Violence, Anti-Jewish Sentiment, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

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The current public discussion regarding Mel Gibson’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ, is interesting in a number of respects, not least among them the focus of the debate on the violence in the film and widespread criticism of the film’s suggestion that Jews were more responsible for the death of Jesus than was Pilate.

As a long time student of the Urantia Papers and one who believes that the Papers offer an illuminating historical record of the life and teachings of Jesus, a useful supplement or alternative to the New Testament Gospels, I recently revisited the Papers (numbers 182 to 187) that deal with the time period covered in The Passion of the Christ.

Of course, in approaching these subjects, it is necessary to bear in mind the entirely appropriate warnings with which the authors of the Urantia Papers saw fit to preface their re-telling of Jesus’s death: “It has become necessary, in this recital of the life of Jesus, to portray the manner in which certain of his fellow Jews rejected him and conspired to bring about his ignominious death; but we would warn all who read this narrative that the presentation of such a historical recital in no way justifies the unjust hatred, nor condones the unfair attitude of mind, which so many professed Christians have maintained toward individual Jews for many centuries. Kingdom believers, those who follow the teachings of Jesus, must cease to mistreat the individual Jew as one who is guilty of the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. The Father and his Creator Son have never ceased to love the Jews” (1909:2 / 175:2.2)

What I found in the course of reviewing these Papers is that according to the authors of the Urantia Papers, Pilate was loath to sentence Jesus to death and repeatedly attempted to find a way to free him, only to discover that the Jewish leaders were adamant in demanding that he, Pilate, condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion.

“After questioning the Master, Pilate went back to the chief priests and the accusers of Jesus and said: ‘I have examined this man, and I find no fault in him. I do not think he is guilty of the charges you have made against him; I think he ought to be set free.’ And when the Jews heard this, they were moved with great anger, so much so that they wildly shouted that Jesus should die; and one of the Sanhedrists boldly stepped up by the side of Pilate, saying: ‘This man stirs up the people, beginning in Galilee and continuing throughout all Judea. He is a mischief-maker and an evildoer. You will long regret it if you let this wicked man go free'” (1991:7 / 185:3.7).

The text of the Urantia Papers makes quite clear who was determined that Jesus of Nazareth should die, how he would die, and why.

“Annas, enriched by the temple revenues, his son-in-law the acting high priest, and with his relations to the Roman authorities, was indeed the most powerful single individual in all Jewry. He was a suave and politic planner and plotter. He desired to direct the matter of disposing of Jesus; he feared to trust such an important undertaking wholly to his brusque and aggressive son-in-law. Annas wanted to make sure that the Master’s trial was kept in the hands of the Sadducees; he feared the possible sympathy of some of the Pharisees, seeing that practically all of those members of the Sanhedrin who had espoused the cause of Jesus were Pharisees” (1978:4 / 184:1.1).

“When Jesus was young, Annas had taken a great interest in him, but now his revenues were threatened by what Jesus had so recently done in driving the money-changers and other commercial traders out of the temple. This act had aroused the enmity of the former high priest far more than had Jesus’ teachings” (1979:1 / 184:1.3).

“It was about half past three o’clock this Friday morning when the chief priest, Caiaphas, called the Sanhedrist court of inquiry to order and asked that Jesus be brought before them for his formal trial. On three previous occasions the Sanhedrin, by a large majority vote, had decreed the death of Jesus, had decided that he was worthy of death on informal charges of lawbreaking, blasphemy, and flouting the traditions of the fathers of Israel” (1982:2 / 184:3.1).

“This was not a regularly called meeting of the Sanhedrin and was not held in the usual place, the chamber of hewn stone in the temple. This was a special trial court of some thirty Sanhedrists and was convened in the palace of the high priest. John Zebedee was present with Jesus throughout this so-called trial” (1982:3 / 184:3.2).

“How these chief priests, scribes, Sadducees, and some of the Pharisees flattered themselves that Jesus, the disturber of their position and the challenger of their authority, was now securely in their hands! And they were resolved that he should never live to escape their vengeful clutches” (1982:4 / 184:3.3).

“Ordinarily, the Jews, when trying a man on a capital charge, proceeded with great caution and provided every safeguard of fairness in the selection of witnesses and the entire conduct of the trial. But on this occasion, Caiaphas was more of a prosecutor than an unbiased judge” (1982:5 / 184:3.4).

A complete reading of the text of the Urantia Papers that deal with these matters leaves no doubt as to who bore responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.

