Passion, or PTSD?

Edvard Munch - the Scream, 1893 .. "The Christians are coming! The Christians are coming! Run for your lives!"

Though certainly less blunt, a shadow of this age-old cry is nonetheless the embedded message in the latest Scare offered us by our much-loved ADL, the Anti-Defamation League (and other groups with similar mandates).

What they have been warning us about is a resurrection of Old-tyme Christian Jew-hatred inspired by the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ, and its Mediaevalist focus on the suffering of Jesus. Specifically, the ADL fears the intense and powerful effect on the Christian psyche of actually watching their beloved deity kidnapped, beaten, flayed, scourged, beaten, ridiculed, beaten, and finally nailed up, with flesh-hanging- blood- spraying realism -- pretty much the way one might imagine things taking place if the Passion story were true -- only 3 storeys taller and in THX digital sound so you can feel every whallop through your seats.

Now, these fears haven't arisen ex nihilo, out of nothing.

The Passion Play has been a key instigator through centuries of pogroms, inquisitions, expulsions, forced conversions, kristallnachts, cumulatively habituating much of the Christian world towards sociopathic predispositions, laying the groundwork for the "Final Solution" . . . followed by much urgent scurrying-about to evade responsibility.

Partly in an attempt to sweep under the rug the 1933 Nazi-Vatican Concordat, the role of the Catholic Zentrum party in consolidating Hitler's power, and the enthusiastic preaching of Nazi hatemongering by German priests and pastors in German churches -- and partly as a result of some honest soul-searching -- 1965 brought us the Nostra Aetate and things began to change.
Meaning "in our time", this much-welcomed bit from Vatican Council
II tells us: "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. ... Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone." (section 4).
Translation: "Oops, it seems we hadn't been very clear on this point but, well ... killing Jews is bad. We regret any inconvenience this may have caused."

For the most part, the message was heard. Unfortunately, not everyone accepts Nostra Aetate. Indeed, Mel Gibson himself doesn't believe in Vatican II, or indeed any recent Popes or Councils (except, of course, for the ones that selected the 4 Gospel texts in the first place, from dozens of candidates, probably doctrinally tweaking them along the way to justify the deicide charge).

Without explicit encyclicals, declarations, pronouncements and sermons designed to counter "Good News"-based anti-Semitism in every generation, the New Testament cannot help but be read as an anti-Semitic document. It is inherently so. Try as they may, no complaining or jumping up and down by the ADL is going to change that. We can pretend all we like that the Passion's hateful Jewish characters and actions were created for the film, but the unspeakable truth is that the seeds of hate originate from the New Testament itself.

Indeed it's precisely because the film has pulled off the illusion of being faithful to the text and to historical scholarship that so many Christian leaders who have viewed it simply can't see what all the fuss is about. How can anything be wrong with a sincere unDisneyized presentation of the Gospels? (In its manic voracity for evangelical instruments, the Puritan world, originally created largely to escape mediaevalism, is now swallowing it whole and unchewed, oblivious to its rapidly-approaching need for an existential Alka-Selzer -- but, hey, that's their problem, not ours.)

Since 1965, one of the main things standing between interfaith détente and the next synagogue firebombing has been Nostra Aetate -- aside from a prison sentence, that is. And similar pronouncements from the Protestant world haven't hurt either.

Nevertheless, the extreme visual savagery in this film may rattle viewers enough to trample any complex and sophisticated reinterpretations offered by educated moderate preachers. The subtle thoughts of Vatican II are easily lost in the moral outrage against the Christ Killers.

It is certain that Nostra Aetate and its Protestant cousins will still have a voice, via determined advocacy by a sympathetic Christian clergy. But how many preachers have the level of sophistication of the authors of Nostra Aetate and its subsequent commentaries, especially in regions where liberal theologians are in short supply? How many can do little better than compute their way to a confusing utilitarian message like "Maybe the Jews are still guilty, maybe not, but don't hurt them 'cause we don't want to scare them away from accepting Jesus" ? ... And how many will actually make things worse?

Clearly, there are many historical and sociological reasons why the ADL has been tempted to "do something" about the film.

Notwithstanding several much-welcomed appeasements (please see note*), by Gibson, the film's intense imagery can certainly inspire anger against the enemies of the Christian god. For some, that means the Romans and us -- and I haven't seen any Temples of Jupiter around lately to draw the fire. Given this situation, how else might the ADL guard against the film becoming a source of anti-Semitic action, except by raising a stink about it? ("Raising public consciousness", in activist lingo).

And yet, by the very act of complaining about the film publically, the ADL have themselves bridged the gap between anger and action. That is, the complaints by the ADL have created precisely the kind of "controversy" that the press feeds on, massively boosting the media hype for the film, well beyond the attention it would have otherwise had. In fact, we now have the absurd situation in which the deicide charge is continually bandied about on CNN and other "news" channels, with expert "talking heads" having serious discussions about whether Jews today really are Christ-killers !! Moreover, it was the ADL's widely- publicised fears that made the first explicit connection between watching a 2000-year-old injustice and blaming present-day Jews. As a result, those Christians who might not have imagined such a thing on their own, have now been introduced to the notion of adopting a violent response. The ADL actually validates and normalizes this absurd and irrational response by publically presenting it as being, for some, a natural and expected outcome of seeing the film ! To make matters worse, they are fostering another dynamic: they don't seem to understand that the smell of fear is precisely what makes the animal perk up and lick its chops. In the end, the kind of alarmism that the ADL engages in merely emboldens the existing anti-Semites, and offers the borderline cases the cheap entertainment of Jew-baiting. This is the unavoidable result of our broadcasting the message ad nauseum to the gentile world that Jews are targets. Public relations of this kind sometimes even creates new anti-Semites, because many people really believe that "only those with mens rea -- a guilty mind -- would be in fear as often as the Jews are". In fact, we can expect new anti-Semites to emerge when Christians begin to draw the obvious parallel between the Pharisees' interference with Jesus and the ADL's interference with the film about Jesus. While acting in the name of the Jewish People, the ADL is blindly stepping right into the Christological narrative through which the "faithful" understand the world.

