February 26, 2004

The Passion of the Christ, which opened in movies houses all around the nation yesterday, has aroused an immense commentary, much of which strikes me as being utterly nuts. There seems to be little possibility any longer of responding to this film simply as a movie. It has become a public issue. What one thinks of it appears to depend almost solely on one's own political and religious stance.

It makes no sense that a film about an event which occurred two thousand years ago should be stirring up fears and animosities today. But then, matters of this sort don't often make sense. They don't have much to do with history. Rather they are reflective of current hostilities and tell us more about the state of the public mind than they do about the activities they claim to depict.

The significant issue about The Passion of the Christ is whether one set of Americans can talk to another set without flaming out into emotional excess. And the evidence, at the moment, indicates that when one set is made up of secular liberals and the other of fundamentalist Christians, they can't. That's unfortunate, because both sets have to live in the same country and deal with the same public institutions.

I don't know how serious the so-called culture war is. The issues which keep it alive strike me as being less than vital - at least as far as public policy is concerned. That may be because I'm willing for people to do what they want and think what they want so long as their beliefs don't result in direct injury to others. And by direct injury I mean the sort of thing Jefferson had in mind when he spoke of "picking my pocket or breaking my leg."

A peculiarity I seem to share with relatively few of my fellow citizens is an enjoyment in talking with people whose beliefs strike me as being fantastic. It's fascinating to try to figure out how they came to think as they do, and why.

In any case, the notion that any set of 21st century people can be blamed for what their supposed ancestors did two thousand years ago is crazy. Anybody who could believe such a thing is more dangerous because of his general dementia than he is because of a particular belief. I'll tell you one thing. My own ancestors did some really horrible things less than a hundred years ago, things so bad that it turns my stomach to think of them. But I don't feel any personal guilt over what they did, and I'm certainly not ready to accept any guilt somebody else might try to toss on my head.

The idea that one should not depict or discuss events from the past because some people will use them as an excuse for current bigotries is childish. Anybody who would allow a movie about something that occurred centuries ago to canker his feelings about his neighbors is so sunk in hatred and bias that the effect of the movie is inconsequential. So, people ought to stop worrying about the influence of The Passion of the Christ and go see it if they're interested in an historical interpretation. And, if they're not, forget about it.

©John R. Turner

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