- 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
- 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
- As my mother once said to me, "Want something? Try
starting with good manners." It's certainly not the way we do things
- 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
- 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.