attack. The statement has the further indecency to draw an analogy between attacks on civilians and attempts by a sovereign and democratic state to prevent those attacks; the WCC:
Calls on the Israeli Government and its defence forces and as well as all Palestinian armed groups to give up their strategy of mutual killings and terror, in order to achieve lasting peace....
I suppose some sort of riposte to this inflammatory nonsense would be to note the WCC's own political predilections, in the form of the £43,000 grant it made, under the auspices of its 'Programme to Cambat Racism', in 1978 to the party of Robert Mugabe. But that might give the impression that the WCC is an extreme and unrepresentative body; I wish it were so, but in fact the WCC's premises are widespread, as will be obvious if you consider counterexamples.
One of the greatest Protestant theologians of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, saw the issue more clearly than most. He wrote an article in The New Republic, 4 February 1957 (reprinted in A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader edited by Charles Brown), entitled Our Stake in Israel. Niebuhr was no theological obscurantist - he stated bluntly that a biblical right to the territory of Palestine 'evaporated some thousands of years ago' - but founded his argument on straight grounds of Christian obligation:
The simple fact is that all schemes for political appeasement and economic cooperation must fail unless there is an unequivocal voice from us that we will not allow the state [of Israel] to be annihilated and that we will not judge its desperate efforts to gain some strategic security (by holding on to the Gaza Strip and demanding access to the Gulf of Aqaba, for instance) as an illegitimate use of force.
The location of the state of Israel may have been a mistake; though the confluence of historical forces made it unavoidable. The birth and growth of the nation is a glorious spiritual and political achievement. Its continued existence may require detailed economic strategies for the whole region and policies for the resettlement of the Arab refugees. But the primary condition of its existence is our word that we will not allow 'any nation so conceived and so dedicated to perish from the earth.'
Just ask yourself: disregarding the fact that there is no living figure in Christian social thought to compare with Niebuhr's moral and intellectual authority, can you imagine a liberal Protestant leader today speaking in terms like these about this moral cause? Neither can I.