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'Passion' Controversy

Aired February 25, 2004 - 13:33   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" opens in theaters around the country today. Controversy has dogged this film for months, particularly accusations of anti- Semitism. The actor who plays Jesus in the film, Jim Caviezel, talked about it last night on "PAULA ZAHN NOW."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM CAVIEZEL, ACTOR: It's not meant to offend, even though Christ himself did offend people, and it cost him his life. But he handed himself over to be -- to die for all of our sin. And that is the most sacred part of our faith.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PHILLIPS: I'm joined now by two religious leaders who have seen the film, Michael Youssef, the pastor of church of the apostles, an independent Anglican congregation that broke away from the Episcopal Church. And Rabbi James Rudin. He is a senior inter-religious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.

Gentlemen, thanks for both being here.

Rabbi, let's start with you. You saw the film. Your quick thoughts?

RABBI JAMES A. RUDIN, AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE: I saw the film twice. I'm very disappointed. I'm very angry. I'm disappointed because Mel Gibson could have made a thoroughly Christian "Passion" play without beating up on Jews, vilifying my religion, my people, as he's done.

It's also a sadomasochistic film, and I'm angry, because, if I may quote the book of Luke, "Too whom much is given, much is expected." Mel Gibson's a superstar, he's internationally acclaimed, he's very popular, and yet he was give an opportunity to do something very positive, and he failed, in my judgment. And we've got a film that's really white robes versus black robes. And the black robes belong to the traditional scapegoat in history, the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, and that's what makes me angry and very disappointed in this film.

PHILLIPS: Michael, what do you think? Are you angry?

MICHAEL YOUSSEF, PASTOR, CHURCH OF THE APOSTLE: Not at all. I'm delighted, because I think this is the one film that is as close to the accounts of the scripture, all four of them put together, then we have seen in a long time. And, therefore, I think Mel Gibson did the world a favor by putting this movie as accurately historically, and from the eyewitness accounts, which we know from the scripture, over 500 who have seen the resurrection of Jesus. So from the eyewitness account, the gospels were written.

And you see, I love the Jewish people. I have many Jewish friends. And I think the Jewish community knows that even evangelicals are their friends, and their supporters, and supporters of the state of the Israel.

But the thing is, there are many Jews at the time of Jesus. There's just a group of them. There's just some of them who -- but the rest were in the church; 3,000 people were member of the first Christian Church, all Jewish. The disciples were all Jewish. Our Lord Jesus was Jewish. And therefore, we have absolutely no hatred whatsoever. The opposite is true. We love the Jewish people, because they give us a messiah.

PHILLIPS: Michael's saying the movie was faithful to the Bible. Rabbi, what do you think? I know there's been a lot of controversy on how Pontius Pilate was betrayed?

RUDIN: It's not Father Michael that we're talking about. I certainly accept his faith and his love of the Jewish people. It's what this movie sends out. What message does the person walk away with? You have the howling, screeching lynch mobs that are calling bloodthirsty cries for the death of Jesus throughout the movie. You have an evil, sinister, high priest, who appears to be manipulating the Roman emperor of ancient Israel, ruler. And in fact, it's just the opposite.

And I would disagree with Father Michael. This is not an accurate portrayal. It's Mel Gibson's interpretation. As he well knows...

PHILLIPS: All right, well let's...

RUDIN: There's at least four or five different versions in the four gospels. Plus, Mr. Gibson, his conflict (ph), tainted it even more by laying on the material that isn't even in the New Testament. But the viewer sees all of this and believes it is the truth. It is a version of the story.

PHILLIPS: All right, let's talk about that for a minute. I mean, when it come down to it, this is a movie. So and it's getting people to talk, whether atheists, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, everybody's definitely talking about this film, talking about religion, talking about the life of Jesus Christ. Isn't that a good thing, Michael?

YOUSSEF: Absolutely. I think the very message of Jesus Christ, the first words he said when he hung on that cross, said father, forgive them. If we can be really anti-anybody, which we can't be, as believers in Jesus Christ. We can be anti-Italians, because they are the ones who did all the torturing of the Lord Jesus Christ. But in reality, Jesus was born to die. From the book of Genesis, chapter 3, God said he would send his son to die on the cross, to bear the sin of all of us. And, therefore, we all are responsible for Jesus' death, not the Jewish people, not Pontius Pilate, and not Judas. They may have had part in all of that. But the father gave him up to die out of love, because God so loved the world that he gave, and he gave his only son.

