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Opinion: The Crux of Gibson's Crucifixion

Just as in the United States, even before Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opened in German cinemas on Thursday, protesters said it provokes anti-Semitic sentiments and is extraordinarily brutal.

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On 400 German movie theater screens since Thursday.

For centuries Christians have used the Bible to argue that Jews are guilty of the death of Jesus. Christian anti-Judaism was based above all on testimony that can only be found in the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the evangelist's book, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate is quoted as saying to a crowd instigated by Jewish authorities: "'I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility.' And all the people answered: 'Let his blood be on us and our children.'"

The text clearly suggests the Jewish people cursed themselves. But it's not historic. Considering the time during which the Gospel was written, it's likely that Matthew saw the curse fulfilled by the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. The historically ominous text passage is thus a secondary invention of a tradition with all too transparent tendencies.

Jesus wasn't anti-Jewish

As a religious Jew, the historical Jesus fought with the Jewish high priests about the correct interpretation of the Torah. He didn't provide any arguments for anti-Jewish sentiment. Just as the New Testament, the Christians' Bible isn't anti-Jewish. It mirrors inner-Jewish conflicts. Not until the Christians' final separation from Judaism in the mid-second century were Biblical testimonies about Jews read as Christian anti-Judaism. Fateful hermeneutics that remained popular for nearly 2,000 years.

Not least because of the Holocaust, Christian churches have discarded the theory of Jewish collective guilt for the death of Jesus. Within Catholicism the change of attitude was adopted during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Rejecting the Vatican Council

But this late insight hasn't percolated to all the Christian churches, let alone to the sects. Christian anti-Semitism is far from being surmounted in Eastern Europe in particular. In parts of Poland and Hungary, for example, the hate of Jews as "murderers of God" is still quite alive.

The same applies to Catholic Church sects in the United States, one of which director Mel Gibson belongs to. They still conduct mass in Latin and reject the Pope as an authority, as well as all the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

It's appropriate that Mel Gibson recently relativized the singularity of the Holocaust in an interview with Readers' Digest magazine. "The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps," he said.

Gibson's father has made more explicit comments. Also a Traditionalist Catholic, he believes that most of the Jews "allegedly" killed in concentration camps actually immigrated to America.

Cultural conflict

Mel Gibson's religious home, the attitudes of the people in his environment, rallied the critics. His fundamentalist understanding of the Bible already made waves in the U.S. media a year ago. He has sparked a cultural battle between the two-thirds majority of American Christians and Jewish groups.

The two powerful Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, are right to voice misgivings that "The Passion of the Christ" may suggest Jewish collective guilt for Jesus' death. Even if the film isn't anti-Semitic -- as Mel Gibson has repeatedly stressed -- it will certainly inspire anti-Jewish sentiments in pious conservative circles.

With "The Passion" the pious director imposes a two-hour long, enormously violent flood of images on the audience. People are tortured and humiliated and vast amounts of blood are sprayed. "The Passion" has nothing in common with richly costume dramas like "Ben Hur." Movie buffs associate it much more with Medieval passion plays: pathos-filled, brutal and allegedly authentic. A sadomasochistic scenario, digitally perfected. The film surpasses many a violent video on the index.

People who can't bear seeing violence can leave the movie theater, Gibson has been quoted as saying. Even better: Don't watch the blood thirst at all. Particularly since the movie doesn't contribute any illuminations to the actual crucifixion, to the connection between guilt, victim and redemption. This central theme of all religions can neither be portrayed nor even grasped cinematically.

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