George Beres: This Easter We Ought to Remember the Power of Words to Prejudice Jews

Roundup: Media's Take

George Beres is an Oregon writer with religious roots in the Greek Orthodox Church. He has been a member of the Oregon Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East.

Observance of Easter Passion church services daily this week reminds me of the haunting seasonal music of the Greek Orthodox Church into which I was baptized. But a chance encounter a decade ago with the man responsible for translations in the Greek church reminded me that lyrics for some of the week's music are haunting in another way: the tragic prejudices they foster toward Jews. The attitudes are rooted in centuries of repetition in some scripture of the Christian church.

A priest of high rank in the Greek Archdiocese, Rev. Leonidas Contos, shared his concerns with me during the period when he was chief translator of text for the archdiocese, responsible for making clear and accurate translations from the original Greek into English. His main concern was revising translations of Holy Week services about the crucifixion. "In their existing form," he said, "they do something very unChristian. Some portions have for many generations demonized Jews as supposed killers of Jesus, leading to hatred of Jews among impressionable Christians."

That reminded me that many Christians don't seem to understand the cloud of prejudice they impose on neighbors who happen to be Jewish. Reading a published account of a Jewish friend's lifelong encounter with prejudice created some awareness. But a recent public discussion of the Mel Gibson film, "The Passion of Christ," convinces me we still don't get it. It reviewed the controversial new film and its interpretation of the death of Jesus, relevant because of debate that swirls over whether or not the effect of the movie brings to the surface latent anti-Judaism among some viewers.

Of five panelists, two--a minister of the First Christian Church and a Jewish university professor-- directly addressed the issue of the film building bigotry. They said they believe it does. There was uncertainty in the views of three others: a Roman Catholic priest; a Baptist minister, and the head of the Islamic Cultural Center.

The Baptist minister said he does not think the film "in any way is anti-Judaic." For me, he cast doubt on his credibility about the film when he said: "In all my years in the ministry, I've not been aware of anyone with anti-Jewish feeling."

The others skirted the edges of the question without addressing it. The priest said the film has caused him to "look at the crucifixion in an entirely different way," and removed from him "some of the complacency I had developed about the crucifixion." The Muslim said Islamic teaching accepts Christ, and rejects the idea he was crucified, but "We believe he was the Messiah of the Jews." From the audience, a Greek Orthodox priest pointed out that "Christians, like Jews, were killed because of Christ in the early centuries."

Evasiveness of three of the panelists and the cleric in the audience left unaddressed the fundamental question: Does the movie feed prejudice toward Jews?

The Christian Church minister placed the issue squarely on the table at the outset when he said: "The Holocaust of World War II could not have happened" had it not been for the way the church through the centuries has taught the passion story and the role in it of the Jewish people. He said impact of the movie, "while probably not intended, encourages anti-Judaism."

The professor was explicit: "This film is sado-masochistic. It is a reflection of the bloody, pre-Vatican II passion play. Its violence is pornographic. If one says this is based on the Gospel, then there has to be something wrong with the Gospel. The movie reverses 40 years of progress since Vatican II."

Personal experience plays a role for my Jewish writer friend, as it does for the professor. One wrote of a childhood memory, when a playmate told him, "You'll go to hell because you're Jewish; because you guys killed Jesus Christ." The other remembered "having to fight back when kids called me Christ-killer."

That reminded me of research 16 years ago for my published commentary about another controversial film on Jesus. Response to that movie among Christians was the opposite of today, when some churches have sent busloads of members to the Passion of Christ movie, which broke a record while making more than $125 million in its first five days. The earlier film was "The Last Temptation of Christ." I had to go out of town to see it, because boycotts by Christian filmgoers were expected to keep it from being shown in my town. Before seeing the film, I'd read the Nikos Kazantzakis book on which it was based.

Comments about being called Christ-killer related to something Kazantzakis wrote about his childhood on the island of Crete: "Every year during Holy Week that leads into Easter, Jewish children had to be on their guard. They were my friends. But I think they understood that other Cretan boys and I would have to hit them because of what Jews did to Christ."

A question from the audience at the discussion asked if heads of Christian sects could meet to agree on how to expurgate scripture of such bigotry.

While recognizing merit of the concept, the Christian Church minister said scripture is sacrosanct-- too sensitive for church leaders to ever consider revising.

As the discussion ended, I wondered: What set of values results in our being concerned over hate crimes that harm Jews, while we protect 1,900-year old writings that persist in encouraging those crimes?

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