March 10, 2004
It's not up to the level of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion, reiterates themes of classic religious anti-Semitism. Religious anti-Semitism is an uncomfortable subject. Confronting it reinforces the value of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. It also casts light on the enslavement of bigots to their beliefs.
Mel Gibson's The Passion is getting big box office. Another triumph of controversy as effective marketing and religious bigotry being turned to commercial ends. The debate about whether this movie will fuel anti-Semitism is over. It already has provoked overt anti-Semitism. [update: and it's now come full circle] At the same time, the level of public reaction has created a moral bulwark against the inevitable attempts to utilize the anti-Semitic themes of The Passion to advance other anti-Semitic agendas. The outbursts are happening and public opposition is rising to meet them.
Much of the controversy over The Passion's anti-Semitism is the same old sad story of bigotry exposed and denied. The much-hyped "biblical accuracy" of the movie has already been debunked. The Passion is an intensely sectarian view of Christianity. The movie departs from the biblical accounts in many ways, both in the general outline of the storyline, the emphasis on details and the underlying motivations of the characters. Additional incidents have been added, mostly drawn from the early 19th century visions of the Venerable Anne Emmerich, a stigmatic nun with profoundly anti-Semitic religious views. Some of the non-Biblical Christian themes in The Passion appear in Mel Gibson's earlier movie, Braveheart.
The Passion is not a recruiting device. There is little chance of someone acquiring anti-Semitic beliefs solely because of seeing this movie. Gibson's movie is an amplifier of preexisting beliefs compatible with Gibson's medieval religious viewpoint. As we have already seen in the Denver case, it exacerbates bigotry. In the future, there will be instances of it being harnessed to bolster overt prejudice and scapegoating. The German Catholic Bishops have expressed concern about this very point.
Which brings us to what my favorite nun, Sister Shirley, calls a "teachable moment." Today's lesson is on the attendent loss of freedom that accompanies bigotry.
When I first saw Mel Gibson's Braveheart, I was repelled by the final scenes of William Wallace's execution. There was something unclean and unhealthy in the way Gibson -- as both star and director of the film -- wallowed in brutality. The whole film is your classic martyred savior melodrama. But something more than the Grand Guignol in the final scene bothered me. It wasn't just that the film was too long (a sign of a lack of dramatic focus) and I was bored long before the last reel came around. The problem was Gibson's intentional identification of Wallace and himself with Jesus. The execution of William Wallace in Braveheart is a crucifixion scene with Mel Gibson in the starring role.
According to Gibson, William Wallace is tortured, tied to a cross, has a wound on his chest identical to the lance wound of Jesus, cries "Freedom," and is killed while experiencing a vision. Gibson's climax of Braveheart was the opportunity to reenact the Crucifixion with himself in the starring role.
The commentary soundtrack on the DVD version of Braveheart contains Mel Gibson's narration of the making of the movie. Gibson himself points out many of the places where he deliberately included religious imagery and symbolism to heighten the emotional impact on the audience. Though he only speaks about the male roles in the film as being religiously enhanced, the female roles of Princess Elizabeth and Marran Wallace appear to be modeled on Mary Magdelane and the Venerable Anne Emmerich. This is a very fruitful field for future critical studies. It may be Mel Gibson's fate to escape the Inquisition only to fall into the hands of post-modern deconstructionists.
In the scene of Wallace's execution, Gibson has makeup applied to his right breast to give the appearance of a spear wound to the chest -- just as in the Crucifixion. The symbolism of the chest wound often appears in religious imagery and sometimes is used to enhance the identification of a figure with Jesus. The two illustrations at the bottom of this page show examples of this chest wound as signifier from a 15th century woodcut and from Braveheart.
