Mel Gibson is famous for war movies, but "The Passion of the Christ" was supposed to be something completely different. Little did he know that it would launch him into the middle of a battle that has been going on for a long time: the battle for the Holocaust.
A central feature of this battle is definitions. The modern mind has for fifty years considered the Holocaust to mean an unspeakable evil, the murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi death camps. Indeed, Hitler is the historical locus of evil in the modern world.
The traditional Christian view of the Holocaust, a concept that gets precious little notice these days, is much older and more critical to salvation history. Christians, especially Catholics, view Christ’s Passion and death on the Cross as the "perfect Holocaust" — Christ is the unblemished victim acceptable to God who saves sinners from eternal damnation.
The two views appear to be at loggerheads, and are virtually irreconcilable in their present form. Thus, I believe, the battle.
I first tripped over the problem as a member of the Religion Department of Boston University about a dozen years ago. I was the faculty advisor to the student pro-life group. On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the student newspaper published my letter regarding the "holocaust of 30 million unborn children" since 1973. A colleague of Elie Wiesel, who had the office next to mine (but whom I had never met) in the theology building, then wrote a response. The gentleman reprimanded me for using the term "Holocaust" to refer to anything other than the six million Jews who died in Nazi death camps.
The student newspaper then kindly printed my response to the gentleman, in which I pointed out what was obvious to me — that commemorating the murder of thirty million helpless unborn innocents in no way diminishes the suffering or the dignity of six million innocent Jews murdered in Nazi prison camps. All those helpless, innocent murder victims are dear to Our Lord in His infinite love. But it was clear that my neighbor didn’t see it that way.
Neither does Abe Foxman, the head of the ADL — the Anti-Defamation League. After the death of New York Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, Mr. Foxman talked to the New York Observer about his relationship with Cardinal O’Connor over the years: "That was a relationship that took a while,” said Mr. Foxman. “When Cardinal O’Connor first came, he compared abortion to the Holocaust. But, you know, he learned."
I often saw Cardinal O’Connor in action, and I’m not sure he "learned" all that much from Mr. Foxman after all. But, in Mr. Foxman’s view, the Holocaust is apparently both a cherished, proprietary symbol and a theory of history. Both must be tenaciously protected — by Mr. Foxman.
When in 1998 Pope John Paul II canonized Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who died at Auschwitz in 1942, Mr. Foxman complained to the New York Times, "It’s an unnecessary and painful act. It’s another step towards Christianizing or universalizing the Holocaust. By saying everybody was a victim, it’s a way of saying the church had no role or responsibility."
Here two themes are adumbrated: first, the extermination of six million Jews by Hitler in World War II was unique in history and cannot be "universalized." And, second, Christians, and especially the Catholic Church, bear the guilt for that crime, because the Church’s teachings are per se anti-Semitic.
The notion of Catholic guilt for Hitler’s death camps has, of course, prospered for years, not the least in (dare I say it?) anti-Catholic circles. Countless books and articles routinely blame popes, "Christian" Nazis, and the allegedly complicit Catholic Church for the crimes that have no equal. The notion of Christian guilt is so thoroughly bound up in the Foxman version of the Holocaust story that there is no argument.
Indeed, admission is not enough — there is also a requirement for expiation by every Christian for the collective guilt. According to the Jerusalem Post, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says that "a public pronouncement of an acknowledgment of guilt by Christians is important, but it’s equally important to combine such declarations with active work in education to demonstrate feelings of remorse." According to Zuroff, "For them to come to Israel and acknowledge guilt both before and during the Holocaust is important, but even more important is teaching how the doctrine of the church led to terrible antisemitism and paved the way for the Holocaust. We need such acknowledgment accompanied by good works and educational activities in their communities. This is the key — the true test of the validity of such pronouncements is what goes along with it."
Since all Christians are guilty, it appears that all Christians must expiate their collective guilt, to the satisfaction of Dr. Zuroff and the other "we’s" that "need such acknowledgement."
Now imagine, if you can, that the mirror image is the case. Imagine that Dr. Zuroff believes that Christians actually feel about Jews the way Dr. Zuroff feels about Christians. Since Christians believe that Christ’s Passion and death are the perfect Holocaust, Dr. Zuroff would no doubt be convinced that Christians naturally consider him and all Jews as guilty of killing Christ. Further, in the same vein, the Christians, of course, would not forgive the Christ-killers; undoubtedly Christians too would "need acknowledgement" in every generation that the Jews are indeed guilty, and demand expiation as well.
No wonder the two Holocausts collide so fiercely. It is a clash of civilizations.
The opinions of Mr. Foxman and Dr. Zuroff, while strong, do not appear to represent the views of all Jews with regard to Christians. In fact, Anne Applebaum, the recent Pulitzer Prize-winner, has expressed some misgivings about some "American Jewish organisations" and their views of the Holocaust. Applebaum writes that "a growing number of people have been bothered not only by the air of self-righteousness and silence surrounding the memorialisation of the Holocaust, but by the crass commercialisation too." [Applebaum's article, entitled "The Battle for the Holocaust Legacy," appeared in 2000.]