Now, it may be alluring to suggest that the ADL should have behaved differently -- maybe it should have been less public in its complaints, and instead reserved its lobbying to closed-door meetings. But the inescapable fact is that the ADL is simply doing what it has always done, and none of their direness should come as a surprise. It is their job to play Chicken Little, and warn us that the Sky is Falling at the earliest possible indication. While the ADL must be credited with identifying many genuine threats, the very nature of their job necessarily creates many "false positives" as well -- false alarms, irrational fear-mongering and speculative portents of doom.

But the ADL is more than just a poorly-programmed car alarm, waking the neighbours every time a stray cat passes by. It is the PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in our collective Jewish consciousness. We learn about the Holocaust and the Nazis from childhood, our schools have class outings to Holocaust museums. The Holocaust is in our cultural literature, our daily newspapers, and our very identities. The current generation's struggle with the effects of Islamic terror has only served to magnify our sensitivities. There's a Nazi, a Shaheed, a Cossack, a Torquemada under every rock, around every corner. As I often joke, "what's the English translation for Allah hu Akhbar?" ... "Duck!"

Being constantly ready to collectively duck has become entrenched in our ethnic identity, our own cultural narrative: "in every generation the goyim plot to kill us". But it's a stupid, self-destructive and insane way to exist. It is time to change this narrative. This is our collective Yetzer Hara, because it continually undermines our attempts to outgrow our tortured history, and face the world from a position of peaceful and centered confidence. It's long past time we became conscious of the fact that we, as Jews, have already learned the lessons of the Shoah. "Never Again" isn't just a promise, it's a reality.

Now, this doesn't mean that humanity has repented & changed, now meriting our collective trust, or that society has somehow become immune to any possible reversion to tyranny. Nor does it mean that paranoiacs don't have enemies. Rather, it means that we, Am Yisroel, have ourselves learned some key lessons:

A. Don't give up your liberty without a fight. Even if tyranny and aspirations for a "final solution" do return one day, nobody's going willingly into the boxcars. This is a fundamental change, not in mankind or in society but in us. This is something we have learned from both the Israeli experience and the American experience. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

B. Liberty is something that requires regular maintenance. Germany was a democracy when Hitler came to power. In fact, his entry into the Chancellorship was the product of a democratic parliamentary coalition. Soon after this, the German people allowed their parliament to slide into powerlessness and irrelevancy as their nation degraded into dictatorship. It is now a lesson of Jewish history that "electoral" democracy alone provides no guarantee of a free society, or even a society that is safe for minorities. The principles of Liberty must be constitutionally-entrenched, and when any power starts chipping away at those entrenchments, it is time to lobby against that power.

If these lessons seem familiar, they should. They are the same lessons learned, and avidly taught, by America's founding fathers. They, and other proponents of the Enlightenment have studied the problem of tyrrany, having suffered under it themselves, and developed successful strategies of preventing it. The American system was constructed with numerous Constitutional "checks and balances" designed to prevent the overgrowth of power by any entity that might undermine the structure of popular power (demos=popular, cratein= power). Many democratic republics that emerged later applied similar safeguards.

Now, you may wonder why I'm spending all this time on the underpinnings of Liberty and Democracy ... after all, Mel Gibson's movie isn't about overthrowing the U.S. government and abrogating its Constitution. The point is that, in the entire history of the Diaspora, Jews have been safest and have flourished the most where there is Liberty and where the political powers have not been oppressive. For this reason, our collective energies and mobilizations are best spent on maintaining the structure of checks and balances already in place. These are our true protections from danger, though they may not be as glamourous as chasing the "monster of the week".

To quote Ralph Nader: Turn onto politics or politics will turn on you.
Similarly, Tom
Paine: Those who expect to reap the blessings of liberty must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

Vigilance is necessary, but alarmism is not. So we ask: at what point does vigilance become fear-mongering? Where is the line?

The line is simply this: Process versus particularities. The ADL and many others would have us (and the gentile enforcement powers who are continually inundated by our phonecalls, emails and letters) jump at every chimera, every phantom, every boogie-man on the horizon, before it has shown its teeth. This is not vigilance. It is fatuous prancing-about, and serves merely to make Jews appear as silly and annoying little creatures. It degrades the spirit, shunts resources away from long-term issues, and displays an ongoing countenance of fear to the gentile world. By contrast, Vigilance focuses on protecting the enshrined Process that makes Liberty possible: the balance of powers, the system of rights and freedoms. Vigilance is not a string of reactive ethnocentric appeals to the gentile world, but a noble and dignified investment in the common welfare and the public good -- including our own.

Disclaimer: The opinions stated herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nishma.

© 2004 NISHMA