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Posted February 11, 2004

Controversy Surrounds Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ

Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" neared its Feb. 25 release date, interest in the film grew, as well as the controversy surrounding it.

An unidentified source close to Gibson told The New York Times Feb. 4 that Gibson would pull the line "His blood be on us and on our children" from the final version of the movie. The line from Matthew's Gospel, also known as the "blood libel," has been used for centuries to legitimize violence against Jews.

The line had not been in a version of "The Passion of the Christ" screened in Washington in November, but it was inserted into a version shown Jan. 21 in Winter Park, Fla.

Inclusion of the line made the Jan. 21 screened version "worse than the first" version he had seen last August in Houston, said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, in a Jan. 30 commentary published by Religion News Service.

Holy Names Sister Mary C. Boys, one of four Catholic scholars who reviewed a draft copy of the film script last year, told a Seattle University audience Feb. 1 that the scholars had never said Gibson or the film was anti-Semitic. "We said the film could be used to promote anti-Semitism," Sister Boys said. "That distinction seems to have eluded them (critics of the scholars)." Gibson has long insisted that neither he nor his movie is anti-Semitic.

In their statement last June, the scholars said, "In this era, when ancient Christian anti-Semitic motives are being circulated widely because of international conflict, any Christian producer of a dramatic presentation of the death of Jesus has a considerable moral responsibility."

Sister Boys said in Seattle that large numbers of Christians persist in believing in the error that the Jews bear responsibility for Jesus' death despite statements to the contrary from many Christian denominations.

The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council document on interreligious relations, "Nostra Aetate," declared, "Even though Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion."

At the same time, she added, Jewish people lack an understanding of how deeply intertwined the stories of the Passion are in Christian identity.

"Jews and Christians talk past each other on a topic that has been a source of bitter division for centuries, led to violence against Jews and compromised the integrity of Christian proclamation of the Gospel," Sister Boys said.

Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, in a column in the Jan. 30 issue of Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper, said that when he was the invited guest speaker at the local Anti-Defamation League's monthly luncheon "my Jewish dialogue partners expressed emotions of nervousness about any escalation of anti-Semitism as a result of this movie. They further placed before me a challenge: 'Archbishop, what are you going to do about this?'"

He said, "We ought to work together to ease the tensions that many feel over the prospect of 'The Passion.' We ought to do what we can to make sure that this movie does not contribute to anti-Semitic feelings, much less anti-Semitic actions."

Noting he had only seen a preview trailer for the film, Archbishop Levada said, "When I go to see it (the film), I hope it will be a spiritual experience. At the same time, I will try to see it through the eyes of my Jewish brothers and sisters as well. I hope that if they go to see the move, they may try to see it through Christian eyes as well.

"And I hope that they will know that there are Christians committed to stand in solidarity with them against any resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own country or abroad."

Despite uncertainties over the movie's content and interpretation, many have rushed to embrace it.

The number of advance group tickets being ordered is said to be the biggest in the relatively short history of advance purchase of movie tickets. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a supporter of Gibson and the movie, bought 1,200 tickets at $9.75 each and sold all of them at $5 each to its members.

Two members of a Texas Baptist church bought out an entire 20-screen movie theater to permit 6,000 people to see the movie after it opens. A California nondenominational church canceled services for Feb. 28-29, the film's first weekend, and rented 10 theater screens so its congregants could see "The Passion of the Christ."

Charles Robert Carner, a Catholic who directed the made-for-TV movie "Judas," which airs March 9 on ABC, told Catholic News Service he had been to a screening and called it "the best 'life of Christ' movie I've seen."

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