Columnist John Leo has also recently noted the "mission creep" of the ADL: "The Anti-Defamation League is dedicated to opposing hatred, particularly hatred of Jews. Its recent activities include support for abortion and gay rights, backing the effort to remove Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from the bench in the Ten Commandments case, and opposing school vouchers in Washington, D.C." Not surprisingly, the ADL’s political agenda virtually denies everything that the Catholic Church stands for. Could this help to explain their opposition to "The Passion of the Christ"?
Perhaps my neighbor at Boston University embraced the ADL agenda. If so, no wonder he was so upset that I used the language of the Holocaust to represent the murder of the unborn.
Mr. Foxman apparently considered "The Passion of the Christ" as mere cover, a vehicle for Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism. Adopting the same approach, could Christians possibly believe that the modern Holocaust is a cynical front for an anti-Christian political agenda?
Politics aside, the modern view of the Holocaust, while not specifically religious, is for many a religion in itself, one that reflects the modern mind by pinpointing the essence of evil in Hitler as a sort of "summum malum (supreme evil)." The identity of the Supreme Good is not quite so clear — but it goes without saying that for decades, Hitler is the one figure that the entire world can invoke without challenge to denote evil. In Senate debates about the Iraq war, for instance, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma called Saddam Hussein "the worst tyrant since Hitler," evidently considering later figures like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceaucescou, and Kim Jong Il to be less effective, if not less qualified, as yardsticks of evil.
The modern view of the Holocaust is widespread — in fact, it is one of the most universally recognized symbols in our culture. The Christian view of the Holocaust, however, is barely known, even though it has been fundamental to the last two thousand years of western civilization.
From antiquity to modern times, the term “holocaust” has meant a sacrificial offering inseparable from the expression of a profound reverence for God. This is how the Catholic Encyclopedia explains it:
“As suggested by its Greek origin (holos “whole”, and kaustos “burnt”) the word designates an offering entirely consumed by fire, in use among the Jews and some pagan nations of antiquity. As employed in the Vulgate, it corresponds to two Hebrew terms: (1) to holah, literally: “that which goes up,” either to the altar to be sacrificed, or to heaven in the sacrificial flame; (2) Kalil, literally: “entire,” “perfect,” which, as a sacrificial term, is usually a descriptive synonym of holah, and denotes an offering consumed wholly on the altar. At whatever time and by whomsoever offered, holocausts were naturally regarded as the highest, because the most complete, outward expression of man’s reverence to God.”
The Christian view of Christ as the perfect holocaust is described by St. Francis de Sales, a seventeenth-century French bishop and Doctor of the Church. Speaking of Mary at the foot of the cross, he says:
"The sorrow of the Son at that time was a piercing sword, which passes through the heart of the Mother, because that Mother’s heart was glued, joined, and united to her Son, with so perfect a union that nothing could wound the one without inflicting a lively torture upon the other. Now this maternal bosom, being thus wounded with love, not only did not seek a cure for its wound, but loves her wound more than all cure, dearly keeping the shafts of sorrow she had received, on account of the love which had shot them into her heart, and continually desiring to die of them, since her Son died of them, who as say all the Holy Scriptures, and all Doctors, died amidst the flames of his charity, a perfect holocaust for all the sins of the world."
Like the image of Christ as the perfect, loving, innocent victim, this view of Mary’s intimate role in the suffering of her Divine Son is perfectly harmonious with Gibson’s portrayal of the Passion, where Mary flinches with every blow that strikes her Divine Son. But it flies in the face of those who mounted the attacks on Gibson and his movie.
This Christian view of the Holocaust brings to mind a few explanatory observations:
One regards the question, "Who killed Christ?" Scripture makes it clear:
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” (John 10:17—18)
No one "killed" Christ — not the Jews, not the Romans, not Pontius Pilate, not even Judas. Christ laid down His life for us, in freedom, out of perfect love for us. And He is the perfect Holocaust, perfectly acceptable to the Father in atonement for the sins of all mankind, if only we embrace the means of salvation He gave us. The implication of Mr. Foxman, Dr. Zuroff, and others — whatever their motives — that Christianity is per se anti-Semitic — is plainly wrong. Not just because of the "Jews killed Christ" canard, but also because of an abyss of difference on the nature of forgiveness.
Gibson underscores repeatedly Christ’s forgiveness of His persecutors — all of them — during the Passion. He includes a flashback to Christ’s preaching the New Commandment — which was certainly not part of the Old Law — that we must love one another, including our enemies, not just our friends.
In this light, consider the modern view of the Holocaust. Dr. Zuroff, for instance, insists that Christians share a guilt that is somehow inherent, sort of an original sin shared by all Christians but only Christians. Thus they must constantly expiate that guilt, and can be judged (by whom is not clear) as to the genuine character of their expiation.
