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WCC: What does the Passion say to us?

( [email protected] ) Mar 05, 2004 01:34 PM EST

Few people so far have seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, but passions over how it depicts Jews at Christ's crucifixion have been at the centre of discussion for quite some time. For some, it is the greatest opportunity for evangelism of the century; for others, a potential setback to 40 years of work towards improving Christian-Jewish relations.

Many wonder how the movie will treat a biblical verse such as Matthew 27:24-25: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, … he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'"

The latest news is that Gibson, in response to criticism, decided not to use the last part of this Bible verse in the scene while other sources say he simply dropped the English subtitle (actors speak Aramaic in the movie). Whether the verse is actually in the movie or not, is maybe less important. What matters is how we understand the role of Jesus and the Jews.

In the history of Christian anti-Semitism, this verse has served all those who wanted to make all Jews at all times responsible for the death of Jesus. How do we deal with biblical verses that are stained with blood or have a history of being used to sow hate, contempt or domination? Can they be cleansed?

In the wake of the Holocaust, all major Christian denominations rejected the claim of deicide – the act of killing God through the death of Jesus Christ. In 1948 the first assembly of the World Council of Churches issued a statement calling upon its member churches to denounce anti-Semitism as “a sin against God and man” and as “absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith”.

Thus, anti-Semitism is, strangely enough, not a Jewish problem but a problem that needs to be addressed by all Christians. Anti-Semitism is more than political, social, and economic agitation and activities directed against Jewish people. Taste the difference in your mouth when saying, "He is a real Christian" and compare it when saying, "He is a real Jew". The difference in taste is due to anti-Semitism.

Similarly, beware when you hear Christians say, "But what is said negatively about the Jews in the New Testament is not about the Jews, it’s about human beings, we are all like the Jews!" Isn’t it anti-Semitic to reduce “being a Jew” to a negative example, which teaches Christians how not to behave?

The Passion of the Christ could perhaps be linked to the saying "It’s not what you say that matters, but what you are heard saying". It is what we do once we have seen the movie, that matters, the conclusions we draw from it, the teachings we make of it, how it fits in building relations between Jews and Christians.

Dr Hans Ucko is responsible for Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue at the World Council of Churches .