Evangelicals Hate Gibson's Sin but Love His 'Passion'

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

It has taken a couple of weeks, but the reviews from evangelical Christian leaders about Mel Gibson's latest performance are now in.

Gibson's drunken remarks about "[expletive] Jews" being responsible for "all the wars in the world," which the actor made to a Los Angeles sheriff's deputy who pulled him over on July 28, were "hurtful and unfortunate" (James C. Dobson), "reprehensible . . . shameful" (the Rev. James Merritt) and "cause for concern" (the Rev. Ted Haggard).

But has the actor-director's intemperate speech by the side of a highway prompted any prominent evangelical leader to voice second thoughts about the portrayal of Jews in Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ"?

"Not as far as I know," said Haggard, who is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and senior pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

"This incident is not relevant in any way to 'The Passion of the Christ,' which is one of the finest films of this era," Dobson said in a statement issued Thursday by his organization, Focus on the Family.

Before "The Passion" came out in 2004, Gibson screened it privately for select audiences, including megachurch pastors. Many members of the clergy responded enthusiastically, urging their congregations to see it and rejecting the contention of some Jewish and Roman Catholic commentators that the film perpetuated the anti-Semitic message delivered by Passion plays through the ages: that the Jews killed Jesus.

Some of those who warmly embraced the "The Passion" two years ago have defended Gibson's character since his arrest and subsequent apology. ("I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge," Gibson said in a statement released by his publicist, Alan Nierob.)

"People say things when they're intoxicated that they don't necessarily mean. And I wasn't there, I didn't hear it," said the Rev. Garry Poole, director of spiritual discovery at Willow Creek Community Church, which draws about 20,000 people to its Sunday services in South Barrington, Ill.

"I met with Mel two times during pre-screenings [of "The Passion"], and I saw his heart to portray the life of Jesus the way the Bible portrays it," added Poole, who co-wrote a popular study guide to the movie. "I didn't see him as prejudiced at all in his actions or statements."

Merritt, pastor of Cross Pointe Church near Atlanta and a former president of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, remembered that evangelicals who attended the pre-screenings asked Gibson, a Catholic, to add a brief scene at the end of the movie showing the resurrection of Jesus. Gibson did so, and evangelicals appreciated it, Merritt said.

"Obviously his recent comments were, to say the least, reprehensible and, as he said himself, shameful. That doesn't change my view of the film or make me believe that the film was anti-Semitic," Merritt said. "I don't believe there was any subliminal message by Mel Gibson that had any kind of anti-Semitic undertone to it at all."

Among the points repeatedly made by evangelicals in Gibson's defense are that he filmed his own hand nailing Jesus to the cross; he has apologized for his arrest remarks; and the virtues of a work of art should be considered separately from the sins of its creator.

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