Elie Wiesel, my former Boston neighbor, made it more explicit in a prayer he offered at a memorial service held at Auschwitz in 1995: "God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed Jewish children here.”
A leading Jewish figure, a Holocaust survivor, begs God not to forgive the Nazis. Could it possibly be that some contemporary Jews might fear that Christians cannot forgive the perpetrators of their Holocaust?
It appears that some Jews believe that contemporary Christians consider them to be "Christ-killers." If those same Jews cannot forgive the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust of World War Two, wouldn’t it be logical for them to think that Christians can’t forgive them, either, for "killing Christ"?
Of course, this view is flawed. It flies in the face of Christian theology. Christ is the personification of infinite mercy and He calls on us to forgive others as we would have them forgive us. But let’s face it — wouldn’t Jewish believers consider Christian theology to be fundamentally flawed anyway — even a lie, a blasphemy — because it is based on the belief that Christ is the Messiah — their Messiah too, the cornerstone that they have rejected?
So, wouldn’t they wonder, if they can’t forgive the Christians — all of whom are guilty of the Holocaust, according to Dr. Zuroff — then how can Jews expect Christians to be forgiving when they go see Mel Gibson’s Christ crucified in such a horrible, thoroughly believable way?
No wonder so many virulently attack Gibson and his movie. They must think that Christians are saying the same thing about them that Elie Wiesel said about us — "Do not forgive them, Lord!" If Wiesel’s God will not forgive the Germans for killing the Jews, how could he possibly believe that God would ever forgive the Jews for crucifying His only Son?
One begins to see the difficulty.
With an understanding of the modern view and the Christian view of the Passion and the Holocaust, many other pieces fall into place.
Remember how everybody attacked Gibson’s father as a "Holocaust denier"? They were virulent, ad hominem, and going for the jugular. Why?
Because every Jew who does not proclaim Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior is denying the Christian view of the Holocaust — in other words, Jews might fear that Christians view them with the same virulent scorn that many Jews heap on "Holocaust Deniers" like Gibson’s father.
Hence, when Gibson, the son of a modern Holocaust denier, makes a film about the perfect Holocaust of Christ’s Passion and death, contemporary observers — and not only Jews — might be tempted to consider "The Passion of the Christ" a blasphemous affront to the modern Holocaust and an insult to the suffering and death of six million Jews under Hitler.
If Jews think we Christians hate them for not loving Jesus, no wonder they’re upset! That would mean that we want to punish them as the perpetrators of the perfect Holocaust — Christ’s Passion and death on the cross.
Charles Krauthammer, for one, is livid, raging that Gibson’s movie is a "blood libel" on Jews. Krauthammer attacks Gibson, Christians, and Christianity with seething contempt. In that, he mirrors hundreds of other critics. But in one respect, Krauthammer lodges a unique complaint:
"Gibson’s personal interpretation is spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus’s scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson’s movie this becomes 10 minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why 10? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10."
Dr. Krauthammer might not know it, but there is a very contemporary reason for Gibson’s emphasis on the scourging. Saint Faustina, a twentieth-century Polish nun and visionary who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, gives this account:
"I saw the Lord Jesus tied to a pillar, stripped of His clothes, and the scourging began immediately. I saw four men who took turns at striking the Lord with scourges…. And Jesus gave me to know for what sins He subjected Himself to the scourging: these are sins of impurity. Oh, how dreadful was Jesus’ moral suffering during the scourging! Then Jesus said to me, Look and see the human race in its present condition. In an instant, I saw horrible things: the executioners left Jesus, and other people started scourging Him; they seized the scourges and struck the Lord mercilessly. These were priests, religious men and women, and high dignitaries of the Church, which surprised me greatly. There were lay people of all ages and walks of life. All vented their malice on the innocent Jesus."
There is Dr. Krauthammer’s answer: ours is an age suffused in prurience and sins of the flesh — Sins committed by Catholics, even clergymen. If only Mr. Krauthammer had known, he would not have vented his spleen at Gibson for depicting such torture, but at sinners and at our sinful, self-indulgent age. Our sins are the reason Christ laid down his life after such suffering. If anyone killed Christ, we did.
We can hardly expect someone who advocates homosexuality and abortion to celebrate a movie that (through the eyes of Saint Faustina) views them as profoundly sinful — — so evil that Christ had to suffer the endless scourging that tore His flesh apart because of our sins of the flesh, in the scene that so enraged Dr. Krauthammer.
However, that concept is probably impossible to grasp, if one believes in neither Christ nor sin. So the battle over the Holocausts will go on.
Mel might not have planned it that way, but his film gives eloquent public voice to the Christian view, one that is simple, eloquent, and beautiful, even though many in our age do find it offensive: Christ crucified is the personification of infinite truth, love, and forgiveness. Sinful man, God’s infinite love, and Christian forgiveness — that’s what Good Friday and the Passion are all about.