March 15, 2004

Religious Leader Discusses Passion

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The debate over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film which has elicited both fervent praise and criticism from religious leaders, once again took center stage as Dr. David Elcott, the U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, spoke with Cornell students over a Friday night Shabbat dinner about the movie and issues that have arisen from it.

About 30 students attended the dinner at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, which was hosted by the graduate and professional student group of Hillel. Adam Fox ’03 and Liore Milgrom-Elcott ’03, Elcott’s daughter, also helped to organize the event.

Elcott attended a special preview showing of the movie in January, over a month before its release, at the Willow Creek Church in Illinois. Along with other American religious leaders, he viewed it with the intention of responding to the movie and bringing his reaction back to the community.

Elcott began by addressing anti-Semitism, an issue that turned up frequently in media coverage of the movie’s release.

“Any notion that Pontius Pilate was not in control would be a notion of anti-Semitism,” he said, referring to what some consider to be the film’s lenient depiction of the Roman governor. According to Elcott, the idea that Jewish high priests controlled Pontius Pilate can never be allowed in church, and any mention of a general “the Jews” is forbidden by Catholic policy and must be replaced by “some Jews” or “the Jews of a certain time-period.”

Elcott acknowledged that he was hesitant to call the movie anti-Semitic, both before and after his viewing, especially after many others had, some without having seen it.

“There were things that were concerning, but nothing that grabbed me,” he said. Elcott believes the controversy over the movie hurt the Catholic community more than others. “Instead of debate within the Catholic community, it suddenly became a debate between Mel Gibson and the Jews.”

One of most significant effects of the movie, according to Elcott, was the revelation that different religions in America do not understand each other as well as they believe they do.

“I have no idea what they’re seeing,” he said, referring to the fact that many Jews reacted to the movie with relative indifference, some felt it was anti-Semitic and

many Christians were deeply affected and inspired by the same film.

Neither religion, according to Elcott, really understood the reaction of the other, obstructing much of the dialogue surrounding the movie and often limiting discussion to anti-Semitism.

“Most Jews responding to the movie are not people who have any idea what [Christians] are experiencing,” he said.

Many students reacted strongly to Elcott’s ideas, with both agreement and debate.

“I think that the [student] reaction was really good,” Fox said. “It was a very diplomatic way of presenting the situation. We haven’t been talking about issues of faith, that’s not something that most Jews consider when we’re talking with other Jews.”

Many Jews have expressed concern that those who are not connected with the Catholic or Evangelical churches, both of which publicly condemn anti-Semitism, or those who ignore the message of the churches, will use the movie to further condemn Jews for the murder of Christ.

Elcott believes that the movie has had the opposite effect, and he referred to two recent incidents of anti-Semitism unrelated to the movie that the churches were eager to condemn and resolve.

Elcott spoke about the power and significance of narratives in religious tradition and the way that they can sometimes condemn other groups of people and provoke hate. He cited examples from Jewish texts to help students understand how all religions sometimes contain text that can hurt and offend others.

“Your narrative cannot come at the cost of someone else,” he said.

“He approached the movie in a very different light.” Milgrom-Elcott said. “My major questions were about how the rest of America was going to respond to it. After the lecture, I realized how it pertains to me and how I can take a movie that didn’t affect me personally and use it to question how I can respond to Christian-Jewish relations and myself.”

The biggest problem the movie poses, according to Elcott, is the notion that there is only one truth. He believes that in a country of religious pluralism, intolerance of other ideas can have harmful effects. “Mel Gibson’s claim is one voice, one truth, one way,” he said. “There’s a battle taking place in the Christian world right now. This is not where [Gibson] imagined it would be going.”

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz