[Marxism] The political polarization of the debate over Gibson's "Passion"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Feb 25 11:14:14 MST 2004

Following is an important article from the current Counterpunch --
another article, albeit quite a thoughtful one -- about the debate over
The Passion of Christ.  
Right now, those in the mainstream media who want to attack the movie
tend to use the issue of violence, rather than anti-Semitism, as the
lightning rod.  I doubt that I will have that out, since I consider The
Wild Bunch to be one of the best movies ever made.  I tend to like films
that capture fanatical religious feeling, and so Gibson has an edge with
me to start with.  I plan to see if the movie measures up.
Like Leupp, I challenge the view that basic Christian religious belief
is inherently anti-Semitic -- they should never have become the goyim --
or that portraying the Jesus tale according to the Gospels is
The letter that David Quarter submitted -- basically without comment --
showed how this debate, which seems completely falsely framed to me,
helps further reactionary polarization, including anti-Semitism.
Frankly, I virtually took it for granted until I read Kautsky's The
Foundations of  Christianity that the Jews had killed the alleged
messiah, and I have never thought that this idea is at the root of
anti-Semitism. This is not what the debate around the Jews revolved
around in Germany, nor will it be so here.  
The view that Gibson is recruiting Catholics is probably wrong. The
views of  his sect tend to converge with those Protestant sects that
view the church as Antichrist or the whore of Babylon, and that all who
follow the pope are going to hell.  Remember that Gibson believes that
no member of the church has participated in a genuine mass, made a
proper baptism or marriage or confession  or received extreme unction or
any other requirement of the faith. He believes that the pope and all
the other priests of the mainstream church are fakers and heretics. 
Mel, of course, knows it would be a mistake to talk about this sort of
thing when he is trying to recoup his  $35 million.  And anyway he
leaves the high-level theological stuff to Dear Old Dad.
I believe that Jews in the United States will become scapegoats when the
rulers need  a layer of scapegoats who can be presented as rich, highly
privileged and enormously powerful as a group. This is a role that Black
youth, welfare mothers, illegal immigrants, and even Arabs cannot fill
with nearly as much mythological credibility as Jews.  As long as the
poor and most oppressed are the scapegoats, Jews will probably be
basically out of the line of fire.  
Jews are what is needed tro explain things like a world banking and
financial collapse, trade breakdowns, gigantic social conflicts, etc.
(all of which they supposedly manipulate and exploit from behind the
scenes) and in an atmosphere of universal dissatisfaction.  In this
sense, I have the same sense as Leupp that Jews are well positioned to
become scapegoats to a greater degree than in the past for the failure
of the war on terrorism (as I think is probable), should that
definitively transpire, and the deeper instability that will entail.  I
note that Patrick Buchanan, who moved toward Bush when things looked
better for the war, has now resumed his criticism and blames the war on
a long string of Jewish names.
Fred Feldman
A Misguided Attack
The Passion, Rabbi Lerner and the Gospels
I'm included, for some reason, on the email list of Tikkun Magazine,
edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, whom I respect for his involvement in
the antiwar movement, including the Not In Our Name Coalition. On the
other hand, I sometimes find his pronouncements bizarre, and his
February 19 statement on Mel Gibson's film The Passion of Christ
particularly so. I myself commented on this film, (or rather, since I
haven't seen it, the controversy surrounding it) six months ago; I tried
to be dispassionate in my discussion, whereas the rabbi is riled up
indeed. And not just about Gibson.
Lerner begins his piece by quoting Gibson as telling a television
audience "the Jews' real complaint isn't with my film but with the
Gospels." Thus, the rabbi avers, "Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why
Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism" I expected Lerner to
develop that point, and to identify that "secret" as the irrational
essentialization and vilification of whole ethnic groups or other
communities that pervades American culture. I thought he might note
that, if Gibson indeed said that, he deserves criticism for conflating
all Jews. Gibson knows that the film actually has won applause from some
Jewish critics, and so "the Jews" are certainly not issuing a collective
complaint against it. If he suggested that they were, he is encouraging
polarization. There are indeed folks out there who would like to believe
that "the Jews" are conspiratorially obstructing the presentation of
God's truth to the people, and Gibson should not play to that audience.
If Gibson had in his remark replaced "the Jews" with "some Jews" or
"some critics, including some Jews," he would have accurately expressed
But rather than chide Gibson for positing a uniform response of Jews to
the gospels, the rabbi proceeds to fuel Gibson's argument by actually
urging Christians to reject those books, or at least the content therein
he finds offensive. Of course he doesn't see himself as anti-Christian.
