As days of the Passion Week go by one by one, the account of this nadir and zenith in human history as told in the four gospels reads like a slow-motion depiction of a catastrophe from which we cannot look away. One response to this grim, but ultimately supernal, series of events is the natural human tendency, even among Christians, to place oneself in the story, almost always, surely, alongside those who were closest to Jesus.
Two of the 12 disciples, those whose feet were literally washed with the hands that would soon be nailed to the cross, have been singled out by the gospel writers as colossal failures. Cowardly denial and outright betrayal are recounted in heart-breaking detail, and, even accepting the soundness of prophecy, it is too easy to wonder, How could this have happened?
Through the centuries since, even for those who celebrate the ultimate victory in the cosmic sense of what happened during the original Passion Week, there has often been a question of who, humanly speaking, was responsible for the death of the Christ. And too often the blame for this horrific event has been charged to the Jews. In the two millennia since, it has also led to anti-Semitism, a seemingly universal bigotry aimed at the descendants of the biblical Shem.
In its never-ending search for stories to be presented on the so-called “big screen,” Hollywood has turned occasionally to religious themes. In 2004 actor Mel Gibson produced and directed The Passion of the Christ, a riveting two-hour depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. Rated “R,” for “sequences of graphic violence,” the story begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is tempted by a chilling Satan figure, then betrayed by the very human Judas.
From there, viewers are conducted through what today is called “Good Friday,” being the trial, torture, and climactic death of the Christ, followed by the exhilarating resurrection upon which Christians for 2,000 years since have placed all their hope.
In years previous to The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood had, of course, sought to tell the story of Jesus—in idealized narrative (1977); in rock opera (1973); and even in parody (1979). But never before had it been presented in such grim and grisly depiction, so closely faithful to the account in the four gospels.
Though no direct condemnation of the Jews as a people is clearly discernable in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the issue of anti-Semitism arose in the life of Gibson himself when he expressed it with vehemence during a DUI arrest a couple years after the release of the film.
Even—or most especially—this prejudice against the Jewish people has been based on that of those who call themselves Christians. Though there has been considerable debate over the character of his bigotry, even the great Reformer Martin Luther wrote un-Christianly of the Jews as the crucifiers of Christ. In nothing less than what today would probably be branded as “hate speech,” Luther’s works—sermons and other writings—reflect zero tolerance for any Jew unwilling to convert fully to Christianity.
It may be observed that this criterion for the acceptance of those who are Jews suggests a religious—rather than an ethnic—reason for their exclusion, but the bigotry is expressed in much the same way. And it has surely led to much of the anti-Semitism that spread throughout Europe and persists to this day in Western culture.
In fact, it may be further pointed out that religious prejudice is no more acceptable than is political or ethnic intolerance. Whatever is at the root of one’s bigotry, it is undemocratic and un-Christian. The American Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men [historical-grammatical diction aside] are created equal.”
And after some inspired enlightenment directly from God, the apostle Peter came to the conclusion that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34), adding that “in every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right” (verse 35, NLT[*]). And further, to anticipate the possibility that this declaration of Peter’s may have been misinterpreted to mean the inclusion only of Jews “in every nation,” moments later the author of the book of Acts notes, “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (verse 45). Later still, Peter reaffirmed that God is “not wanting anyone to perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
To return, then, to the events of the Passion Week, it is completely unacceptable to apply the effects of anti-Semitism so that it lays the charge of the crucifixion of the Son of God solely at the feet of the Jews, as if there were not enough responsibility among any of the other of humankind. As to the actual act of the brutal torture and execution itself—the taking of the life of Jesus Christ—it was the Gentiles’ doing. Notwithstanding the Jewish leaders’ demand for His death out of sheer hatred, it was Gentile leaders who executed this demand out of complete cowardice or appalling indifference. Surely no one under the sun is wholly free of some responsibility for the death of Jesus Christ. And this, more than any other fact, illuminates the utter, astonishing grace of His act to provide a salvation available to the entire, undeserving human race.
Gary B. Swanson is editor of Perspective Digest.
[*] Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.