The Passion of Denial

Months before Mel Gibson’s picture, "The Passion of the Christ," was even released, the public was counseled by a plethora of spiritual mentors to avoid autonomic assumptions that the Jews were responsible for Christ’s death. Although there is little coherent evidence that has put the issue of culpability to irrefutable rest, there is nothing inductively impossible in the gospels’ telling of the social-political denouement leading to the crucifixion of the Nazarene, Jesus Christ.

Yet, there has arisen a determined and insistent effort to disavow any possible or significant Jewish collaboration in the seizure and execution of one of our own great teachers. This has become an unfortunate, specious defense of the people of Judea, as if they were beyond reproach and somehow immune to the existential fragility of their antecedents. The impassioned, almost obsessive need to reinterpret Jewish participation amidst those epic proceedings in Jerusalem impedes our abilities to interpret human nature with the integrity that our intelligence should command today.

Of course, this apprehension is understandable, given the enormous struggle of the Jewish people to survive wave upon wave of anti-semitism and outright plunder that has burdened our history, particularly in the last century. However, to dismiss this film as patently inaccurate, or dangerous because of these concerns, encumbers the future of Judeo-Christian conciliation as well as the potential unity and breadth of the Hebrew liturgy. To insist that Jews of first century Judea were not engaged, at least in some way, in the crucifixion of Christ, is taking refuge in a moral comfort zone that serves only to punctuate inveterate denial. This in turn perpetuates a divisive dynamic, not only between Jews and Christians, but between Jews and the best of their spiritual legacy: the traditions of empathy, activism and theological polemics.

No one knows exactly what events during those infamous days almost 2000 years ago spawned a mythology enveloping the lives and beliefs of so many people. There is no instant-replay available here. But at the core of our imperfect understanding, we can assume with reasonable certainty that Jesus confronted the Jewish ruling and commercial classes. He also may have brought on the antipathies of the "Zealots," as he did not teach strict adherence to the ‘Law’ while, at the same time, associating with sinners and people outside that Law. Furthermore, some historians have claimed he dangerously supported the movement for Jewish independence from Roman control, thereby evoking a double threat to both the Jews fearing Roman retaliation and to Roman authority itself.

While there is no indisputable proof that the Romans, who were known to crucify dissidents with abandon, didn’t just round him up with the rest of the usual suspects, the Bible is quite consistent in maintaining that other forces and complexities were in play. For political purposes, the gospels may very well have exaggerated the Jews’ guilt and betrayal of Jesus. But it is hard to believe that the travesty did not involve the Jewish high priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and perhaps some of the quotidian population. What is easily inferred from this is that our renegade Rabbi, along with his aphoristic musings on peace, love, forgiveness, and the kingdom of heaven, was very much an agitator, considered blasphemous, and a perceived menace to the power structure of the Roman and Jewish establishments in their various forms. Even the questionable Barrabas story has some plausibility considering the almost unreachable standard of spiritual and social behavior that Jesus may have demanded from his people.

Adherence to simple psychological sense suggests that along with awe and veneration, there may have been resentment, as well, for Jesus’ preachings. His exhortations and orations must have put a great deal of pressure on both the ordinary and well-appointed Jews to change their ways, no small matter for any prophet to sustain without an inevitable backlash. Again, to pretend, under these circumstances, that some of the Jews did not have an interest in his departure from the social-political landscape simply flies in the face of human nature.

Ask yourself, what possible purpose does it serve to support this cloak of innocence, given that the people who felt threatened by his challenge to the status quo were only behaving as human beings behave, even to this day? Although, complicity with the capture, and likely mutilation of one’s own ethnic, corporeal relation is not a laudable evocation of the best in human nature, it was not, and is not, a weakness specific to the people of Judea, or Jews in general. The roots and residue of treachery go far back, and way beyond that of the Jews in Christ’s time. After all, the Bible, particularly the First Testament, is fraught with horrific acts of betrayal, violence and human iniquity.

For Jews to consistently proclaim their impeccability in this matter only sets up a kind of transcendental ethic that we are implicitly ascribing to ourselves. Claiming that any suggestion of responsibility in the matter is intrinsically anti-semitic, or beyond the moral compass of first century Judaism, implies an unreal spirituality. It is a counter-intuitive conceit that ultimately does as much to alienate us from our Christian brethren, and a potential universal sodality, as does any subjective cinematic recreation of the gospels. In the hopes of defusing anti-semitism, this pressing zeal for vindication may, indeed, only exacerbate it.

Some Jewish "revisionists" take this repudiation of responsibility to the point of asserting that neither Christ, nor his crucifixion, has a legitimate basis in reality. Of course this begs the question of the Old Testament as well, and virtually obviates any discussion whatsoever concerning scriptural ethics and their contemporary implications. Regardless of the definitive authenticity of the ‘holy word,’ the drama known as "The Passion" will remain pertinent to understanding ourselves and our social-spiritual parameters.

Moreover, the sooner we come to grips with both our perceived and interpreted past, the easier it will be to make peace with our future. Habitual denial, aided by well-intentioned but spurious arguments advanced by Christian revisionists, only circumvents the ever-haunting ghosts of biblical yore. Perpetuating a supposed scrupulous relation to the notorious episode of that Passover in Jerusalem merely exacerbates accusation and controversy while denying us potential entry to a traversable bridge into the coming era.

Crossing that bridge requires that we finally recognize the inimitable contribution that this Jewish man has made toward sustaining some semblance of humanity and faith in a continuing, very treacherous world. Yes, senseless slaughter has been committed in the codified political entrenchment of Jesus’ name. But without his life, and the mythology it has engendered, a good part of civilization may have pummeled itself into oblivion, far before any of us had the chance to even review it.

Whether or not Jesus was the ‘Son of God,’ the ‘Son of Man’ the ‘Messiah’ incarnate or just a courageous, iconoclastic rebel can be debated indefinitely. But the propensity to dismiss his ministry to humanity, fostered by the practicing Hebrew faith and its community, is a grievous misinterpretation of our own ancient culture and sacramental demeanor. Consider that in the United States alone, 80% of the population shows at least a cognizance and respect for the man’s pivotal place in the pageant of our spiritual infrastructure. The canonical Jewish relegation of this courageous teacher beyond the hinterlands of its liturgy and ritual is an ancestral oxymoron at best, and perhaps a heresy within the wailing walls of our own faith. The mantras of rejection, and deflection of his relevance have isolated the hallowed halls of the temples, and divided the contiguity of Judeo-Christian heritage for far too long. Let’s be clear: Jesus was a Jew...and few better have we seen, or heard from since!

Finally, it might be worthwhile to revisit the plea, "never again," that has resonated throughout the Jewish-humanitarian fellowship for over half a century. It surely would behoove us to extend this invocation to the most ill-famed execution in Western history, a murder of a human being who put his life behind his transcendent vision and faith. Any doubt whatsoever about a cultural collaboration to put one of its best to death for political purposes demands serious scrutiny and collective redress. Although it is comfortable to pretend that we can interpret this tragic cornerstone of Western spirituality strictly as a statement of universal generosity, by way of intentional sacrifice, it is also a visceral testament to human weakness. It is this weakness we must face up to and get beyond, not by denying conscience, but by learning from it.

Marc Twang


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