Christians, Critics Sound off on Gibson's Passion

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Many of the critics argued that the movie's narrow focus pushes into the background Jesus' earlier ministry and later resurrection, which provide context—theological or historical—for why he died and what the death accomplished.

The Cross

Most Christians seem to strongly disagree with these critics. Defending the violence, they say it's consistent with the Bible's description of the Crucifixion. (Mel Gibson, the director, reportedly said he even toned down some of the violence.)

"To soft-pedal [the violence] or glamorize it or slide it over with a nodding acquiescence is to do the whole story of the redemption of Christ grave injustice," Reverand Meenan said.

Reviews in Christian publications have been largely ecstatic.

In Christianity Today, Keith Fournier called the film "a masterpiece of film-making and an artistic triumph" that "evoked more deep reflection, sorrow and emotional reaction within me than anything since my wedding, my ordination or the birth of my children. Frankly, I will never be the same."

Many Christians maintain that it makes sense to focus solely on Jesus' death, because no event is so central to their faith as the Crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

"Christians understand what lies behind the story, and therefore can appreciate it," Meenan said. "Ultimately, as they look at the cross, they will say, 'He did this for me.' That makes all the difference."

According to Christian doctrine, only the perfect Savior could accomplish the atonement by taking the world's sins upon himself. It's a message encapsulated in the words of Isaiah 53:5, shown at the start of the film: "He was wounded for our transgressions … by his wounds we are healed."

Eighteen-year-old Peter Jurmu perhaps best summed up the sentiments of many Christians in an e-mail he posted on an Internet message board: "The point of this movie is not to preach the message of God's love spread by Christ, but to show the price he paid for spreading it. Read his teachings before you enter the theater, but otherwise, do not complain that the movie was too much blood and not enough blessing."

Romans and Jews

What about the charges of anti-Semitism? For one, they are nothing new. Since medieval times, some passion plays—which, like the movie, depict Jesus' last 12 hours—have been openly anti-Semitic, and some have been used to justify persecution of Jews.

While some have said the Jewish Pharisees in the movie come across as unsympathetic and sometimes one-dimensional, most experts seem to agree that their villainous portrayal doesn't exceed what is found in the source material, which describes hostile Jewish mobs.

Many filmgoers may indeed feel that the Roman characters come off worse than the Jews in the film. Jerusalem in biblical times was a Jewish land occupied by the Roman Empire. As shown in the film, it was the Roman soldiers who tortured Jesus and eventually nailed him to the cross.

However, the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, whose brutality and religious insensitivity are detailed by both historians and in the gospel of Luke, is virtually let off the hook in the film. He is seen as an innocent pawn who tries to do the right thing until the mob forces his hand.

But many Christians say the debate over who killed Jesus is misguided. According to the Christian faith, it was the sins of the world that put Jesus on the cross.

New York's Roman Catholic Cardinal Edward Egan wrote to parishes to stress that Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus. "He gave His Life for us," Egan wrote in a column to appear in next month's issue of Catholic New York. "No one took it from Him. This is, and has always been, Catholic doctrine."

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