by Izzy Kalman (April 2004)
My previous newsletter had about six separate items, but I was surprised that, with one exception, every email I received in response was about my piece about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. And I was especially surprised to find that while some respondents understood the point of my article, most of them didn’t. It seems that when it comes to religion, people are so sensitive that they are easily offended and angered by anything that seems to contradict their beliefs. Their anger actually prevents them from seeing clearly. It’s as though people believe Jesus’ message to be, “Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, and have no tolerance for anyone whose opinions are not 100% in line with yours.”
The irony is that my article about The Passion (which, by the way, I had not seen at the time I wrote it – it was not necessary for the point I was making) was complimentary to Gibson and actually supported the opinions of those who thought I was criticizing him. My article was a criticism not of Gibson but of the psychological researchers who are determined to make us believe that violent films desensitize viewers to violence in real life.
I just returned from seeing The Passion with my wife this evening and, as I suspected, it did not desensitize either of us to Jesus’ suffering. In fact, I don’t recall any film ever having caused my wife to so frequently cry out in pain.
I read so much about The Passion that there were few surprises for me, and it essentially confirmed what I thought the moral message would be. It also seems to me that the timing of the movie is not coincidental. I believe that the world is currently in the most dangerous state it has ever been, and the movie’s message is the only hope for our world’s long-term survival. I hope that the movie succeeds in getting that message across to everyone who sees it. If it does, Mel Gibson should be blessed.
I am writing this newsletter as a Jew, and I would like you to realize that I don’t consider Mel Gibson’s movie or the Gospels (which, by the way, have contrary accounts of the same events and therefore can’t obviously all be accurate) to be recordings of absolute truth. I respect your right to believe that they are, and ask that you not be angry at me for expressing beliefs that may not be exactly the same as yours. Does anyone actually believe that Jesus would want us to be angry at each other for having beliefs that are not exactly the same?
The Message of “The Passion”
As a Jew, I must acknowledge that I did not appreciate Mel Gibson’s depiction of the Jewish masses and leadership. However, these depictions are Gibson’s religious heritage, not his own invention. I believe Gibson when he says he is not anti-Semitic, that anti- Semitism goes against his beliefs as a Christian. It is clear that he did not make this film to hurt Jews, but to help us all. The way the Jews are portrayed is really not important if the viewers learn from it what Gibson is trying to teach. The Passion is Gibson’s noble attempt to bring peace to the world by making the world aware of Jesus’ message. I also see it as a privilege to be able to write about the film because it’s message is what Bullies to Buddies is all about.
The Passion intends to make the viewer appreciate the incredible suffering that Jesus endured because of his love of mankind. He loved us so much that he was willing to undergo prolonged horrible torture and humiliation in the hope that we would learn the importance of his teachings. Unfortunately, the world did not learn that message two thousand years ago, and Christians are therefore still awaiting his Second Coming.
To me, it seems that the message that many or even most Christians throughout history have gotten from the Crucifixion is that since Jesus died for our sins, we have to believe in him as the Lord and anyone who doesn’t will be denied entrance to heaven. Sadly, so many people who have professed belief in Jesus have continued to act contrary to his teachings.
Could Jesus have been so petty and self-centered that his purpose in suffering and dying was to have himself worshipped for eternity? Of course not! He died so that we would understand his teachings and stop killing each other needlessly. Because too many people have not understood the point of Jesus’ sacrifice, Mel Gibson needed to have another try at getting Jesus’ message across.
Why did Jesus Die?
Why did Jesus die? Because of his teachings. In The Passion, Jesus says repeatedly that he is simply speaking. Being killed for speaking truth was not unusual. Until recent history, it was quite common for people to be killed for attempting to speak truth out loud.
What did Jesus preach? Universal love. In the film’s brief depiction of the Last Supper, Jesus COMMANDS his disciples that after his death they must love one another. Jesus teaches love not only of friends but even of enemies. To exemplify his commitment to this principle, he forgives his sadistic killers in the moments before his death.
Jesus taught peace, saying “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus was so committed to nonviolence that he made the ultimate sacrifice so that we would finally stop sacrificing each other on the altar of differing beliefs and start loving each other as equals.
Jesus and The First Amendment
To us today it may seem strange that a person would be killed for preaching universal love. No one in a modern democracy would be executed by the authorities for preaching universal love, even if he simultaneously claimed to be the Messiah. But that is because modern democracies are largely based on the universal principles that Jesus taught (even though most people aren’t aware of it).
