What Was He Thinking?

In early 2004, to mixed critical review, and widespread popular appeal, Mel Gibson directed a graphic re-enactment of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ. At the time, there were genuine, but as it turned out, groundless fears that the film might inflame anti-Jewish sentiment.

In particular, the movie portrayed the passage in Matthew 27 when crowd urged the crucifixion of Jesus. As the Roman governor Pilate washed his hands of the matter, “…the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children’” (Matthew 27:25). That passage had been exploited as an excuse for anti-Jewish persecution for centuries.

Criticism of the movie was complicated by the blatantly anti-Semitic views of Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson’s father. It is unfair to automatically condemn a son for the sins of a father, no matter how egregious. Nonetheless, Hutton Gibson’s beliefs helped poison the atmosphere surrounding the release of the film.

The movie did not create a ripple of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it generated a modest wave of spiritual renewal among Christians. It may have also had the salutary effect of reassuring Jewish Americans that modern American Christians have largely abandoned any residual anti-Semitism. Defenders of Mel Gibson and the movie could enjoy deserved vindication.

On July 28, 2006, Mel Gibson was arrested for drunk driving. As terrible as this lapse was, it was enormously compounded by awful anti-Semitic remarks he blurted out to police. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and we are forced to assume that some latent anti-Semitism on the part of Gibson surfaced. It may well be the case that Gibson is not bigoted on an intellectual level, but harbors bitter emotional feelings that he is usually able to suppress.

Wisely, Gibson immediately apologized, saying in part:

“I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested, and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said.”

Though the apology was necessary, the words did not sufficiently identify the direct offense he committed against Jewish people. Gibson recognized the deficiency and added a more complete apology

“There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.

“I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologize directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.

“The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honour his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.

“I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.

“I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that I cannot do it alone. I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery.

“Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed.”

Gibson must follow through on the commitment explicit in the second apology. He needs to work with his spiritual advisors with willing members of the Jewish community toward reconciliation.

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