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A Misguided Attack

The Passion, Rabbi Lerner and the Gospels

by GARY LEUPP

I’m included, for some reason, on the email list of Tikkun Magazine, edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, whom I respect for his involvement in the antiwar movement, including the Not In Our Name Coalition. On the other hand, I sometimes find his pronouncements bizarre, and his February 19 statement on Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ particularly so. I myself commented on this film, (or rather, since I haven’t seen it, the controversy surrounding it) six months ago; I tried to be dispassionate in my discussion, whereas the rabbi is riled up indeed. And not just about Gibson.

Lerner begins his piece by quoting Gibson as telling a television audience "the Jews’ real complaint isn’t with my film but with the Gospels." Thus, the rabbi avers, "Mel Gibson unlocked the secret of why Americans have never confronted anti-Semitism" I expected Lerner to develop that point, and to identify that "secret" as the irrational essentialization and vilification of whole ethnic groups or other communities that pervades American culture. I thought he might note that, if Gibson indeed said that, he deserves criticism for conflating all Jews. Gibson knows that the film actually has won applause from some Jewish critics, and so "the Jews" are certainly not issuing a collective complaint against it. If he suggested that they were, he is encouraging polarization. There are indeed folks out there who would like to believe that "the Jews" are conspiratorially obstructing the presentation of God’s truth to the people, and Gibson should not play to that audience. If Gibson had in his remark replaced "the Jews" with "some Jews" or "some critics, including some Jews," he would have accurately expressed reality.

But rather than chide Gibson for positing a uniform response of Jews to the gospels, the rabbi proceeds to fuel Gibson’s argument by actually urging Christians to reject those books, or at least the content therein he finds offensive. Of course he doesn’t see himself as anti-Christian. He welcomes the "Christian spiritual renewal movement which rejects the teaching of hatred in the Gospel by allegorizing the story" (generously suggesting that Christianity is acceptable, if allegorized). He gives honorable mention to the "few Christians [following World War II] willing to take responsibility for the devastating impact of the hateful representations of Jews that suffused the Gospels" And he even expresses "hope Christians will take the lead in organizing people of all faiths to leaflet every public showing of Gibson’s film with a message that runs counter to the anger at Jews that this film is likely to produce"

Couldn’t Mel validly observe that Lerner’s complaint is indeed less with his film than with the gospels themselves? Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to subject those four humanly authored works to criticism. On the contrary! As a non-believer, secular humanist, and historical materialist, I see these texts as products of the human imagination, reflecting all kinds of religious influences (from Babylonia, Persia, Greece, etc.) that we can objectively identify. I find literal belief in scriptures (of any tradition) both foolish and dangerous. But I find religious intolerance, and the deliberate insulting of religious sensitivities (such as calling texts revered by maybe one-third of humanity in any sense "hateful"), dangerous as well. In my comments on the Passion controversy, written six months ago, I suggested that those protesting the film "clarify whether [or not] they find the New Testament itself anti-Semitic, and hence dramatic treatments of it inherently objectionable," adding, "Some scholars have effectively made that case." My unstated point was that even if that case against Christian scripture is valid, trashing a film and trashing a religion are two different things. Politically speaking, the latter is of course far more serious.

Seems to me that religion—something so deeply touching the human mind, often sentimentally imprinted on it at a very early age, its inculcation never the fault of the child inheriting it—has to be treated very carefully. It’s one thing to write an article in an academic journal examining the treatment of Jews in the gospels, and alleging (as many such articles do) "anti-Semitism," especially in the Gospel of John. It’s another to undertake a mass campaign to tell Christians that writings that, for better or worse, they have been raised to regard as the Word of God "teach hatred" of Jews, whether or not the believers realize it. When you do that, you call Christians (most of whom, in this country, are fundamentalists) to either rethink their relationship to the Bible or, accepting Lerner’s thesis, to more closely embrace the hatred of Jews that the rabbi finds integral to Christian scripture as the price for maintaining their faith.

