Awaiting the Other Apologies

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By Tom Grubisich
Saturday, August 5, 2006

Mel Gibson has apologized for his reported anti-Semitic remarks. Will Christian leaders, including some prominent Catholic bishops, apologize for applauding and recommending his earlier, more-far-reaching expression of anti-Semitism, the movie "The Passion of the Christ"?

The movie exhumed and restaged some of the ugliest features of the pre-1980, notoriously anti-Semitic Passion play of Oberammergau, Germany. The movie was internationally distributed and continues to be marketed today as a DVD and used as a spiritual teaching tool. Just as in the old Oberammergau play, Gibson's Pilate was a civilized, even sensitive, soul -- in contrast to the moviemaker's stereotyped Jewish priests, among whom a personified Devil comfortably moved with a smile of satisfaction, as if among friends.

Gibson's Caiphas and other anti-Jesus priests paraded around in getups that Ming the Merciless and Lothar -- world-class villains whom Flash Gordon had to confront and subdue -- would have envied.

Gibson also rewrote history. Guidelines issued in recent years by the Catholic Church (of which I am a member) said, among other things, that Passion plays should show that at least a significant minority of Jews in Christ's time were opposed to His crucifixion. Gibson, as a "traditionalist Catholic" -- a sect that the Vatican doesn't recognize -- said publicly that he had accepted what he chose to regarding church teachings. He ignored the guidelines and hewed to the crooked, abandoned path of the old Oberammergau.

For many years Pope John Paul II sought to finally exorcise the remnants of the anti-Semitic legacy of the Catholic Church. But when Gibson's "Passion" came out in 2004, neither he nor the Vatican chose to confront the movie's anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a few weeks before the movie's premiere, republished, but with no comment about the film, a collection of church documents condemning anti-Semitism. But that message was canceled out soon after by an equivocating review from the conference that said: "Overall, the film presents Jews in much the same way as any other group -- a mix of vice and virtue, good and bad."

Then, in individual statements, some bishops threw even that mild caution to the wind. This is what they had to say to their flocks when "The Passion of the Christ" was released, as quoted by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights:

"I believe that all people should see this film. And as your bishop, I would urge all Catholics of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to see this film." -- Archbishop John F. Donoghue of Atlanta.

"I thought it was an extraordinary work of art and extraordinarily faithful to the gospels." -- Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

"Let me take this opportunity to urge all of you and your friends, all Catholics, all Christians, and all people of good will to view Mel Gibson's film, 'The Passion,' at your earliest convenience." -- Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison, Wis.

Some Catholic leaders -- too few -- warned that Gibson's movie trampled on 20 years of efforts by Catholics and other Christians and Jews working together to rewrite Oberammergau and other anti-Semitic Passion plays.

When Gibson sits down with Jewish leaders to seek their help in freeing himself from anti-Semitism, they will surely bring up the subject of his movie, pointing out its lacerating stereotypes, which they thought had been finally buried, at least in Passion plays. Surely, he will be asked, if Oberammergau could discard those stereotypes, couldn't he? And if not then (in 2004), would he do it now?

The same question, literally or figuratively, will be put to all the Catholic and other Christian leaders who praised Gibson's movie and urged their faithful to see it. How will they respond?

The writer, a former Post reporter and editor, is a screenwriter who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. His e-mail address isTomEditor@msn.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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