So, while Gibson’s depiction of the final hours of the life of Jesus differs in many details from that presented in the Urantia Papers, it is also true, if one believes the account in the Urantia Papers, that, however he may have arrived at his decision to portray Jewish leaders as bearing a greater responsibility for the death of Jesus than Pilate, Mel Gibson “got it right” in attributing primary responsibility to the Jews.

Many prominent media mavens and the leaders of some Jewish organizations, including Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, have criticized The Passion of the Christ as a terribly violent film. (Since September 1999, the League has labored under a permanent federal injunction designed to inhibit the League’s far-Right neoconservative leaders’ well-documented propensity for using the group, its resources, and its personnel to actively support Israeli intelligence organizations’ illegal espionage operations against state and local government entities and legitimate civil and human rights organizations here in the USA.) Such criticism is, to say the least, curious, and for several reasons. First, any cinematic attempt to realistically portray scourging and crucifixion could hardly be other than violent. But isn’t it odd that Hollywood film critics would find it necessary to criticize Mel Gibson’s film as violent? After all, increasingly gory and gruesomely realistic portrayals of violence, the most horrific kinds of violence imaginable, are standard fare in Hollywood films, and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is, by most accounts, no more violent than hundreds if not thousands of other films.

So violent has mainstream media become in our time that a clear majority of the social science community is on record supporting innumerable studies going back decades that show media violence has a causative role in real-life violence and that suggest media violence is responsible for socially destabilizing types and levels of violence. Shelves of books have been written on the subject of violence in mainstream media. Sisela Bok’s book, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, is but one of many. According to Bok, “There is near-unanimity by now among investigators that exposure to media violence contributes to lowering barriers to aggression among some viewers. . . . Viewers who become accustomed to seeing violence as an acceptable, common, and attractive way of dealing with problems find it easier to identify with aggressors and to suppress any sense of pity or respect for victims of violence. . . . Maturing involves learning to resist the dominion that these effects can gain over us; and to strive, instead, for greater resilience, empathy, self-control, and respect for self and others. . . . Today, the sights and sounds of violence on the screen affect this learning process from infancy on.”

Children suffer most from socially destabilizing media violence. “In the decade following the mid-1980s, the rate of murder committed by teenagers 14 to 17 more than doubled. The rates of injury suffered by small children are skyrocketing, with the number of seriously injured children nearly quadrupling from 1986 to 1993; and a proportion of these injuries are inflicted by children upon one another. Even homicides by children, once next to unknown, have escalated in recent decades,” writes Bok.

Lt. Col. David Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, writing in Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill, report findings that agree with Bok’s. “While U.S. network executives and film producers continued with wide-eyed innocence to plead ignorance of the vast amount of evidence, the rest of the world was penning their indictment for the perpetuation of the new ‘global aggressive culture’ that was being marketed to children. In 1998, the seminal work Children and Media Violence: A Yearbook from the International Clearinghouse on Children and Violence on the Screen, was released by UNESCO. This is a four-hundred page book describing worldwide studies of media violence, including the largest study ever conducted, which surveyed five thousand twelve-year-olds in twenty three countries, and it thoroughly and irrevocably supported what studies for the last four decades have been screaming at the world and the entertainment industry. How much clearer can it possibly get?”

The long string of school shootings here in the USA, such as the horror at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, serve as clear and tragic evidence that violence in media programming is having an increasing and disastrously negative impact on immature, naïve, and vulnerable audiences.

In his book A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age, Barry Sanders points out that the deluge of screen violence flowing out of Hollywood is altering the way young people perceive the world. “Literacy creates a community of individual selves, each directed by conscience, and driven by purpose. Reading and writing force people to imagine the lives of others. Reading and writing demand reflection. Literate people question and question again. They reflect critically.”

Overexposure to media imagery and violence, says Sanders, deprives children of those essential life skills. “Most illiterates know that another, more complicated level of competency exists and feel stigmatized by their inability to master it. But many of today’s youngsters have given up struggling with letters. They have abandoned the book but do not enjoy any of the advantages of pre-literates. They derive no inner strength from orality. History has never before been witness to such a phenomenon: an entire generation dispossessed of language–”both oral and written.” The consequences are, of course, disastrous.

