‘The Passion of the Christ’: convergence of first freedoms

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” scheduled to be released today, Ash Wednesday, began stirring up heated reaction months ago, before many of its commentators had even seen the film. The controversy comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of religious films. Films and plays with religious themes, particularly those about the life of Jesus, have historically been at the center of many disputes involving freedom of expression and censorship.

Dramas called Passion plays based on the New Testament Gospels about the life and death of Jesus Christ began appearing in Europe around the 11th century. The most renowned of these was started in 1634 in Oberammergau, a town in Bavaria. After surviving the plague and years of suffering during the Thirty Years’ War, the villagers vowed to present a Passion play every 10 years in perpetuity. The 40th Passion play at Oberammergau was performed in 2000 and still featured a cast and crew made up of the residents of the town, who now perform before hundreds of thousands of spectators from all over the world.

In the United States, religious opposition to live theater of any kind was deeply rooted; until the mid-18th century theatrical presentations, including Passion plays, were forbidden in every colony except Virginia and Maryland. Even through the early 1900s, religious groups and leaders continued to mount effective opposition to Passion plays. The live theatrical portrayal of Christ by an actor was considered blasphemous and the use of sacred items as props was considered sacrilegious. In 1879, the actor James O’Neill, father of playwright Eugene O’Neill, was arrested for “impersonating Christ” during a San Francisco production of a Passion story.

The same religious leaders who bitterly disapproved of Passion plays in the United States often made the pilgrimage to Bavaria to see the tremendously popular Passion play at Oberammergau. Because of its long religious and historical tradition, it was thought to have a “purity” that could not exist in a “sensationalized” American production. In 1880, a traveling exhibit of photographed scenes from the Oberammergau play toured the United States to great acclaim from American religious groups. These “magic lantern” shows, in which photographic slides were illuminated from behind and projected onto a screen, are considered the precursors to the modern motion picture. After the invention of the motion-picture camera in 1896, films of the Passion play were some of the earliest movies shown to audiences. They were successfully exhibited in the United States with the approval of religious groups — who now viewed cinema as an acceptable medium for religious subjects, even as they grew concerned over the morality of movies in general.

The ‘deicide’ charge
At issue in the controversy over the Mel Gibson production is the historic charge of deicide against the Jews and the anti-Semitism that charge has incited. The widespread belief among Christians that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus fueled anti-Semitism in Europe and America. In their book Anti-Semitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), authors Marvin Perry and Frederick Schweitzer write: “In the Middle Ages and early modern times, after the performance of a Passion play, which was staged in many towns and villages, spectators, inflamed by the depiction of a frenzied Jewish mob taunting Jesus, often poured into the Jewish ghetto to kill, maim, and vandalize.” Hitler publicized his attendance at the Oberammergau Passion play before the German elections and famously endorsed it because of its negative portrayal of Jews.

Post-Holocaust sensitivity to Christian anti-Semitism led the Vatican to issue the Nostra Aetate in 1965, a declaration creating a formal Catholic doctrine that the crucifixion of Christ cannot be charged against the Jewish people, and renouncing anti-Semitism in any form. In 1988, bishops of the Roman Catholic Church published the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion Play,” providing specific guidelines to avoid anti-Semitic portrayals in the Passion story. The guidelines were intended as an internal document to be used by Catholic parishes presenting Passion plays and Easter dramas. Yet, when an ad-hoc group of Christian and Jewish scholars convened informally to review Gibson’s script, it used the bishops’ guidelines and published a report suggesting 18 script changes.

Representations of the Passion continue to be one of the most critical issues in interfaith relations between Christians and Jews, just as anti-Semitism continues to be fueled by the idea that the Jewish people bore guilt for killing Jesus. In January 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a national survey of more than 1,000 Americans conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco found 37% believed that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus Christ.

Dialogue vs. suppression
The Anti-Defamation League has been at the forefront of the groups taking issue with Gibson’s production. The ADL was founded in 1913 in part to counter negative portrayals of Jews in film. One of its earliest campaigns was to try to influence the portrayal of Jews in the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille film “The King of Kings.” Catholic and Jewish clergy and scholars have taken issue with the purported use by Gibson of non-scriptural Catholic sources that contain anti-Semitic references. They are also concerned that Gibson’s membership in a sect of Catholicism that does not accept the teachings of Vatican II will influence his portrayal of the Passion story as insensitive to its history of inciting anti-Semitism.

