The Passion: Learning from Interfaith Families

March 2004

I’ve seen it. It was painful to watch, excessively violent, clearly anti-Semitic in my opinion, and religious propaganda that leaves me uncomfortable. But Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a powerful and provocative movie phenomenon that can’t be ignored. The most important point is that it won’t generate much anti-Semitism, at least not if the ways that interfaith families experience and resolve negative religious stereotypes serve as a model for people of good faith.

The movie is anti-Semitic because of the choices Gibson made in telling his story. He could have chosen to portray Pontius Pilate as the bloodthirsty dictator who crucified thousands of Jews. Instead, he portrays Pilate as virtually blameless in deciding to crucify Jesus, especially when Jesus says to Pilate, in effect, that “those who delivered me to you are responsible.” He could have chosen to portray the Jewishness of Jesus’ supporters, both before he was condemned and after, as well as the Temple priests and their followers who were threatened by him. Instead, the Jewish masses are nearly uniformly depicted–with but a handful of exceptions–as clamoring for Jesus’ death and then tormenting him on his way to the crucifixion. When Jesus dies, a “tear” drops from heaven, causing an earthquake that literally splits the foundation of the Temple. That’s an unequivocal message of Christian triumphalism that is out of step with current mainstream views that recognize Judaism as an authentic religious path.

The flashback scenes of Jesus’ life, especially talking with his disciples at the Last Supper, and the brief scene of the Resurrection, are filmed in a powerfully attractive way, bathed in golden light. They reminded me of the equally effective video shown at the end of the tour of the Mormon church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City. Slickly presented video images that make the viewer want to believe a particular theological point of view offend my liberal sensibilities.

I don’t begrudge Mel Gibson’s right to tell the story of Jesus’ death or to make Christian theology attractive. My wife noted something that I would have missed–it makes sense for the movie to focus on Jesus’ suffering in order to emphasize the Christian theological point that Jesus suffered in order to save humanity. But the movie could have depicted the suffering with considerably less violence and still made the point, the same way that it could have depicted the involvement of the Jewish leaders and masses in a more balanced way, and could have depicted Christian theology as attractive without trashing Judaism.

What impact will The Passion have on relationships between Christians and Jews? It is instructive to consider the ways that the tensions and concerns that surround the movie acutely affect Christians and Jews in the most intimate of relationships: the interfaith family. A tremendous increase in marriages between Christians and Jews has accompanied and contributed to declining anti-Semitism in the U.S. since the 1960s. According to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, 47 percent of Jews now marry non-Jews, and 31 percent of all married Jews today are married to non-Jews. There are more than one million interfaith couples in the United States, plus millions more parents, siblings and cousins in their extended families, squarely in the path of the controversy swirling around Gibson’s movie.

Christians and Jews in interfaith families start with the same range of attitudes towards each other’s faith backgrounds as those held by Christians and Jews generally. Many Jewish partners are not familiar with Christian theology, and view Christian history as a progression of anti-Semitic persecution and anticipate that it will recur. Many Christian partners remember anti-Semitic teachings from their churches and clergy.

Growing up, people come to understand the world based on their own experiences and on what they learn from stories told by others. Many Christians have learned and internalized, from stories told by others, including the Gospels, negative images of Jews. When they have actual experience with Jews in personal relationships, their views change. One of our writers, Rosemary Brehm, a Catholic woman married to a Jew and raising Jewish children, recalled in an article the negative stereotypes of Jews she learned in her pre-Vatican II Catholic upbringing as “imprinting a picture of a flawed people–the people who rejected Christ–in my mind.” Although official church doctrine is supposed to have eliminated those negative perspectives, she still encounters them in the high school Catholic religion class she teaches, and worries that The Passion will reinforce them. But most people in interfaith relationships will reject any negative image of Jews that arises from The Passion because of their own experiences.

Intimate family relationships are transforming, because dealing with the real person in the relationship usually demolishes any stereotype brought to the relationship. Brehm, who grew up hearing “that Jews are cheap, outspoken and pushy,” knows that her Jewish husband and his relatives and their children are not. Likewise, despite growing up hearing that “the Jews had Christ killed”–and now re-hearing that message in The Passion–she knows that the Jews in her family are not responsible even if some Jews at the time of Jesus’ death had some involvement.

Many Christian partners report with some chagrin that they grew up unaware of the anti-Semitic nature of comments that they acquiesced or even participated in. Paula Yablonsky, another recent contributor, wrote: I never thought of remarks like “Jew him down” as being anti-Semitic, and I never thought it my job to correct anyone making these remarks–until I became involved with the Jewish man who is now my husband.

Christians have no monopoly on prejudice against the “other.” Christian partners in interfaith relationships too often report off-putting comments about “the goyim” from Jews. But interfaith partners become sensitized to comments and behaviors that make each other feel hurt or excluded, and discover how to be inclusive. As Brehm said, “We are intertwined. What hurts one, hurts all. We are extra aware of and sensitive to factors that most intra-faith families wouldn’t think of.”

Interfaith partners come to realize because of their relationship that prejudice against the “other” is personal to them. As another writer, Jim Keen, said ,

“Yes, I am Protestant. But my family is Jewish, and I now know a little bit about what it’s like to think and feel Jewishly. Before, I never thought much about what it was like to be hated by neo-Nazis. Perhaps that is the real issue. Maybe it had been my problem all along.”

They also realize that they can help to affect positive change because of their relationship, as when Brehm wrote: “I may not be able to change a person’s mind, but I can neutralize her image of Jews and provide a different perspective through educating her about who my family is and who Jews are.”

Thank you for visiting. This site archives my writing prior to November 15, 2018, including content footnoted in Radical Inclusion: Engaging Interfaith Families for a Thriving Jewish Future. To access my newer writing, please visit the Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism.