Jay Michaelson
Passion and Violence, p.3

I have seen these images, and they gave me nightmares. In searching for images to accompany an earlier Zeek article, I found my way into the vast network of anti-Israel sites on the Internet, and couldn't help but look at the pictures. Part of me didn't want to see Daniel Pearl decapitated, but part of me obviously did - and the curious part won. I thought I would resist clicking the thumbnail of a decapitated boy, but I didn't, and that picture has stayed with me for months. Likewise the image of a soldier with a huge hole in his head, caused by last month's suicide bombing in Jerusalem. See how your mind reacts. If you want to see that picture, all you have to do is [click here].

Did you click? Did you notice your blood race as you did or didn't do it? If you saw the image, were you filled with rage? Disgust? If you weren't, do you wonder why you weren't?

Al-Jazeera and other Arab television stations broadcast pictures far more disturbing than that one virtually every night. On the U.S. news, we hear "three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces..." On Al-Jazeera, we see their dead bodies, as the camera lingers over the wounds.

What is the result of this broadcast violence? What is its objective?

Statistical studies are not conclusive, partly because they haven't been done with real violence - only the TV and video-game kind that most viewers know is fake. I can tell you from my personal reaction that I want to kill Arabs every time I see pictures of Israeli victims, and I want to kill Sharon when I see pictures of Palestinian ones. At such moments, I don't hope and pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict. I want to kill. My testosterone starts flowing, I want to break things, I hate the lies the Palestinians routinely tell, or the racist blindness on the part of Right-wing Jews. I want to kick every Arab out of Greater Israel, or stop soiling my religion with the putrid stink of occupation. Whatever, whichever, as long as there is violence. In short, I am inflamed with passion.

"Passion" - that's what the Gibson film is about, and what it is meant to evoke. It's always been a strange word for "death," since in ordinary emotional parlance it means the opposite. The word comes from the Latin passus, meaning "having suffered." But the way the Passion has been presented, historically and in the new film, makes the additional meanings in English seem quite relevant. Do we really believe that the violence of this film is just to show us the "enormity of the sacrifice," when we know full well the effects of graphic violence on ordinary humans? Why this story, which takes up 2 chapters out of 28 in Matthew, 2 out of 21 in John, instead of the story of Jesus's message of love?

Why was this film made? This film was made because of passion, and it is meant to inspire passion - the kind that gets stirred up by violent movies. Like Al Jazeera, Gibson is using violent imagery to short-circuit rationality and elicit an impassioned response. Once more, however, the desired impassioned response is not "kill the Jews" but "accept Christ as your savior." Yes, the fact that the Jews did it is important, and it is cause for grave concern -- but it is not the movie's central point. The film's underlying thesis is that passions excited by violence make a person prone to religious conversion. That faith is closely related to fury. The film was made to enrage us and convert us. And that makes it far more interesting, and far more disturbing.

The key to The Passion of the Christ came for me during Gibson's interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he talked about his sinful past. Gibson said he was ready to kill himself, and almost did once, before he was saved. It was interesting to watch a traditionalist Catholic adopt evangelical Protestant religious language, and the emotion of Gibson's tale was compelling. He seemed viscerally to hate his earlier self, before he was reborn in Christ.

And then I read an earlier quote he'd given the New Yorker: "I had to use the Passion of Christ and His wounds to heal my wounds."

Christ's dying for Gibson's sins was necessary because otherwise Gibson himself would have died. Christ is the stand-in for the sinner himself, and his tortures are those which the saved Gibson inflicts on his former self. That's not Jesus being whipped, beaten, spit at, and crucified - it's Mel Gibson himself.

This is visceral rebirth, a rebirth through trauma, and it requires the enthusiasm - hitlahavut in Hebrew, being on fire - that The Passion of the Christ is meant to evoke. We are to be shocked into repentance, or conversion, or both.

Now, this hatred of the former self is present in many redemptive traditions - but not in all of them. Within the Jewish tradition, most teachers agree that it's important not to imagine a total break from one's "former self." Just as AA requires its members to say "I'm an alcoholic," no matter how many years they have been sober, the Jewish tradition of tshuvah is one in which guilt is removed, but the deeds of the past are still 'owned' by he (or she) who committed them. You don't symbolically whip, beat, and kill your former self. Even the rebirth of Yom Kippur - the Day of Death - is one which remembers the past.

To be sure, this is an ambivalent kind of self-understanding. There are many for whom Yom Kippur, on the calendar of time or of the heart, is indeed about killing the former self and being reborn anew. But even for such people, the process of kapparah (atonement, but literally, cleansing, scouring, catharsis) is not one of symbolic self-crucifixion. To open up to the Grace of God is neither an act of Christian faith nor Gibsonian self-laceration but of bittul, nullification. The self is not whipped; the self is dropped. We introspect, and then we surrender. And as he surrenders into his True Self, the baal tshuvah does not hate that which caused him to sin. He recognizes it as a power that can be turned to good.

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Image: Still from The Passion

March 2004

Passion and Violence
Jay Michaelson

A Song of Ascents:
The News from San Francisco
Sarah Lefton

Bush the Exception
Samuel Hayim Brody

The Wrong Half
Margaret Mackenzie Schwartz

God Had a Controlling Interest
Hal Sirowitz

Eliezer Sobel

Josh hosts a party
Josh Ring

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

Zeek in Print
Winter 2003-2004 issue now on sale!

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From previous issues:

Four Israeli Intelligence Directors
The Yediot Interview

Run Like the Wind
Jay Michaelson and Dan Friedman

God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel
trans. by Jonathan Boyarin