The realities of current anti-Semitism and the history of its connection with the Passion play make this a particularly complex and sensitive issue. Ideally, the Gibson film will encourage a national dialogue about history and religious tolerance that will reaffirm the values promoted by the First Amendment freedom of expression. It is precisely the sensitive nature of its subject that makes this film so vulnerable to suppression — in artistic expression, the line between encouraging religious sensitivity and censorship can be thin.

In its wider sense, censorship includes both the suppression of artistic expression and actions that inhibit the public’s access to the artwork. Political and even commercial pressures can effectively suppress artistic expression. The same boycotts and protests that are protected under the First Amendment can also result in limiting the public’s access to the work.

In August 2003 The New York Times reported that New York State Assemblyman and Jewish community leader Dov Hikind led a protest against the Gibson film outside 20th Century Fox corporate headquarters in New York City. Hikind, who admitted having seen only a seven-minute clip from the then-incomplete film, urged all film companies not to make deals to distribute “The Passion of the Christ.” 20th Century Fox then released a statement saying it would not distribute the film.

Newsweek magazine reported that potential threats of boycotts, hate mail and protests inhibited major studios from distributing the film, and quoted a studio head as saying it “wasn’t worth the aggravation.” The controversy has also resulted in at least some suppression of artistic expression — Gibson, who denies that the film is anti-Semitic, has admitted that he reluctantly removed potentially controversial dialogue from it for fear of reprisal.

Trouble for earlier films
We have seen many such examples of censorship in recent controversies over religious films.

In 1987, more than 3,500 theaters nationwide refused to screen Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” when Catholic and conservative Christian groups that considered its portrayal of Christ blasphemous called for a boycott. City officials in New Orleans and Santa Ana, Calif., passed resolutions to ban the film. In Savannah, Ga., the Chatham County Commission passed a resolution urging its citizens “not to participate in any showing of the movie.” Blockbuster declined to carry the film in its video rental stores.

Protests and boycotts by Catholic and conservative religious groups of such films as “The Life of Brian” (1979), “Hail Mary” (1985), “Priest” (1995) and “Dogma” (1999) resulted in limited access throughout the country as theaters refused to screen the films.

As recently as the 1960s, religious groups, particularly Catholics, had an inordinate amount of power to censor films. The Motion Picture Production Code is now known to have been written by a Jesuit priest. The MPPC profoundly influenced all movies in America for more than 30 years. All scripts had to be submitted to the Production Code Administration, and if rejected, had to be revised to comply with its requirements. Among rules forbidding depictions of “scenes that arouse passion,” “unjustified adultery,” the “drug trade,” miscegenation and homosexuality, were prohibitions against the portrayal of religious ministers as comic or villainous characters and against the “ridicule” of any religious faith.

Catholics opposed to the 1951 Italian film “The Miracle” persuaded the New York State Board of Regents to ban the film from New York theaters on the basis that it was sacrilegious. The appeal of that ruling resulted in a Supreme Court decision, Burstyn v. Wilson (1952), which finally placed film expression under the protection of the First Amendment. Before “The Miracle” decision, movies were considered to be “a business, pure and simple,” and not “speech” protected by the First Amendment. Religious influence over the film industry began to wane only in the decade after the Supreme Court issued this ruling.

A question of faith
Biblical scholars generally agree that we don’t know many details about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and the biblical accounts in the Gospels differ. The story of the life and death of Jesus is therefore a matter of belief and faith. Each telling of the Passion story necessarily projects and reflects the teller’s own beliefs and issues of faith.

Scorsese’s Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ” struggles with his own faith, much as Scorsese has admitted he himself has done as a lapsed Catholic. Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director who referred to himself as a “Catholic Marxist,” portrayed a Jesus with great empathy for the poor in “The Gospel According to Matthew.” Undoubtedly, the Gibson film reflects some of its maker’s own ideas and beliefs.

Freedom of faith and freedom of expression are the pillars of the First Amendment. Issues that combine both are often potent and demand measured consideration. By adhering to the constitutional principles of freedom, we protect ourselves from the greater dangers posed by the suppression of expression, ideas, opinions and beliefs. The controversy over “The Passion of the Christ” reminds us that it is precisely these times when the protections of the First Amendment are most needed.

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