Hollywood executives and those who do their bidding invariably rally to the defense of their supposed right to produce and profit from violent entertainment programming, and they have persistently sought to expand the boundaries of violent programming in any and every possible way that suits them. Let there be no mistake, violence is prevalent in media product because its presence is profitable for those who own media corporations. George Gerbner, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania for thirty years, has scientifically analyzed media violence and its impact upon society. According to Gerbner, violent “action” programming grabs and holds viewers’ attention, speeds up the heart rate, is relatively inexpensive to produce, and needs little translation, because grunts, screams, car chases, gunshots and explosions sound the same in any language. Therefore, violence, which “travels well,” meaning it can be marketed easily, cheaply, and effectively in a wide variety of foreign countries, has become a hugely lucrative and ubiquitous staple in mainstream mass media programming.

Gerbner’s work explores the role of media violence in complex social relationships that teach viewers who can get away with what against whom. “The key question is not what causes most violence and crime, as that goes far beyond media. It is what contribution does constant exposure to particular scenarios of violence and terror make to different groups’ conceptions of their own risks and vulnerabilities,” writes Gerbner.

Internationally acclaimed author, media critic, and former CBS news consultant on Mideast affairs, Jack G. Shaheen, provides in his book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, a comprehensive study of nearly 1,000 movies. Shaheen’s work dissects the film industry’s history of portraying Arab Muslims as villainous subhumans. Using film clips, Shaheen explains how for more than a century Hollywood films have framed ‘reel’ Arabs as the ‘cultural other.’ He explores why such portraits exist, what net effect they have on viewers at home and abroad, and how they impact public opinion and policy. But let’s leave that discussion for another time. Gerbner’s analysis shows that exposure to media violence cultivates an exaggerated sense of insecurity, mistrust, and anxiety. “These are highly exploitable sentiments. They contribute to the irresistibility of punitive and vindictive political slogans ranging from ‘lenient judges’ to capital punishment presumably to enhance security. They lend themselves to the political appeal of ‘wars’ on crime, terrorism, and drugs that heighten repression but fail to address root causes,” writes Gerbner.

And just who are the media moguls who oversee and reap huge profits from the manufacture and distribution of these enormously influential and socially destabilizing media products laden with socially destabilizing violent content? Well, by and large they are Jews, according to J.J. Goldberg, writing in Jewish Power: Inside the Jewish Establishment. “In a few key sectors of the media, notably among Hollywood studio executives, Jews are so numerically dominant that calling these businesses Jewish-controlled is little more than a statistical observation,” writes Goldberg. As the editor of Forward, perhaps the most widely respected Jewish newspaper in the United States, Goldberg would seem to be an accomplished, knowledgeable, and credible authority in such matters.

So, it is indeed curious that so many Hollywood movers and shakers attempted to discourage the making of The Passion of the Christ, and it is equally intriguing that so many media critics and Jewish organizations have come out against the controversial film, which is rapidly becoming a watershed cultural event, many of them smearing Gibson as an anti-Semite or questioning his motives. After all, Hollywood’s vast fortunes are largely built on the relentless creation and wholesale distribution of media violence that negatively impacts billions of people around the world, among them the most vulnerable and naïve groups among us, children and young people, and two minority groups, Arabs and Muslims, with whom some Jews have historical differences that today threaten to explode catastrophically and divide the world into two warring camps.

Clearly, there seems to be a double standard here. Why is Mel Gibson maligned for making a violent movie by those who regularly defend increasing levels of violence in movies, on television, and in computer games, and an industry whose leaders’ bread and butter is violent entertainment product? Is media violence a problem that merits protracted (if not exactly serious) discussion in mainstream media only when Jews believe they may be negatively affected by it? Or could it be that some Jews are implacably determined in their efforts to reserve the massive power of mainstream media for their own economic advantage and for the political advantage of the Zionist cause and the state of Israel, to the extent that it is possible to do so, regardless of the terrible cost to others? Could it be that some powerful and influential Jews in the entertainment industry and beyond don’t much like it when the power of even one major motion picture is focused on the suffering and the passion of Jesus of Nazareth in a manner they fear will not suit their purposes?

If the controversy surrounding The Passion of the Christ were to lead to nothing more than a wide-ranging, meaningful, and productive public discussion about the roles and the effects of media violence in modern society, would we not all be better off for it? And if the controversy somehow causes our Zionist and Christian Zionist brothers and sisters to consider a few of the home truths revealed, for instance, in the pages of the Urantia Papers, again, would we not all be the better for it?