He welcomes the "Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the
teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story" (generously
suggesting that Christianity is acceptable, if allegorized). He gives
honorable mention to the "few Christians [following World War II]
willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful
representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels" And he even expresses
"hope Christians will take the lead in organizing people of all faiths
to leaflet every public showing of Gibson's film with a message that
runs counter to the anger at Jews that this film is likely to produce"
Couldn't Mel validly observe that Lerner's complaint is indeed less with
his film than with the gospels themselves? Now, I'm not saying it's
wrong to subject those four humanly authored works to criticism. On the
contrary! As a non-believer, secular humanist, and historical
materialist, I see these texts as products of the human imagination,
reflecting all kinds of religious influences (from Babylonia, Persia,
Greece, etc.) that we can objectively identify. I find literal belief in
scriptures (of any tradition) both foolish and dangerous. But I find
religious intolerance, and the deliberate insulting of religious
sensitivities (such as calling texts revered by maybe one-third of
humanity in any sense "hateful"), dangerous as well. In my comments on
the Passion controversy, written six months ago, I suggested that those
protesting the film "clarify whether [or not] they find the New
Testament itself anti-Semitic, and hence dramatic treatments of it
inherently objectionable," adding, "Some scholars have effectively made
that case." My unstated point was that even if that case against
Christian scripture is valid, trashing a film and trashing a religion
are two different things. Politically speaking, the latter is of course
far more serious. 
Seems to me that religion---something so deeply touching the human mind,
often sentimentally imprinted on it at a very early age, its inculcation
never the fault of the child inheriting it---has to be treated very
carefully. It's one thing to write an article in an academic journal
examining the treatment of Jews in the gospels, and alleging (as many
such articles do) "anti-Semitism," especially in the Gospel of John.
It's another to undertake a mass campaign to tell Christians that
writings that, for better or worse, they have been raised to regard as
the Word of God "teach hatred" of Jews, whether or not the believers
realize it. 
Karl Marx (a German Jew passionately committed to human liberation, who
jettisoned his religious convictions in adolescence) wrote some of the
most perceptive comments ever composed about religion. He appreciated
its dual nature: "Religious suffering is at one and the same time the
expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless
world and the soul of soulless conditions." 
Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels, who had a nuanced view of
religion's role in history (and high appreciation of the historical role
of some religious figures, such as Martin Luther), parted from some of
their colleagues in objecting to the exclusion of religious believers
from the nascent workers' movement. They considered it an opiate, a
medicinal drug, but felt it better not to make it a dividing-line issue
within that class movement.
Lerner in contrast is in effect telling the Christian: to be "decent,
loving, and generous," you must abandon your religion, as you know it.
You must not only repudiate the notion that Caiaphas and the Jerusalem
mob, as depicted in gospels, obliged a reluctant Roman to kill the
Savior, but reject the broader theological idea that the ancient
Judeans, by failing to generally enlist in the Jesus movement and accept
Jesus as the Messiah, resisted God's plan. 
My concern about rekindled anti-Semitism differs from the rabbi's. As
Lerner knows, the U.S. war against Iraq was and is a moral outrage. It
was promoted by a systematic campaign of lies. And integral to that
lie-spreading effort were the "neocons," who as the Israeli progressive
press (Haaretz, April 4, 2003) has matter-of-factly noted, happen to be
overwhelmingly Jewish and often dual (Israeli-U.S.) nationals who see
the interests of the two nations as inseparable. Douglas J. Feith, David
Frum, John Hannah, Michael Ledeen, I. Lewis Libby, William J. Luti,
Richard Perle, Abraham Shulsky, Paul Wolfowitz, David Wurmser. Elliott
Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Josh Bolton, Eliot Cohen, David Kay, Edward
Luttwak, Daniel Pipes, Michael Rubin, James Schlesinger, Dov Zakheim,
etc. Several of these men are now confronted with legal problems, and
some having deliberately spread disinformation in pursuit of their
campaign to transform the Middle East in Israel's interest (an effort so
far taking about 550 American lives) they may in the near future find
themselves objects of widespread hostility. They deserve strong
criticism (and maybe prison sentences), although nobody ever deserves
anti-Semitic vilification. But it could happen, tragically mirroring the
vicious anti-Arab, anti-Muslim feelings they have encouraged in pursuit
of their goals, baldly stated in the recent idiocy penned by Frum and
The antiwar movement here has been led to a significant extent by Jews.
Maybe half of the activists I've worked with are Jews. Obviously the
ongoing war on Iraq is not the product of a Jewish conspiracy, any more
than the progressive anti-imperialist left is a Jewish enterprise. Jews
hold as many viewpoints as does the society at large. But because this
is a racist society, with a deep-seated cultural proclivity to
conceptualize in ethnic terms, I think it quite possible that as the
criminal assault on Iraq takes its toll, some will say (intelligently):
"Iraq was never a threat to us! Why are our kids dying there? For oil?"
And (unintelligently): "It's those Jews! Sending our kids over there to
die for Israel!" 
In that context, for progressive Jews to attack the foundations of
Christian faith (however intellectually insupportable those foundations
may be) strikes me as a grave political error. You don't want aggrieved
Christian families declaring "My son died in Iraq because of those
neocon Jews. They lied about Iraq, and now they're even trying to cover
up what the Bible tells us about how they killed Jesus!" But
anticipating that possibility, I urge the rabbi to take care to apply
his fire where it will do most good, and leave the critique of the
gospels for another day, lest its expression, right now, serve a wave of
anti-Semitism that might target Perles and Lerners alike.
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct
Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The
Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan, Interracial Intimacy
in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and Servants,
Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan
He can be reached at: gleupp at granite.tufts.edu

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