It took me a while to realize what they were saying. "You kilt our Lord," the guys looking for a fight would snarl, just before landing a punch on my nose. This was in the New York City of my childhood, where the accents were heavy and the theology more than a bit crude when you wandered into the wrong neighborhood.
When I finally got the drift of what the true-believer hoodlums were saying, I was tempted to utter in plaintive defense, "No, only half of me did it!" -- meaning that my father was born in Germany and raised Protestant. But my father would have taken his belt to me had I employed that cop-out because of his intense shame over the genocide perpetrated by his Christian countrymen against my Jewish mother's people in Eastern Europe.
Unlike Mel Gibson's father, mine never underestimated the horror of the Holocaust. Nor do my Christian relatives in Germany, who have underscored the depth of wartime Germany's depravity by pointing out to me that the local minister had been one of the town's leading Nazi enthusiasts, even wearing his Nazi uniform under his clerical garb.
Old wounds, I know, but I just saw Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and it is a blood libel against the Jewish people that should have every prominent Christian minister and priest speaking out in opposition. All they have to do is look to the pope's apology for the Catholic Church's sins against Jews.
It requires a deeply felt anti-Semitism on Gibson's part to depict the community that nurtured Jesus as nothing more than a venal mob that forced an eminently reasonable and kind Roman overlord to crucify Jesus. Even the beastly lower-level Roman legionnaires who whip Jesus for most of the movie's duration are engaged in this orgy of sadism not to please Caesar but rather to mollify the rabbis.
Of course, the movie should not be censored, nor can it be totally dismissed.
I found it useful to be reminded of the suffering that Christ endured for his convictions, and even the sadomasochistic preoccupation of the film could not obscure the fact that Christ never endorsed vengeance or departed from his message of universal love. Ultimately, however, this is just an exploitation flick that serves up the body of Christ as an object of continuous sick torture while ignoring his life and thoughts.
As soon as I got home from the movie theater, I opened my King James version of the Bible, one that has the statements directly attributable to Jesus conveniently printed in red type. Opening it at random, I read in the Gospel according to St. Matthew a clear reassurance that Gibson has it all wrong: When Christ "opened his mouth," which he rarely does in the movie, he told his disciples all of those things that super-militant Christians who seek to divide us never want to hear: "Blessed are the poor ... Blessed are the meek ... Blessed are the merciful ... Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
That's the Jesus we need in our lives, and I say this as one who self-identifies very much as a Jew. But I am as uncomfortable with the dogmatists of Jewish theology as I am with all others this side of the deism or Unitarianism that commonly marked the philosophies of a number of leading authors of our Constitution.
Religious mythology of all sorts is valuable when it informs and enlightens rather than seeks to displace scientific and other rational thought.
Admittedly, I am not in Gibson's target audience, and I do not begrudge others finding solace and meaning in the scriptures of their choice. What I fear is hatred spawned of religious fundamentalism, the same type that tore apart the world of my childhood and continues to be an enormous producer of pain, warfare and division. Despite our pretensions of modernity and humanitarianism, the world is currently plagued by Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists who seem more passionate about employing their holy books as weapons than as instruments of peace.
Sadly, that is the essence of Gibson's movie. But the good news is that the actual words of Christ that have been passed down to us do not lend themselves to such a mean-spirited enterprise.