Religious leaders scramble as ‘The Passion’ arrives

Controversial film prompts a variety of local reactions.

By: Jeff Milgram
   One Montgomery church has bought out an entire 200-seat showing of Mel Gibson’s graphically violent new movie, "The Passion of the Christ," as a way of inspiring lukewarm Christians.
   "We wanted church members to see the movie as a family in a way to shake things up," said the Rev. Sam Kee, youth pastor of the Montgomery Evangelical Free Church. He said he believes the film will move church members who are not strongly committed to Christianity "off the fence."
   The Rev. Kee, who has seen the movie and admits it is violent, said it shows "the depth of God’s love for us."
   But other religious leaders are looking warily at the film, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.
   Trinity Church in Princeton is in the midst of a series on the four gospels, which are the basis for Mr. Gibson’s movie. The Princeton Clergy Association will host an interfaith program Feb. 29 by the American Jewish Committee on "The Passion From Gospel to Gibson," and the Princeton University Office of Religious Life will host an interfaith panel discussion March 2.
   The movie has come under fire not only because of the graphic violence. Jewish groups, most notably the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, believe the film gives new life to the claim that Jews used the Romans to kill Jesus and that Jews, even today, bear a collective responsibility.
   While that claim was the basis for almost 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, the Roman Catholic Church said during the Vatican II conference in the 1960s that Jews bear no responsibility for Jesus’ death.
   The Rev. Kee saw the film while he was on youth retreat in New Mexico.
   "The movie did a great job of remaining faithful to the biblical account to bringing to life the conditions of when Jesus walked the earth," he said.
   The movie will open at Montgomery Cinemas on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25. The Montgomery Evangelical Free Church has bought out a showing on March 7.
   The Rev. Kee said he was disturbed by the violence.
   "It was hard to watch, but it wasn’t gratuitous," he said.
   The Rev. Kee said the movie does not assign blame for Jesus’ death on either the Jews or the Romans. The blame, he said, falls on human sin.
   And the Roman Catholic Church agrees. "The question of theological responsibility for Jesus’ death is a long settled one," according to "The Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion," a 1988 report by the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
   "In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and inequity crucify themselves again the Son of God."
   In the movie, the hand that nails Jesus to the cross is that of Mr. Gibson, a conservative Catholic.
   Monsignor Walter Nolan of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church plans to see the movie with members of his staff next week. At that time, he will decide if the parish needs to respond.
   "First we’ll see it and see if we have a discussion group or preach about it in a homily," Monsignor Nolan said.
   Allyson Gall, the New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee, will speak at 3 p.m. at the Feb. 29 interfaith forum at Trinity Church.
   The committee has produced a resource manual for Christians and Jews that helps address some of the issues related to Mr. Gibson’s movie.
   Ms. Gall has not seen the movie, but committee members who have seen it have "come away increasingly angry and uncomfortable watching it next to Christians who were crying," she said.
   "I think the bottom line is you have this incredible and powerful story of Jesus Christ and it’s reduced to a tale of betrayal and blame," she said.
   Bob Tiechota, president of the company that owns the Montgomery Cinemas, said interest in the movie is high.
   "We’ve had a lot of inquiries," he said. "But a lot are being cautious. It’s rated R. … I think it’s going to get people out to the movies."
   Rabbi Dov Elkins, spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Princeton, has sent e-mails to members with links to Web sites and articles.
   He said he doesn’t believe the movie will incite anti-Semitic acts in this area, but it could in Europe, where there is an increase in anti-Jewish violence.
   "It’s just not a positive development," Rabbi Elkins said.
   Monsignor Nolan agrees with Rabbi Elkins that Princeton is not fertile ground for anti-Semitism.
   "I would hope, certainly, that it wouldn’t incite anti-Semitism," Monsignor Nolan said. "And I certainly hope it wouldn’t do that in our parish."
   The Rev. Frank Strasburger, assistant rector at Trinity Church, said using the Gospels as history is problematic because they were written between 20 and 70 years after Jesus’ death — and they contradict each other. They also were written with a political axe to grind, he said.
   The Rev. Thomas Breidenthal, dean of religious life at Princeton University, says translating the written Gospels into film is dicey. While the written texts allow for reflection and rational discussion, "I fear that one of the greatest power of movies is its immediate effect," said the Rev. Breidenthal, who has not seen the Gibson movie.
   But the combination of movies and the tendency by Westerners to demonize Jews is "a dangerous mix" in a time of increasing anti-Semitism, he said.
   The Rev. David Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church, said members of his congregation will take part in the Feb. 29 program. "At this point, there’s no plan to overreact or respond," he said.
   Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton, said Bishop John M. Smith has not seen the movie. "I don’t know if he’s planning on seeing the movie," she said.
   She said some parish youth groups have shown interest in buying blocks of tickets, but nothing specifically has been done by the diocese.