I had mostly forgotten about it until the flap over The Passion blew up into a storm of publicity. Long story short, Mel Gibson was keenly aware of the anti-Semitic aspects of the film, removed subtitles from one indisputably anti-Semitic scene because of that concern. In interviews, Gibson has said that he removed the entire scene because "they" would come after him -- a paranoid transferrence coupled with an untruth. So Gibson isn't an innocent in this situation; he has repeatedly bullied and threatened his critics, as in his repeated refusal to discuss his father's Holocaust denial and the bizarre threats against Frank Rich. Instead of apologising, Gibson tried to pass the threats off as a joke.
At the center of this storm is Mel's father, Hutton Gibson. Quickly, Hutton Gibson is a leader of a schismatic sect called "Traditional Catholic." He believes all the popes since Pius XII are illegitimate and were forced upon the church by an insidious conspiracy. He's written two books about this, Is the Pope Catholic? and The Enemy is Here. The whole "Traditional Catholic" schism is a complicated affair with factions inside the church, outside the church, some cooperating with others, some entirely off by themselves.
If you're interested, Hutton Gibson's books are available from Jim Martin's delightfully conspiratorialist bookshop, Flatland. (Flatland is a lot of fun, but be sure to wear your tinfoil hat so the space aliens don't zap your brain.)
News reports have conveyed the false impression that Hutton and Mel Gibson are extremely conservative members of the Roman Catholic Church. "Traditional Catholics" like the Gibsons are not Roman Catholics and their rejection of the Papacy is not just some obscure doctrinal difference or faction. They have started their own religion that is entirely separate and distinct from Roman Catholicism and unaffiliated with traditionalist Catholics who still retain some ties to the Vatican. Mel Gibson has repeatedly misrepresented his relationship with the Catholic church in interviews. Only a few reporters have seen through the deception. Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Boston Globe the Malibu church Gibson built "is not a Catholic church or chapel and has no affiliation with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles."
Since some of the "unaffiliated" Traditional Catholics deny the legitimacy and papal authority of Pope John Paul II, the incident of Gibson's publicity flacks faking papal endorsement of The Passion takes on a whole new meaning; dishonestly using Pope John Paul II in order to create publicity for the movie. The Vatican has adopted a policy of not publicising disputes over doctrine, particularly issues as volatile as schismatic new religions like Gibson's version of "Traditional Catholic." And, as is usual with positions of what Jeffery Kaplan calls dynamic silence [read down to the last four paragraphs in the link], refusing to react to provocation leaves an opening for the unscrupulous.
Hutton Gibson is also a Holocaust denier and not at all shy about it. For him, it's a religious thing but that hasn't prevented him from working with and supporting racialist and neo-nazi oriented Holocaust deniers. And Hutton Gibson, like his son Mel, is a religious anti-Semite. An examination of the statements father and son have given in interviews leave no reasonable doubt.
The most striking thing I noticed from the interviews was how Mel Gibson used his idealization of his father to dodge questions. Much of the controversy has centered on Mel's refusal to make any statement regarding his father's active denial of the Holocaust and statements about a world conspiracy.
Fueling suspicions about Gibson's motivations in making the film is his faith in an ultraconservative offshoot [sic] of the Roman Catholic Church. . . . friends say a big concern for Gibson is that he does not want to publicly repudiate his father: "Mel's been put in a horrible position," one friend says. "The last thing he'd do is want to hurt his father. He'd rather go down in flames than break his father's heart." Another person who knows Gibson — and isn't his friend — says, "He's a boy who's trying to please his father." -- LA Times
The problem with the anti-Semitic elements of The Passion is the focus on demonizing Jewish elders -- father figures -- as responsible for the crucifixion. This is one of the consistent themes in anti-Semitic bigotry; using Jews as a "poison container" for the projection of unconscious anxieties about one's own father.
