Tuesday, September 07, 2004

"The Passion of Christ" redux

With the release of Mel Gibson's, The Passion of Christ" on DVD last week, I've been reflecting on the movie and the madness surrounding its theatrical release earlier this year. I saw the movie on Good Friday and thought it was a moving portrayal of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, torture and crucifixion. I also remember the firestorm of debate surrounding its release. Various groups, attempting to sanitize history through a politically correct filter, claimed that the movie, and Gibson, were anti-semetic and that the movie would unleash a wave of anti-semitism and "Jew-hating" worldwide. Even less logical were the statements that the movie was historically flawed because "the Jews" of that era would never have been involved with the crucifixion of Jesus; and that the death of Jesus was wholly due to the Romans' desire to kill a troublemaker in a troubled land.

Well, it's been now over 6 months since the movie's release and absolutely nothing even closely resembling anti-semitism has occurred as a result of someone having seen the movie, so that's not the issue here. Instead, let's review what most likely took place involving the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus--based on our understanding of the environment in Palestine 2000 years ago. To wit:

There is no question that "the Jews" were complicit in the arrest, trail and execution of Jesus. However, the question should be, who are "the Jews"? I have always felt that "the Jews" were the Jewish religious/political leadership, not the Jewish people as a whole. After all, Jesus and all of his disciples (men and women) were Jews!

Jesus would have been seen in his day by the Jewish establishment as a political and religious demagogue--a very dangerous man in a day when an oppressive Roman government was only too willing to brutally put down any sign of potential rebellion. The Jewish establishment knew this and feared both potential Roman reprisal and the loss of their own power, should this Galilean peasant gain mass acceptance. In this sense Jesus was no different than the Reverend Martin Luther King in the 60's. Dr. King was feared by those in power for what he represented--that is, a movement to shift power from the hands of the white establishment to a shared arrangement in which all people could participate equally. The fact that he was investigated and harassed by the government and law enforcement (FBI, et al) and, ultimately assassinated, shows the degree to which people will go when they feel they have something to lose. Should we be surprised that Jesus was treated any differently by those in power during His lifetime?

It's true that only Pilate could order crucifixion--the Jewish penalty was blasphemy would have been death by stoning. However, reading the Gospels gives one the very strong sense that Pilate tried his best to dodge this particular bullet. For example, (according to Luke) the Chief Priests arrested Jesus in the garden using their paid informant, Judas, to betray him. After questioning Him all night (could the purpose of a nighttime meeting have been to avoid stirring up the populace?), they then brought Him before Pilate in the morning. Pilate after questioning Jesus, found Him "not guilty", but the chief priests were still adamant that He be punished as a political criminal, for "inciting the people." Pilate then decides that because Jesus is a Galilean, that King Herod should have to deal with Him, and sends Him to Herod. After questioning Jesus, Herod also finds Him not guilty and returns Him to Pilate. Pilate, still unwilling to crucify Jesus, states that, "no capital crime has been committed" and plans to have Jesus flogged with the intent of releasing him.

This plan however was foiled by the insistence of the Jewish leadership who, inciting a crowd, demanded that Jesus be executed under Roman law. For a third time Pilate announces his reluctance ("Why? What evil has he done?'). However, when he saw that "he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in sight of the crowd (Matthew 27:24)", and then sentenced Jesus to death. As to his motivation, I think it's fair to say that the last thing Pilate would want was a full-scale riot in Jerusalem, when over a million Jews were in the city to celebrate Passover. It would be pretty hard to explain to his bosses in Syria (the Governor of Syria controlled the Legions responsible for Palestine) and Rome why one Jewish peasant was worth calling in the Legion and the attendant violence, destruction and death that would follow.

So in reading the Gospels, it is quite apparent that "the Jews" did conspire to have Jesus arrested and executed. However, once again, I do not feel that the reference is to the Jewish people, but instead, to a very small minority that comprised the political/religious leadership of the Jewish people in Palestine. Simply put, Jesus was viewed as a revolutionary and threatened the existing power structure. In fact, the priestly leadership saw Jesus as a threat even early in his ministry and attempted to have him arrested or killed on several occasions preceding the crucifixion. However, being Jewish had nothing to do with Jesus' death. Had Jesus been a Gaul or a German or a Spaniard or a Celt during the same era, the outcome would have been the same. Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, for all time. In fact, we living today are just as guilty of the death of Jesus as those who were alive during His time. That's the real message of the crucifixion and why, in my opinion, Jesus’ sacrifice is so powerfully felt, even today. We have all sinned and are in need of redemption.
When we leave this world and go before God, God does not view us as Christians, Jews, Muslim, etc. but as His children who have come home to Him. As such, we are all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. For someone to be anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish means that they've missed the whole message that God sent humanity when He sent Jesus to Earth to save His children from their sin. In truth, Christians can't hate Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, etc. any more than they can hate their own arms or legs or eyes or feet. We're all part of the same body--God's people here on Earth and are all subject to one of His greatest commandments--that we "love one another."