The Passion of the Christ scares Abraham Foxman. The Anti-Defamation League's national director, currently cast in the role of reluctant film critic, has spent months warning anyone and everyone that The Passion will dramatically strain Christian-Jewish relations and revive age-old Christian hatred for Jews. While most Christians in the West balk at this suggestion, Foxman cannot be dissuaded. He knows the grim history.
"For almost 2,000 years in Western civilization, four words legitimized, rationalized, and fueled anti-Semitism: 'The Jews killed Christ,'" Foxman told the ADL national executive committee during a February meeting. "For hundreds of years those four words—acted out, spoken out, sermonized out—inspired and legitimized pogroms, inquisitions and expulsions."
When Foxman envisions Christ's crucifixion, he does not think about love, forgiveness, or hope. He recalls the Holocaust and Hitler's chilling praise for the famed Oberammergau Passion Play in 1934. He does not weep with unexplainable sadness and joy at the sight of humanity's Savior suffering an undeserved death. He'll never forget the horrifying tales of czarist-era Russian Jews fleeing bloodthirsty gangs bent on Holy Week revenge.
"Read the e-mails, read the Web sites encouraging people to see the film," Foxman warned. "How fragile it is out there. What a reservoir of hatred!"
Hatred? Can we possibly be thinking of the same event? How can he watch Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, the ultimate triumph over death and evil, and think of hatred? The answer to this question is impossible for Christians to fully understand. Sadly, the history of Passion play depictions has been marred by shocking violence against Jews.
"The menace of Jewry"
With the bubonic plague once again sweeping across Europe in 1633, the town leaders of Oberammergau, a Bavarian village, gathered together to beseech God for a miracle. If the Lord would spare little Oberammergau, they promised to thank him by performing a play every 10 years to commemorate Jesus' crucifixion.
After this vow, not one Oberammergau villager died of the plague. The town first performed the play in 1634. More than 350 years later, Oberammergau still remembers its promise. In 2000, nearly half of the town's 5,000 residents participated in the fortieth Oberammergau Passion Play, which drew nearly a half million tourists from around the world.
Yet in the late 1970s, Oberammergau began to draw the ADL's ire. Sensitized by the Holocaust, Jews, especially in Germany, turned a more skeptical eye on Passion plays. Oberammergau, in particular, had been a source of tangible pain. Adolf Hitler had visited the 1934 performance, giving it his eager blessing. "It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans," Hitler had said. "There one sees Pontius Pilate, a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."
To make matters worse, the Dachau concentration camp had performed its horrific duty not far from Oberammergau. While Hitler's brand of murderous anti-Semitism owed far more to scientific determinism than Christianity, he preyed on a history of faith-based persecution. When convenient, Hitler and his Nazi henchmen dredged up the anti-Semitic writings of an elderly Martin Luther to justify their hatred for Jews.
Hitler employed Oberammergau in a similar fashion. He remembered that during and immediately following the Middle Ages, enraged Passion play spectators sometimes invaded the ghettos to exact revenge on Jews for killing Jesus. He hoped Christians would react similarly after viewing the Oberammergau Passion Play. This and other Nazi overtures to the racism simmering barely below the surface of German religious culture produced mixed results, with some churchmen eagerly advocating Nazism and others opposing Hitler on Christian grounds.
Yet as Pope John Paul II acknowledged in 1997, many sincere Christians looked the other way during the Holocaust because in their estimation the Jews were getting what they deserved for rejecting Christ. "The erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their presumed guilt circulated for too long" and "contributed to a lulling of many consciences at the time of World War II, so that, while there were 'Christians' who did everything to save those who were persecuted, even to the point of risking their own lives, the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity expected of Christ's disciples," the Pope told a group meeting to discuss "The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu."
The Pope may have had the Slovakian papal nuncio in mind when making his remarks about the "lulled consciences" during World War II. When asked in 1942 to intervene on behalf of Jewish children slated by the Nazis to be deported to concentration camps, the nuncio refused. "There is no innocent blood of Jewish children in the world. All Jewish blood is guilty. You have to die. This is the punishment that has been awaiting you because of that sin [of deicide]," he replied. Deicide, which means "to kill God," is the foremost "erroneous and unjust" interpretation of Scripture that has incited so much hostility. In Passion plays, a difficult forum for conveying the theological nuance of humanity's collective culpability, the Jews have often become an inviting target.
Unfortunately, deicide has not been the lone charge directed collectively against Jews. As recently as the early twentieth century, pogroms sometimes erupted during Holy Week in Eastern European nations when rumors spread about Jewish crimes. Inflamed by outlandish accusations, such as the claim that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzo bread for Passover, unruly gangs searched out Jews to kill and maim.
This style of pogrom dates back to the First Crusade. Until this point European Jews largely eluded organized violence, but marauding crusaders on their way to the Middle East in 1096 stopped to slaughter Jews in the Rhineland. One crusader's account recalls, "Behold we journey a long way to seek the idolatrous shrine and to take vengeance upon the Muslims. But here are the Jews dwelling among us, whose ancestors killed him and crucified him groundlessly. Let us take vengeance first upon them. Let us wipe them out as a nation."
Outbreaks of Christian anti-Semitism related to the Passion narrative have been so numerous and destructive that theologian and Holocaust survivor Eliezer Berkovits concluded, "the New Testament is the most dangerous anti-Semitic tract in human history." But neither the New Testament nor The Passion of the Christ is about Jewish deicide or revenge. Each is about God placing the iniquities of us all on his one and only son, who suffered unspeakable brutality to redeem his estranged children. Now is the time for Christians to disavow the history of Passion-linked hatred and show Jews "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Eph. 3:18).
Collin Hansen is editorial resident for Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
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More on Christian anti-Semitism includes:
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of the Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Jews Against Jesus? | Critics of Gibson's film The Passion distort the truth. (Oct. 30, 2003)
Poland's Catholic Bishops Ask Forgiveness for Wartime Massacre of Jews | Theologian says continued anti-Semitism overshadows gesture. (June 12, 2001)
Oberammergau Overhaul | Changes make the Passion play more sensitive to Jews and more faithful to Scripture. (Aug. 24, 2000)
CT Classic: Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Aug. 24, 2000)
At Jerusalem's Holocaust Memorial, Pope Regrets Persecution of Jews | Catholic Church 'deeply saddened by anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians.' (March 20, 2000)
Is Holocaust Museum Anti Christian? | Six prominent Jews are accusing the U.S. Holocaust Museum of anti-Christian bias in showing a 14-minute film on the roots of anti-Semitism. (April 27, 1998)
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