Norman Cohn spells out this psychological aspect of anti-Semitism in the final chapter of his 1967 landmark study of anti-Semitism, Warrant for Genocide:
The Jews in Christendom, then, were ideally situated to receive the Oedipal projections associated with the 'bad' father. This was a terrible fate, for the fantasied 'bad' father is infinitely more hateful than any real father could ever be. This is inevitable, in view of the psychic processes by which this figure is produced. When a small boy both loves and hates his father with such intensity that the conflict becomes intolerable, he may split the father-image into a 'good' father and a 'bad' father. This enables him, by idealizing his real father or some father-surrogate, to acquire a father whom he can love unreservedly. Unfortunately the same process also produces a father-image which is utterly hateful - and this too can be projected on to any suitable father-surrogate that offers. To realize just what this implies one has to remember what infantile hatred is like - that where a small child hates, it wishes to kill, smash, utterly destroy the hated object. At the same time it feels intensely guilty. This feeling of guilt is quickly repressed into the unconscious, but it finds an outlet nevertheless. The hated object itself turns into a monster, demanding retribution, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The figure of the 'bad' father becomes a persecutor, endowed with all the merciless hatred and destructive fury which the child feels, but dare not fully recognize, in himself.
So it comes about that the small boy constructs out of his own destructive impulses and his own sense of guilt a father figure of quite monstrous cruelty and murderousness - a castrating, torturing, cannibalistic, all-powerful being beside whom even the harshest of real parents would appear harmless. The trouble is that the many men who never cease to be small boys in their emotional lives continue to see these monsters around them, incarnated in other human beings. It was the tragedy of the Jews that from the later Middle Ages onwards they tended to be seen in just such a way. In popular art they commonly appeared as extremely old men who are also devils - creatures with enormous growths of hair and beard, but also with horns and tails and with expressions of horrible cruelty.
Viewed in these terms the worst of the traditional anti-semitic accusations take on a new and still more disturbing meaning. One has only to look at any medieval picture illustrating a ritual murder story [see illustration at bottom of page] to recognize the unconscious content of the fantasy. A small boy - it is, significantly, always a boy, never a girl - is surrounded by a group of elderly men with long beards, who are torturing and castrating him and drawing off and collecting his blood….
All this helps to throw a new light on the oldest and deadliest charge of all, the charge of deicide, which was still a subject of such passionate debate at the Vatican Council in 1965. In Freud's eyes the idea of deicide had only one unconscious meaning, and that was parricide; but that is not its only possible meaning. For Christians the crucified Christ has the significance much more of a son than of a father. If, therefore, as is constantly asserted in Christian teaching, the Jews are collectively guilty of the death of Christ, they are not so much parricides as slayers of a son, the suppressors of a new generation, those who destroy fresh life and thwart its promise. And nobody who has ever watched a passion-play can doubt for a moment that that is how medieval people really did interpret the Jewish part in the crucifixion.
Seen in this light, Mel Gibson's intense and tormented self-identification with Jesus, his inability to consider criticism of his father and the inclusion of anti-Semitic themes in The Passion come into focus. If this were only a personal problem for Mel and Hutton Gibson, it would be a private matter. But his public role in producing a highly profitable movie seen by millions -- and already used by not just religious, but racialist and political anti-Semites -- makes it a public matter and deserving of public examination.
The culture wars over "The Passion of the Christ" seem to be taking a toll on Mel Gibson. He might be lolling around one of the most luxurious hotels in Los Angeles, but he has clearly brought his personal bunker with him. In the course of a half-hour conversation, he appears alternately embattled and exhausted, angry and self-pitying. There is a sense that the world is divided into those who are for him and his "Passion," and those who are against. His film is on the verge of release, and even the outraged criticism seems to be buoying it toward a big opening. Yet Gibson is not happy. "I'm subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man," he says. -- LA Times
Bigotry diminishes the freedom to participate in human society. It stunts the bigots as much as it harms the object of their prejudice. Mel Gibson has sacrificed his freedom to live fully in the world of honest human relations. In surrendering his freedom on the altar of an intolerant doctrine, he has constructed a jail inside his own mind. Lashing out at others only exacerbates the interior torments of prejudice and intolerance. Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience also entails the freedom to enslave oneself.
The work of freeing Mel Gibson is work that he must undertake himself.