Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The passion of Mel Gibson

Commentary by David Reinhard

David Reinhard

A Muslim man who blames Jews for U.S. policy in the Middle East shoots six women at the Jewish Federation office in Seattle, killing one. Israel bombs a building in Qana, Lebanon, and unintentionally kills dozens of civilians, many of them children—and finds itself on the defensive internationally. A drunk Mel Gibson is pulled over for driving under the influence and uncorks a vile anti-Semitic rant.

Yes, last weekend was an especially depressing three days in an especially depressing time, but I have a confession to make: Of all of last weekend's distressing news items, the one that sickened me most was Gibson's tirade.

No one died in the Gibson story. His words didn't leave a woman dead in the Seattle area. Or more than 50 innocent women and children dead in Qana. Shouldn't the loss of life count for more than a Hollywood star's drunken and bile-filled outburst?

Yet it was the news of Gibson's foul words that was nauseating and disheartening. That he uttered them in a state of intoxication makes them no less offensive. (Some, happily not Gibson himself, are still arguing the point.) We know the Roman Catholic Gibson is a fan of the Latin Mass. Well, in vino veritas. (There is truth in wine.)

And, alas, in the most ancient of bigotries.

Maybe we expect hate-filled individuals with mental problems to go off on killing sprees. Maybe we expect civilian casualties when terrorists such as Hezbollah hide among civilians. But we had every reason to expect so much more from Gibson. Indeed, he raised expectations to the highest levels by a Christian witness that found its public expression in "The Passion of the Christ."

Anyone who defended Gibson's movie and, for that matter, the actor-director himself, against charges of anti-Semitism must have experienced a stomach-turning unease reading last weekend's stories. At the time, I saw no anti-Semitism in Gibson's "Passion." I saw good Jews and bad Jews, good Romans and bad Romans. I saw a movie of rough beauty and lyrical moments, a powerful work of art that was true to the spirit if not the letter of the Gospels. Knowing what we learned last weekend, I see nothing different in the movie today.

But it's impossible not to see the anti-Semitism in Gibson, and that's sad.

Sad for erstwhile defenders who admired his brave and inspired act of faith in Hollywood. Sadder still for Gibson and his family, who must deal with his twin demons of alcohol abuse and anti-Semitism in the cruel glare of the showbiz spotlight.

But saddest of all for the target of Gibson's slurs: the Jews.

How painful his words had to be. How cruel a reminder of all the hatred the Jewish people have experienced through millennia at the hands of Christians and non-Christians. How unnerving his outburst must be as Israel defends itself against enemies who want to rid the world of it—and is criticized for defending itself—and anti-Semitism spreads across Europe. And how disconcerting his boozed-up words must be. How many other Christians, Jews might well wonder, are but a few pops of tequila away from spouting such venom? What ugliness lurks in the dark hearts of less sophisticated and media-savvy individuals than Gibson?

That said, maybe something good will come out of this incident. On Tuesday, Gibson apologized and accepted full responsibility for his "vitriolic and harmful words." It wasn't one of those faux apologies (I'd like to apologize if anyone was offended). It was a full and seemingly heartfelt one. More important, he said he'd like to meet with "leaders in the Jewish community ... to discern the appropriate path for healing."

"I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help," he said in a statement. "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."

I'll pray for that, too. And I'll pray that Tuesday's statement isn't a bit of Tinsel Town damage control.

For, if a Mel Gibson is seen confronting his anti-Semitism, not to mention his problem with the bottle, it may give others a chance to confront theirs. Or some other bit of our own inevitable brokenness.

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