Jesus lived at a time before governments had anything like our First Amendment Had it existed then, he would not have been killed. The natural tendency for people is to consider those who don’t accept our religious beliefs as enemies. Throughout human history, religious intolerance fueled much of humanity’s inhumanity to man. Unfortunately, that tendency did not disappear when Jesus was sacrificed. Religious-based hatred is today putting the world in the greatest danger of destruction it has ever known.
We needn’t be smug thinking that we are better than the religious fanatics who target innocent civilians in their attempt to overthrow modern hedonistic civilization. If we did not live in a country whose government guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, we ourselves could be among the hateful masses portrayed in The Passion. I can’t tell you how many people have been offended and angry at me for expressing my views, despite the fact that I teach precisely what Jesus taught. If these angry, offended people had their way, I have no doubt that some of them would hurt me physically. One emailer actually wrote that he’d like to knock me out. And I’m sure many more would like to stop me from earning a living teaching people how to love one another.
Jesus taught that we must love our enemies. But we will never achieve this lofty goal when we don’t even know how to love our friends. Just listen to how conservatives talk about liberals, and how liberals talk about conservatives. Listen to how nonbelievers talk about believers, and how believers talk about nonbelievers. And listen to how people belonging to different branches of the same faith talk about each other! People get so angry and treat each other like enemies for no greater sin than having different opinions, even though we are all citizens of the same country and are supposed to be friends.
Jesus taught that we must love each other regardless of what our particular beliefs are, and that the only thing that counts is that we live by the Golden Rule. People will always entertain a variety of beliefs, and these beliefs cannot all be equally true. It doesn’t matter what we believe as long as we love each other and treat each other the way we would like to be treated. The only hope for world peace is that we love each other despite our particular beliefs.
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are actually the embodiments of Jesus’ teachings. We must not take these rights for granted. Religions do not automatically practice them. For the past two thousand years since Jesus, countless atrocities have been committed by people professing to be following his will by torturing and/or executing those who didn’t accept him as God. We must first learn to value these First Amendment principles as the will of Jesus and practice them with our friends before we can have any chance of loving our enemies.
The Danger Facing the World Today
By the way, many people today believe that the dangerous world situation is a clash of religions – the Islamic world against the Judeo-Christian world. This is not true. It is really a war between democracy and dictatorship. (I use the term ‘dictatorship’ loosely to refer to any government whose leaders are not chosen by the people in free, multi-party elections.) The reason democracies are experiencing unprecedented harmony and prosperity is ultimately freedom of speech and religion, which forbid ideologically based violence and encourages the free expression of ideas. In democratic countries today, there is very little religion- inspired violence among their citizens. We are being threatened by people who live in dictatorships, where people believe that different beliefs are reasons to hate and kill each other. Because they don’t benefit from freedoms of speech and press, they are easily brainwashed by their despotic dictators to believe that we (rather than their dictators) are their biggest enemies and the cause of their misery. The residents of dictatorships have no way of knowing that our superior strength, for which they envy and hate us, is a product of freedom of speech and religion.
The only reason it seems that Islam is at war with Christianity and Judaism is that the Islamic countries happen to be mostly dictatorships. When there were Jewish and Christian dictatorships, they were no less violent than today’s Islamic dictatorships. Were the dictatorial Islamic countries of today to adopt freedom of religion and speech, they would be at peace with us. Certainly Mohammed would be pleased to see a world in which people of different beliefs were to love each other and live in harmony.
I will end this article about with recent news reports that the Islamic countries of the Middle East have made an exception to their ban on films about Jesus and have allowed the showing of The Passion. The ban exists because Islam denies that Jesus was crucified and that he died at that time. However, these countries are making an exception for The Passion because it so nicely serves their official policy of promoting hatred of Jews. I hope that The Passion will be so successful at teaching Jesus’ message that it will foil these leaders’ sinister intentions and instead have Islamic viewers leaving the theaters determined to love Jews. (By the way, contrary to what many people think, there is no reciprocal teaching of hatred towards Arabs or Muslims by Israel or the Jewish world. Israel staunchly guarantees freedom of religion, and you will find no official promotion of hatred towards members of other beliefs. Official promotion of religious hatred is striclty the realm of dictatorships.)