“Emotional maturity is essential to self-control. Only emotional maturity will insure the substitution of international techniques of civilized adjudication for the barbarous arbitrament of war. Wise statesmen will sometime work for the welfare of humanity even while they strive to promote the interest of their national or racial groups. Selfish political sagacity is ultimately suicidal–”destructive of all those enduring qualities which insure planetary group survival” (598:1 / 52:6.6).

The wholesale glorification of violence for personal profit and political advantage, after all, is hardly a noble endeavor. But Mel Gibson’s effort to realistically portray the suffering and the passion of Jesus is truly something else.

“The Jewish law required that, in the matter of passing the death sentence, there should be two sessions of the court. This second session was to be held on the day following the first, and the intervening time was to be spent in fasting and mourning by the members of the court. But these men could not await the next day for the confirmation of their decision that Jesus must die. They waited only one hour. In the meantime Jesus was left in the audience chamber in the custody of the temple guards, who, with the servants of the high priest, amused themselves by heaping every sort of indignity upon the Son of Man. They mocked him, spit upon him, and cruelly buffeted him. They would strike him in the face with a rod and then say, ‘Prophesy to us, you the Deliverer, who it was that struck you.’ And thus they went on for one full hour, reviling and mistreating this unresisting man of Galilee” (1984:2 / 184:4.1).

“Throughout this awful hour Jesus uttered no word. To this gentle and sensitive soul of humankind, joined in personality relationship with the God of all this universe, there was no more bitter portion of his cup of humiliation than this terrible hour at the mercy of these ignorant and cruel guards and servants, who had been stimulated to abuse him by the example of the members of this so-called Sanhedrist court” (1984:4 / 184:4.3).

“The human heart cannot possibly conceive of the shudder of indignation that swept out over a vast universe as the celestial intelligences witnessed this sight of their beloved Sovereign submitting himself to the will of his ignorant and misguided creatures on the sin-darkened sphere of unfortunate Urantia” (1984:5 / 184:4.4).

“What is this trait of the animal in man which leads him to want to insult and physically assault that which he cannot spiritually attain or intellectually achieve? In the half-civilized man there still lurks an evil brutality which seeks to vent itself upon those who are superior in wisdom and spiritual attainment. Witness the evil coarseness and the brutal ferocity of these supposedly civilized men as they derived a certain form of animal pleasure from this physical attack upon the unresisting Son of Man. As these insults, taunts, and blows fell upon Jesus, he was undefending but not defenseless. Jesus was not vanquished, merely uncontending in the material sense” (1984:6 / 184:4.5).

“These are the moments of the Master’s greatest victories in all his long and eventful career as maker, upholder, and savior of a vast and far-flung universe. Having lived to the full a life of revealing God to man, Jesus is now engaged in making a new and unprecedented revelation of man to God. Jesus is now revealing to the worlds the final triumph over all fears of creature personality isolation. The Son of Man has finally achieved the realization of identity as the Son of God. Jesus does not hesitate to assert that he and the Father are one; and on the basis of the fact and truth of that supreme and supernal experience, he admonishes every kingdom believer to become one with him even as he and his Father are one. The living experience in the religion of Jesus thus becomes the sure and certain technique whereby the spiritually isolated and cosmically lonely mortals of earth are enabled to escape personality isolation, with all its consequences of fear and associated feelings of helplessness. In the fraternal realities of the kingdom of heaven the faith sons of God find final deliverance from the isolation of the self, both personal and planetary. The God-knowing believer increasingly experiences the ecstasy and grandeur of spiritual socialization on a universe scale–”citizenship on high in association with the eternal realization of the divine destiny of perfection attainment” (1985:1 / 184:4.6).

This is passion indeed, in a most uplifting sense. And there is nothing in the religion of Jesus as presented in the Urantia Papers to suggest that Jesus would approve of the propensity of some of his professed followers to assume an obligation, or worse a right, to impose their own beliefs on those of other religious traditions or on those who are not religious. Indeed, the authors of the Urantia Papers warn against such efforts, and Jesus is reported to have warned his followers against the unwarranted use of force.

“Always respect the personality of man. Never should a righteous cause be promoted by force; spiritual victories can be won only by spiritual power. This injunction against the employment of material influences refers to psychic force as well as to physical force. Overpowering arguments and mental superiority are not to be employed to coerce men and women into the kingdom. Man’s mind is not to be crushed by the mere weight of logic or overawed by shrewd eloquence. While emotion as a factor in human decisions cannot be wholly eliminated, it should not be directly appealed to in the teachings of those who would advance the cause of the kingdom. Make your appeals directly to the divine spirit that dwells within the minds of men. Do not appeal to fear, pity, or mere sentiment. In appealing to men, be fair; exercise self-control and exhibit due restraint; show proper respect for the personalities of your pupils. Remember that I have said: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any man will open, I will come in'” (1765:4 / 159:3.2).

