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Defusing The Fury Over
Gibson's 'Passion'

By Leo Linbeck III
8-19-03


A lot of people are talking about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion, but few have seen it. I am fortunate to be one of those who has viewed it. I was the organizer and host of the Houston screening, and with the permission of Icon Productions, Gibson's production company, I have some thoughts to share.
 
At our screening, we had approximately 100 guests. It was, by design, a very diverse group, as befits the Houston tradition of openness, dialogue and mutual respect. Our audience included significant representation from the Jewish community, including officials of the Anti-Defamation League. In fact, the Houston screening was the first time ADL officials attended a screening.
 
As Gibson said at the screening, the movie is a work in progress. Nevertheless, the basic story line is in place. (If you don't want me to ruin the surprise, skip the next sentence.) Jesus was arrested, tortured, condemned to die, crucified, died and rose from the dead. Big shocker, eh? It's kind of like the movie Titanic a few years ago -- everyone knows what will happen before the movie begins.
 
But The Passion, even in its raw state, is a stunningly violent and visually beautiful film. At the end of the film, most people were in a state of numbed shock. It is definitely the most powerful film I have ever seen.
 
The screening was a study in confirmation bias.
 
What is confirmation bias? It is a common psychological phenomenon that causes us to pay attention to data that confirm our preconceived notions, and ignore data that contradict those notions. In other words, we see what we want to see.
 
In the movie Twelve Angry Men, 11 of the 12 jurors began deliberations convinced that the defendant was guilty. Lee J. Cobb's character was the most convinced. He was sure even before the trial began, and he recalled evidence selectively to reinforce this belief: confirmation bias.
 
The best way to control confirmation bias is to talk with people who disagree with you. Like Henry Fonda's character in Twelve Angry Men. That's why we included a diverse group at the Houston screening.
 
Still, those who came with concerns about the film found evidence that confirmed their concerns. Those who came enthusiastic about the film found evidence that confirmed their enthusiasm. In short, the confirmation bias at work. Unfortunately, the resulting emotions undermined the dialogue that followed. But I'm hopeful that as those emotions fade, the dialogue will resume, and we will eventually get to the truth. Just like in Twelve Angry Men.
 
Another psychological phenomenon occurred at the screening, one I call the Annie Hall effect.
 
There's a split-screen scene in Annie Hall where Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are each meeting with their analyst. Both analysts ask their patients the same thing: How often do you have sex? Alvy responds: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week. Annie responds: Constantly. I'd say three times a week.
 
So it was with the biggest hot-button issue in The Passion: the complicity of Jews in Jesus' death. The ADL, on its website, has condemned The Passion for blatant anti-Jewish prejudice, including Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus. But for Christians, The Passion is true to the Bible in showing that some Jews were complicit in Jesus' death.
 
So, in this case, there is agreement on the facts. The Passion presents some Jews of the time as complicit in Jesus' death. But for one group, that means the film is anti-Jewish. For the other group, it means the film is historically accurate and consistent with the Bible. Does that mean the Bible is anti-Semitic? Can this conflict be resolved? Can I even ask this question without getting in big trouble?
 
No, it doesn't, yes it can, and I hope so. The root issue here is the question of collective guilt. It is a crucial question for all of us: Are we only guilty individually, or can we be guilty as part of a group? Are all Jews guilty of killing Jesus? Are all whites guilty of enslaving blacks? Are all Germans guilty of the Holocaust? Are all Japanese guilty of bombing Pearl Harbor? Are all Muslims guilty for 9/11? The answer, of course, is no.
 
Rejecting the notion of collective guilt defuses the Jewish complicity issue. Even if there was Jewish complicity in Jesus' death, we can all agree that actions of a few Jews 2,000 years ago do not confer guilt on all Jews back then, or any Jews today.
 
Unfortunately, the promotion of collective guilt (and its evil twin, collective victimhood) is a cottage industry. There are advocacy groups dedicated to making us feel guilty (or victimized) by virtue of some characteristic we (or they) possess, be it race, religion, gender or something else. Collective guilt is a profit center.
 
