A friend of mine sent me an email containing a series of letters to the editor that one of the English newspapers hadn’t published. While some were sort of stupid and others mildly amusing, one had me almost in tears. Like all good letters, it was simple, direct, and to the point:
“Did anyone else feel that Mel Gibson’s remake of the classic Life of Brian wasn’t anywhere near as funny as the original?”
I’m at a loss as to understand why the newspaper in question refused to publish the letter. But then again, I agree with the writer of the letter, so maybe I’m not the perfect judge of community standards in these circumstances. There are others who would probably take offence to the tone of the letter.
Most likely they would be the same crowd who had taken offence to the original movie. When it was released, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was considered sacrilegious, blasphemous, and any of the other nasty words that people like to throw at works that make fun of their belief systems. Of course Mel’s film, The Passion, had its own detractors, who called it things like anti-Semitic and pornographic in its display of violence, so maybe it had more in common with the original than we thought.
I never had any desire to go see Mel’s film. Not being a Christian, the subject matter wasn’t exactly appealing to me and I figured I knew the story well enough already. Heck, the whole world knows the story whether we want to or not, so I couldn’t see much point in retelling it. But, like I said, I’m not a Christian, so it’s not for me to judge whether or not they want to make movies about their religion. (Please do me a favour and don’t write in telling me all the reasons for the need to tell this story over and over again or how well it did at the box office. E.T. did well at the box office and I couldn’t see the point in it either.)
Every year some church group or another does a Passion play in the community where I live, or a stations of the cross retelling, or something along those lines. We get a live television feed of the Pope addressing the faithful in St. Peter’s square for his Easter sermon, and we get images of pilgrims making their way through Jerusalem being shepherded by Israeli soldiers.
The irony of those visuals, Christian pilgrims being protected by the soldiers of the only Jewish state as they go to worship the person in whose name so many Jews have died seems to escape most people. Adding even more irony to the mix is the fact that at the same time Easter is being celebrated by Christians, Jewish people are celebrating Passover.
Passover, of course, is the celebration of Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and bondage and into the promised land of Israel. That they had to smote a few thousand Canaanites who happened to be living there already seems to have been lost in the shuffle, but the Bible just sort of glosses over that little fact. That annoying little bit of history probably only merits a couple of versus in “Exodus.”
Passover is a holiday that commemorates freedom, the birth of the laws of Judaism (the Ten Commandments) and the trials that had to be overcome to achieve that freedom. The first two nights of the holiday (Jewish holidays start at sundown of the day prior to what would be called the first day) are marked with a serving of a meal, the Seder, in which the stages of the journey are ritually enacted through the foods eaten and the prayers and songs recited.
Now, according to what we are told, it was during Passover that Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. One could say the celebration of these events is the celebration of the birth of Christianity. As the cornerstone of this religion is a belief in these events and they are celebrated every year, it only makes sense that it be considered the beginning of the belief system.
Unfortunately instead of thinking of Passover with respect and fondness, at many periods throughout history, Christians have seized on it to search for excuses to attack or abuse Jews. The whole Christ-killer accusation has been so pervasive that in the 1960’s Lenny Bruce, the American comic and satirist, was still utilizing it for material.
First of all, Lenny confesses that, yes, he and his uncles took Christ down to the basement and worked him over a little too much. Then he tells his audience they should be grateful that they (Jews) killed Christ when they did. How would they have felt if it had happened in recent history and they all had to walk around wearing electric chairs around their necks?
Having not seen Mr. Gibson’s movie, I can’t comment on the anti-Semitic nature, but I’m sure the accusation is based on the fact that Jewish people have a very real reason to be afraid of the Christ-killer accusation. If, in any way, the movie depicted events that could leave that accusation as a conclusion, is it any wonder there would have been an outcry against it?
In the days of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church was lashing out at any “enemy” of Christianity, it was common for the ghettos, where Jews were confined, to be invaded during Passover/Easter. Some bright spin doctor of the day seized upon the story of marking the door jams with the blood of a lamb so the Angel of death would know not to take Jewish first born children during the plagues, and turned it into Matzah (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) being made with the blood of gentile children.
With the Jews mysteriously escaping the worst of the effects of the plague (having personal hygiene as part of your religion staves off a lot of waste-borne diseases) and the unrest of the times due to the reformation, it was easy to take such lies and make Jews scapegoats for the ails of society.
Although this was common practice during the year, Easter and Passover provided a means for whipping up mob violence and making Jewish life even more precarious. During the centuries of the Diaspora and even today for Jews who do not live in Israel, the end of the Seder is marked with the toast of “next year in Jerusalem.” During dark times it was a ray of hope symbolizing freedom and a return to the heart of their religion. As Moses led them out of slavery and into the freedom of Israel, they would hope to return to the city that was their icon of release from persecution.
The treatment of Jews over the years by followers of Christianity has not spoken well for the younger belief system’s tolerance of others. When I hear the bells pealing for Easter mass, I can’t help but think of other springs in different lands where those bells would call the faithful to acts of violence and hatred against people who’s only crime was to worship a different God.
We need far more movies like Life of Brian that laugh at the world, and far fewer movies like The Passion that remind us of the hatreds in the world. It doesn’t matter what its intent was, sometimes simply depicting the events is all it takes to fan the flames of old fears and old hatreds. I don’t see the necessity of that in any circumstances.