This is a very different imitatio dei than the one we learn from Gibson's film. On Gibson's path, we imitate Christ by turning his agonies on those parts of ourselves which we loathe. The whipping of Jesus is the projected penance of the sinner, with a Christ substituting his body for the one that truly deserves to be scourged.
How different is Gibson's psychodrama of self-immolation and rebirth into paradise from the deluded dreams of suicide bombers, who destroy themselves in order to enter paradise? That, too, is a form of Divine sacrifice, is it not? And it is one which is animated by precisely the same non-rational energies that are stirred up by propaganda, be it Al Jazeera's films of gore or Gibson's.
When the passions are stirred up, violence as well as religious fervor can result - from the Passion play pogroms to September 11 to last week on the 14 bus.
Now, I think one of the repeated failings of Jewish leaders is that they see themselves as the center of stories that they are not really the center of. This story is not primarily about us. However, critics are right to point out that it was not inspiration but violence that was provoked, often, by the Passion plays as they were produced over the centuries. Christians watched these violent displays of perfidy on the part of the Jews, and they killed Jews. I think the Jewish critics are right to condemn the film on these grounds, particularly because now, as in the past, the sins of the Jewish priests seem easy to connect with the perceived sins of contemporary Jewry. They were liars then, liars now; cruel then, cruel now; conniving then, conniving now. These statements may seem almost bland if you read them casually on your computer screen. But when they accompany grisly images of Jewish violence, you might be ready to kill too.
The film made me afraid. It was so easy - the elision from Godly charisma to holy wrath. Religion stirs up the emotions, because it involves the whole self - body, heart, mind, and spirit - and excites the self. It lights a fire within us, and that fire can very quickly rage. And when that intense energy is married to myth - in this case, a story of the Jews as eternally other, always blind, always petty, shortsighted, cruel, deceitful, conniving, damned, violent - it has been, is, and will continue to be explosive.
But obviously, we Jews have our myths too, and we use our myths to oppress others, deny their humanity, fence them in behind concrete walls. (If you disagree, notice how strongly you disagree, how quickly you can become angry.) So does that mean that all religious passion is inherently suspect? Some would say so - I remember a lecture by David Hartman, the noted philosopher, in which he essentially argued that only rationalism would save us; passion, such as he found in the Jewish poet Judah Halevi, inexorably leads to violence.
Let's look closer.
Diane Sawyer asked Gibson to explain what he meant when he said that the Holy Ghost helped him write the Passion screenplay. Gibson replied much as a neo-Hasidic pantheist would: "Diane, God ordains everything. God helped me make my bed this morning."
Clearly, Gibson has a mystical, personal relationship with God. He may even be "too" religious - addicted to God much as he was once addicted to alcohol or fame. But this is the critical point: that the personal relationship, the passion is not all he has. Gibson also has a myth - a story, a narrative that ties his personal, mystical enthusiasm to a fixed creed and worldview. And so he has chosen to express his relationship with the Divine by retelling the myth, further choosing to emphasize not Christ's love or teachings, but his death. And then he has chosen to emphasize the violence and gore of that death, rather than the submission which it represented.
Each of these steps is fraught with peril. It is problematic when religious fervor, which is personal, becomes attached to myth, which is often communal. The enthusiasm of personal piety quickly turns into the fascism of public religion, whether practiced by Islamists or fundamentalist Christians or Jews. And it is even more problematic when the aspects of the myth that are accentuated are those with violent themes. Then the fascism of public religion turns into the terrorism of Bin Laden, the genocidal particularism of Kahane, the Crusades, the Inquisition.
Myth is generally seen by contemplatives as a necessarily skillful means to convey incommunicable truth. We tell stories, because that is how we communicate. We embellish the stories with miracles, because that is how many people will be drawn in - hopefully, into a life in which real, natural miracles can be perceived. The problem comes when the myths are reified - when they are turned into the essence of the truth, rather than the vessel which contains it. Myth without enthusiasm leads to a dessicated, dry religion. Enthusiasm without myth leads to a mysticism of the elite. But myth combined with enthusiasm can lead to violence.
Passion and Violence
A Song of Ascents:
The News from San Francisco
Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody
The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz
God Had a Controlling Interest
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From previous issues:
Domestic Violence in the Global Village
Zionism and Colonialism