Nevertheless, we must reject collective guilt. We must reject it in our words, and we must reject it in our actions. Sure, we all make bad choices, we all sin. But my sins belong to me, and me alone; they are not visited on my son, friends or anyone else. In a very real sense, that is the fundamental point of The Passion: Jesus died for all our sins, so we wouldn't have to die for each others'.
 
One concern voiced by some audience members was whether The Passion would increase violence against Jews. They cited a number of reasons for this fear, such as rising violence against Jews worldwide, and historical links between mass violence and passion plays.
 
In his response to these concerns during the question and answer session, Mel Gibson strongly condemned anti-Semitic violence, as did the others in attendance. He clearly stated that his intention is not to incite violence or give succor to anti-Semites, but to tell a story of love, hope, faith and forgiveness -- the story of Jesus' ultimate sacrifice.
 
But, as one participant put it: "No one is worried about the people here in this room. The problem is the nut cases outside who are looking for a reason to attack Jews. These nut cases are people who would see the film and come to the conclusion that Jews today are responsible for Jesus' death, and then seek out and attack Jews."
 
At the risk of sounding insensitive or anti-Semitic, this logic seems like a stretch to me. First, The Passion makes you disgusted and exhausted with violence; it doesn't incite it. Second, if some wacko wants a pretext to attack Jews, there are better ones already available in the Bible, ((Matthew 27:25: "All the people said, May his death be on us and on our children.") not in the movie.
 
Finally, The Passion is a violent film rendered in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles but no car chases or sex scenes. Not exactly standard bigot fare.
 
It could be that part of the solution to anti-Semitism is Christianity. It is a radical notion, and maybe I am wrong. But it is certainly worth talking about.
 
Given all the controversy of late, I feel compelled to make a couple of comments about the behavior of the Anti-Defamation League.
 
Unfortunately, Rabbi Eugene Korn, an officer of the ADL who attended the screening, has violated the confidentiality statement he signed as a requirement to see The Passion. He has made extensive comments to the press, attacking both the film and Gibson's sincerity. And he wants constructive dialogue?
 
As my mother once said to me, "Want something? Try starting with good manners." It's certainly not the way we do things in Houston.
 
But leaving Rabbi Korn aside, the reaction of the ADL to The Passion makes little strategic sense to me. What are they thinking?
 
First, consider the following two points:
 
·The Passion will be released. (Is the ADL really going to change its core principles and start advocating censorship?)
 
· The Passion will be very strongly embraced by Christians, particularly evangelicals. (Is this a surprise?)
 
If these two statements are true, the tactics employed by the ADL violating confidentiality, launching ad hominem attacks on Mel Gibson, pressuring him to self-censor his movie, etc., could backfire and drive a wedge between Jews and evangelical Christians. That can't be a good idea.
 
Second, these tactics are also more likely to increase ticket sales when the film is released. If you think the film inspires hatred, why give it so much free publicity? Don't you know that, in Hollywood, there is no such thing as bad publicity?
 
Finally, these tactics are more likely to incite the nut cases. This is already happening. After publicly criticizing the movie, the ADL has announced an increase in their hate mail. They appear to blame this on The Passion. But these nut cases haven't seen the movie; how can their idiotic writing campaign be caused by the movie? Obviously, it is not. The hate mail is a bigoted reaction to the ADL's reaction. Regrettable? Yes. Mel Gibson's fault? Gimme a break.
 
Regardless of all the hoopla, we in Houston will continue to live together as we always have, with openness and cooperation. We will continue our community conversation, sharing our hopes and fears, working to fulfill the first and alleviate the second. The screening of The Passion reinforced my confidence that our remarkable city can carry on that conversation in a calm and rational manner.
 
I can hardly wait until the movie comes out.
 
Linbeck, a native Houstonian, is president and chief executive officer of Linbeck Corp., a national construction firm.
 
http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/printstory.hts/editorial/outlook/2050976

 

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