Nor is there any suggestion that Jesus would smile upon a would-be follower’s assumption that his or her personal relationship with God must necessarily be superior to that of a brother or sister who chances to approach life and God from a different religious tradition.

“The many religions of Urantia are all good to the extent that they bring man to God and bring the realization of the Father to man. It is a fallacy for any group of religionists to conceive of their creed as The Truth; such attitudes bespeak more of theological arrogance than of certainty of faith. There is not a Urantia religion that could not profitably study and assimilate the best of the truths contained in every other faith, for all contain truth. Religionists would do better to borrow the best in their neighbors’ living spiritual faith rather than to denounce the worst in their lingering superstitions and outworn rituals” (1012:4 / 92:7.3).

Has Mel Gibson erred in creating a film in which violence rises to the level of psychic force that some experience as overwhelmingly moving even as others find the same scenes repellent? Perhaps we would do well to pause to reflect upon the implications of the controversy surrounding even an imperfect artistic representation of the events of the final hours in the earthly life of a single and singular religious figure unfairly condemned to torture and death some 2000 years ago and its effects upon modern men and women and our society today. Especially so, if our efforts result in a new respect for the power of religion to inspire, an enhanced recognition of the importance of respecting the other fellow’s religion, and a healthier appreciation of the wisdom enshrined in the classic principle of human relations, “Do by him as you would have him do by you” (1464:4 / 132:5.10).

If it is true that, in the eyes of his accusers, Jesus’s grave mistake was cleansing the temple, an act that threatened the income stream of Jewish leaders and motivated them to condemn him to death, a closer look at his motives may prove useful.

“This cleansing of the temple discloses the Master’s attitude toward commercializing the practices of religion as well as his detestation of all forms of unfairness and profiteering at the expense of the poor and the unlearned. This episode also demonstrates that Jesus did not look with approval upon the refusal to employ force to protect the majority of any given human group against the unfair and enslaving practices of unjust minorities who may be able to entrench themselves behind political, financial, or ecclesiastical power. Shrewd, wicked, and designing men are not to be permitted to organize themselves for the exploitation and oppression of those who, because of their idealism, are not disposed to resort to force for self-protection or for the furtherance of their laudable life projects,” (1891:1 / 173:1.11).

The Jesus of the Urantia Papers appears to have been an astute observer of human behavior and a man of nuanced views. Even though he urged his followers to refrain from the use of force in all their efforts to establish a spiritual kingdom, and though he chose not to physically resist those who were determined to put him to death, as his cleansing of the temple reveals, he also, at least once in his life, engaged in what we today would call “direct action.” Indeed, he seems to have been an outspoken champion of non-violent resistance when confronting the exploiters and oppressors of his day.

“While overmuch self-respect may destroy proper humility and end in pride, conceit, and arrogance, the loss of self-respect often ends in paralysis of the will. It is the purpose of this gospel to restore self-respect to those who have lost it and to restrain it in those who have it. Make not the mistake of only condemning the wrongs in the lives of your pupils; remember also to accord generous recognition for the most praiseworthy things in their lives. Forget not that I will stop at nothing to restore self-respect to those who have lost it, and who really desire to regain it” (1765:5 / 159:3.3).

To those who have surveyed the manifold literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments of the Jewish people over the centuries, to those who deeply admire Jewish intellectual and religious traditions that put moral and ethical concerns at the center of Jewish life, it is abundantly clear that Jews are capable of more and far better than what Hollywood is producing today. Would that more, many more of our Jewish brothers and sisters would exhibit their self-respect by standing tall and speaking out loudly, persistently, and effectively against the torrent of gratuitous violence coming out of Hollywood, the related manipulative excesses of modern mainstream media, and their hideously destructive effects. That would go a long way in the direction of stemming rising levels of anti-Jewish sentiment in the USA and around the world, and it undoubtedly prove conducive to an atmosphere in which it would be possible to discuss our many other pressing problems far more productively. Who knows? It might even enable mankind to avoid a catastrophic breakdown in the progress of human civilization, such as it is.

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