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Monday, March 8, 2004

Don't settle for a 'Gospel for suckers.'

Krister Stendahl, retired bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of theology at Harvard Divinity School (where he remains a beloved and lively presence), has championed Christian-Jewish dialogue for many decades. From 1975 to 1985, for example, he was the moderator of the World Council of Churches Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People. So it was great to see him quoted at length on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in an article first published in Risen, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. (Amy-Jill Levine, one of the scholars on the now famous panel that challenged anti-Semitic and unhistorical aspects of Mel Gibson's movie, is also quoted at length.)

Here's the core of Stendahl's comments. Note especially his three principles for living in community with people of other faiths:

Bishop Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School spoke of how he had learned the Passion story growing up in the Church of Sweden. "It is not unsimilar to how most Christians at that time lived and related to that text. We understood 'Jew' = me = a sinner. We would sing, 'Tis I, Lord Jesus, I it was who denied thee. I who crucified thee.'"

"This way of reading," Stendahl continued, "has the advantage of having no anti-Semitism. But the irony is that this is achieved by reading the Jews and the Jewish community out of the book."

It was not until after World War II and the Second Vatican Council, Stendahl said, that "Christians began to learn how the things we say sound in the ears of the Jews. We have a new situation which calls upon us to make new attempts to help one another against the undesirable side effects of our devotion. The historical record is shocking."

The cross, he said, is a symbol of faith and hope for Christians. "But the Cross reminds Arabs of the Crusades. The Cross reminds the Jews of the Crusades and the pogroms (massacres). Historically, most attacks on the Jews in Europe took place in Holy Week, after the people in church heard the Passion narrative."

Stendahl suggested that, to live together, we have to practice three principles of communal living:

  1. "Let the Other define herself. 75% of what our tradition says of another tradition is bearing false witness."

  2. "Compare equal to equal. We all have our extremists and nuts. Don't compare ideal Christianity with the actual or distorted form of the Other."

  3. "We will never have good relations without an element of holy envy. Find something in the Other that is beautiful and meaningful and that tells you something about God. You are not called upon to absorb it or to pass judgment on it."

Stendahl said that, to him, the Gibson movie seemed like an obscene magnification of violence. "Violence is pornographic. I've always thought the suffering of Christ and the shout 'why have you forsaken me?' is the pain of the martyr — the pain of wondering was it all in vain, had it all been wrong. That's where the deep suffering is, not in the physical abuse." The way in which the movie describes the Passion, he continued, "is a celebration of suffering and death instead of a celebration of life and of the triumphal resurrection."

Stendahl noted that there is a positive side to the controversy about the movie. "At least we have woken up to the fact that our Christian tradition has caused us enormous pain, and that we need to do something about it."

Speaking of the attraction of the movie's approach, Stendahl said, "It feeds the hunger for simplicity and uncomplicated answers. It's a kind of power-grab. In response, we need to keep teaching and speaking and educating toward a capacity of living in a non-absolute world. Do not settle for this, which is really the Gospel for suckers."

("Rhode Islanders consider The Passion," Andrew Wetmore, Episcopal News Service 3.1.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 8 March 2004 at 5:26 PM

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September 19, 2005 10:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Insightful. Many people have been crucified. What makes Jesus special were (a) His words and (b) His triumph over death. But the Passion gives a distorted picture of just the brutality against Jesus. I think of the Movie Passion as a movie about the brutality of mankind, not so much the story of Jesus. I would have loved to hear some of the story of Jesus' life, teachings, and triumph. Without his life and teachings, the rest has no meaning. One teaching in particular would have helped the movie: "Love thy enemies, do good to those who persecute you." No murder or mayhem can arise with Jesus' words on your heart.

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