Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Commentary on Rabbi Boteach's review of "The Passion of the Christ" 

One of the things about being out of work is no matter how much job searching you do, you still have a lot of time on your hands.

One of the ways in which I pass the time is to surf the various news sites, and WorldNetDaily has become one of my favorites. I enjoy the columnists there, many of whom write from a Christian or Jewish perspective.

Which is why I read Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s March 5th column, Jesus at Midnight: “The Passion’s” Portrayal of Christianity as a Cult of Death with almost as many tears as I had when I saw The Passion of the Christ at the theatre. He begins his column having come out of the theatre in hiding behind his coat collar, semi-afraid his Orthodox Jewish accoutrements might spark a pogrom in the parking lot. Rabbi Boteach does ask a young woman her thoughts on the film, to which she replies, “It rips you apart inside. It made me think. But you probably wouldn't understand." He admits that perhaps he doesn’t understand the full meaning of the film, because he saw the film as both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian, reducing Christianity in his eyes to the same cult of death as the mystery cults and modern Eastern religions like Hinduism and Shintoism.

I agree with Rabbi Boteach on many social and political issues. I agree with him here as well; he doesn’t understand.

In fairness, he does come from another faith tradition, and one that, to both Christianity’s and Humanity’s shame, has borne the blame for a deicide it is not guilty of, beyond the collective guilt all men share. Jewish community leaders of today are reacting to this film based on historical precedent - the Passion Plays of the Middle Ages did incite anti-Semitic violence.

That was then. The “Passion Play” theology that lead to the violence Jews suffered originates with Martin Luther’s attitude towards the Jews after they rejected his reforms, and thus rejected the Protestant interpretation of Jesus' life. Luther thought that Catholic trappings made Christianity seem too much like idol worship for the Jews to accept. Remove the trappings of Rome and the Jews will recognize their Messiah, or so he thought. When they didn't, he became anti-Jewish in his thinking.

This doctrine is based on two things: one is the paid crowd in Jerusalem (in the employ of an illegitimate High Priest who had the audacity to say he and the mob spoke for “all” Jews) calling Jesus' blood guilt upon their brethren, and two, that call being fulfillment of Moses' prophesy that if the Jews did not follow where God led them He would cause them to be dispersed throughout the whole world. It is outdated theology that is in disrepute in all but the heretical Sects, but even if it were true, God said that the curse Moses spoke of would be lifted in the day that Israel was recreated, when the "dry bones" were resurrected.

It is that message of resurrection that Rabbi Boteach misses in Christianity, and in Mel Gibson’s movie. He writes that there are two ways to view Christianity: as a call to live virtuously with Jesus as the model to emulate (which he calls the “Christianity of life”), and as cheap out to personal responsibility by having “faith” in Jesus to rescue our souls (the “Christianity of death“). The exact place the good Rabbi misses the point is when he writes, “In this insulting film, he (Gibson) virtually ignores the entire life of Jesus, preferring instead to tell us that what made Jesus special was not that he lived righteously and meekly, but that he died bloodily.”

Scourging and crucifixion was not intended as physical punishment by the Romans; it was to humiliate their victim. Honor was the foremost value to someone in the ancient world, like having wealth would be to us today. It was the ultimate dishonor to die in such a way as scourging and crucifixion, having no control over your own body, being spat upon, urinating and defecating on yourself as you lose control of your body functions, and to have others gawk at you as this happens, watching their faces as you beg for mercy and get none...

To an ancient person that was worse than death. Mel Gibson's movie presents a good scenario as to why Jesus' scourging was worse than what would have normally happened. In the film, Jesus stood up after the caning, regaining some of His lost honor, driving His persecutors to even greater heights of barbarity. Scourging with the flagellum, or "cat o'nine tails" was reserved for the worst of the worst, which the NT says Jesus was not - per Pilate‘s admission. His punishment thus did not fit the crime - there was no crime, but to all eyes this “ethical teacher”, - who said He spoke with God’s authority - was dishonored in the worst of all possible ways.

All sin is an insult to the honor and authority of God, and it makes us unclean before Him. In an honor based system, an insult to one’s honor or authority demands the repayment for the insult, called shame. If God holds the ultimate honor and authority, any insult demands the ultimate shame. But how can we pay the ultimate debt? By sinning we have insulted God and befouled ourselves in a way we are incapable rectifying.

By Jewish law a debt could be satisfied by a family member if the offender was unable to satisfy that debt themselves. In this way someone else could help us become clean before the Law of God. The type of debt sin incurred would require someone of sufficient means to pay. God, the Ultimate Good, shamed Himself to pay that debt.

The Resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus. Jesus claimed the authority of God in what He taught. The Sanhedrin rejected His claims, and the Romans couldn’t have cared less what He claimed. The Passion was these two groups way of stripping the honor that Jesus claimed to have from him. The Father restored Jesus’ honor and authority by commuting their collective sentence of death. This includes the authority of His teachings.

And that’s the point. To separate the teachings of Jesus from the Passion and Resurrection is to deny why we should follow them. Without the Passion of Jesus, and the subsequent Resurrection, the “incomparable ethical teachings of Jesus” that Rabbi Boteach admires so much have no more weight than a politician‘s. (Following the good Rabbi’s logic, if we don’t like what we hear from Jesus we can vote ourselves a new morality, which I‘m sure that is not what he meant.) The Passion and Resurrection established by the authority of the Father Himself that the conniving of Caiaphus, the corruption of the mob, the cowardice of Pontius Pilate, and the cruelty of the guards -- sins each man and woman who have ever lived have within them in various degrees -- had no right to condemn Jesus for what He taught. In fact, they, and we, should have been in His place. He was punished with what WE deserve, willingly substituting Himself for us, His children, to make us clean again.

That is why the “life-affirming joy” the Rabbi finds in the evangelical community exists, and why the Passion of the Christ will be used as an evangelism tool. In the scriptures it says we are to be able to defend our faith, give a reason for the joy in our hearts, and spread the good news to the ends of the Earth. Our honor debt is paid in full and we are CONFIRMED clean before God, with the honor mandate to stay clean by following the teachings of Jesus. That is the source of Mel Gibson’s joy, and the evangelicals (like me), Mainline Protestants and Catholics who support this film’s joy as well. And we are only too happy to explain to our friends like Rabbi Boteach why that violent moment in history should be a source of joy for all mankind.

After all, that’s our job. Guess I’m not unemployed after all.

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