PHILLIPS: Rabbi, do you see more people coming in and saying to you, OK, let's talk about this. I have some questions. I have some thoughts. Does this give you a chance to minister more, to maybe help those who have sort of been on the fence and want to talk about this?

RUDIN: Well, it's a good question. It's a teachable moment. The only good thing that may come out of this film is that the Jews and Christians will begin to look together at this Jewish story, that took place after all, not in Atlanta, or in Fort Myers, Florida, where I'm at now, but rather, took place in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people, and that would be important.

But otherwise, I find this film tedious, I found it gratuitously violent. Many of my colleagues upset with the film felt the violence actually deflected from the message of the film. If Father Michael had made the film, we would have had something different. But Mr. Gibson has used the film, in my opinion, to carry out stereotypes and caricatures of Jews and the Jewish people, and that's unfortunate.

PHILLIPS: But when you talk about something of a religious nature, it's pretty hard to remain politically correct. I mean, you're always going to have controversy, aren't you?

YOUSSEF: That's exactly right. I mean, Jesus himself is controversial, because he said i am the way, the truth and the light. And then every human being has to come on one side or the other, said I can accept that or reject it. And the great thing about the Christian faith is that you can't ram it down people's throats, that it is there. Here's what the gift of God is, and you can receive it or you can reject it. And as a person who grew up in dictatorships, and that kind of world, I am so grateful to be in the United States, where a person is free to choose Christ or to reject Christ. That's their choice.

PHILLIPS: That's an interesting point, Rabbi, maybe the way that it is so violent and it is so -- it's causing so much of a stir, maybe it hits people in a different way. Do you need that sort of shock value to sort of penetrate the message?

RUDIN: Well, again, you have to ask Mr. Gibson. Mr. Gibson has every right to make the film that he made. But now that's out and the general public, some of the results are coming in, some of the reactions are coming in, and many people find it tedious, violent, missing the mark, off the target. A movie that simply beats up on Jews and Judaism unnecessarily. Seems to me if Father Michael and others like him, whom I respect, want to get the message of Christianity out, they must do it, but not at the expense of Jewish people. This is a medieval fashioned play with the classic stereotypes and scapegoats, which is the Jewish religion and the Jewish people, and I'm disappointed, and I'm angry, and I think that Mr. Gibson could have done better.

PHILLIPS: Have you talked to Mel Gibson? Have you attempted to talk to them, rabbi?

RUDIN: I met him once in Houston last summer at the first screening. My own organization, the American Jewish Committee, reached out to him time after time. I've been working with passion plays since 1970, beginning in with "Over Amergow (ph)" in Germany, "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Jesus of Nazareth." I've been working with passion plays. Here was an opportunity to do what other followers of passion plays have done, meet with scholars, talk about it, realize that you're dealing with radioactive material. Be careful, make a Christian message but not at the expense of Judaism and the Jewish people.

PHILLIPS: You were not able to tell Mel Gibson this yourself?

RUDIN: Mr. Gibson never responded positively to any attempts when we reached out to meet with him from the American Jewish Committee. He went his own way, which is his right, and now it is the right of the audience to react to that.

PHILLIPS: And quickly, Michael, you're trying to get in touch with him now.

YOUSSEF: Yes, we are. We try to interview him on our television program.

But it's very important to know that not all the Jewish people were involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. Certainly, Kiafus (ph), the high priest, he did this out of self-preservation, maybe envy of Jesus' popularity, but certainly is one, and the group around him. There are just few.

We do not blame the Jewish people. I do not blame my Jewish neighbor for the death of Jesus. In fact, God is the one who gave him up, and that is some message -- I have a Jewish rabbi and his wife with me in the prescreening, because I wanted to testify to the whole community in Atlanta that we are absolutely not Anti-Semitic, that we love the Jewish people, that we brought them with us so they can see it for themselves. And it's just one bad apple. It doesn't mean that all the Jewish people can be wiped off like that.

RUDIN: Father Michael, there's more than one bad apple in this movie. There's a screeching, howling lynch mob, and I believe anybody knows what that means -- kill him, kill him, kill him. I fully respect what you're saying, but we're talking about a film, and this film leaves impression that Jews and Judaism were really responsible, the driving force, for the death of Jesus, and not the Romans. That's unfortunate, and that's an old scapegoat that simply is repeated in this film sadly and tragically.

PHILLIPS: Well, unfortunately, we have to leave it there. I'll tell you what, Rabbi James Rudin, Michael Youssef, the two of you ought to get together with Mel Gibson and have tea.

Rabbi, thank you for your time.

RUDIN: My pleasure, thank you so much.

PHILLIPS: All right, Michael, thank you.

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