In my own view, the whole question of the gospels’ "anti-Semitism" is highly problematic. The gospels were of course written by Jews, suffused with contemporary Jewish concepts. The Jesus they celebrate, in Rabbi Lerner’s words, is a "Jewish Jesus, the Jesus who retains hope for building love right here, the Jesus who unabashedly proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived." He was also, in the minds of the Jewish gospel authors, the long-awaited Messiah. But most of his Jewish compatriots had (in their view) not realized who Jesus was, and not accepted en masse his messiah-hood, miraculous virgin birth (a very un-Jewish concept, by the way), and function as divine savior to all sincerely "accepting" him. Through their rejection, or (reasonable) skepticism, the non-Christian Jews drew Christian ire. But that ire cannot be separated from the gospel writers’ (very Jewish) concept of a people nurtured very specially by the creator of the universe, as a "chosen people," "light to the nations" who, having time and time again in their relationship with Yahweh rebelled against his will (this being a key theme in the Old Testament, the Jews inclined to indulge in more heartfelt self-criticism than any other people) now screw up monumentally by not recognizing Jesus for whom he was. Henceforth, the early Christians felt, they themselves (of whatever national background, in Christ there being "neither Greek nor Jew") were the Chosen, supplanting in that position the biological descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Christian categories of "chosenness" and "God’s people" obviously emerge from prior Jewish thought.

The Gibson film follows the quasi-historical narrative of Jesus’ last hours, and reportedly sticks to the script, according to which Jewish authorities alarmed by Jesus’ dramatic attack on the money changers in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the potential of such behavior to produce general disorder and prompt a Roman crackdown with further loss of Judean local rule, press Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, to put him to death. There are contradictions in the gospel accounts, but the general picture is clear: the high priests, Sanhedrin, and a mob mobilized and paid for by the former, pressure the Roman governor to order the crucifixion. Pilate does so reluctantly, assured by Jesus (John 19:11) that his death fulfills God’s will, and that Jewish authorities bear greater guilt in that death than does the Roman. This telling of the tale may be true, in its essentials, but we can’t know. Every so often we unearth new texts and make archeological discoveries that shed light on the historical Jesus, but we really can’t know for sure what specific mix of charges (the Jewish charge of blasphemy, the Roman charge of sedition) figured in Jesus’ death; some (unwarrantedly, I think) see Jesus as a Zealot revolutionary who wanted to take on Roman military power and was executed for that reason. In any case, the gospels make it clear that while Roman authority put Jesus to death, local authorities obstinately urged that punishment.

So back to the question: should this death be made into a very graphic movie, following the gospel script? Lerner thinks it shouldn’t. But isn’t his rejection of the depiction also an appeal to the Christian not to believe the story as rendered in the gospels? And isn’t that an appeal to the Christian not to be Christian? Not, in this case, because Christianity is a flawed approach to reality, like religion in general, but because Lerner thinks those sections of Christian scripture "focused on cruelty and pain" threaten both Jews and (inexplicably) "all those decent, loving, and generous Christians who have found in the Jesus story a foundation for their most humane and caring instincts." One has a feeling the latter are thrown in merely for good measure, to suggest that not only Jews but all humanity is threatened by those gospels.

Christian teachings threatening Christians? Perhaps. But only in the same manner that the Torah (cited by West Bank settlers as they usurp Palestinian rights) threatens the moral position of Jews, or Hindu texts like the Ramayana (if used to justify the leveling of Muslim or Sikh temples) threatens the moral position of Hindus, or the Qur’an (if used to validate attacks on non-Muslims) threatens the moral position of Muslims. Scriptures that can be interpreted to privilege or demean whole peoples, potentially threaten all of us. But given the complexity of the religious appeal, our response to them should be careful and measured, not condescending or sweepingly condemnatory.

Karl Marx (a German Jew passionately committed to human liberation, who jettisoned his religious convictions in adolescence) wrote some of the most perceptive comments ever composed about religion. He appreciated its dual nature: "Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions."

Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels, who had a nuanced view of religion’s role in history (and high appreciation of the historical role of some religious figures, such as Martin Luther), parted from some of their colleagues in objecting to the exclusion of religious believers from the nascent workers’ movement. They considered it an opiate, a medicinal drug, but felt it better not to make it a dividing-line issue within that class movement.

Lerner in contrast is in effect telling the Christian: to be "decent, loving, and generous," you must abandon your religion, as you know it. You must not only repudiate the notion that Caiaphas and the Jerusalem mob, as depicted in gospels, obliged a reluctant Roman to kill the Savior, but reject the broader theological idea that the ancient Judeans, by failing to generally enlist in the Jesus movement and accept Jesus as the Messiah, resisted God’s plan. But who is Lerner (or my atheistic self for that matter), to tell Christian believers how they must reform their own religion? It’s one thing to say: "You shouldn’t believe in Christianity, period." This is a very reasonable position. It’s another to say, "I don’t mind you being Christian, in fact, I acknowledge lots of good things about you folks. But please change your Christianity by rewriting those texts that are at the very heart of your belief system, because they spread hate." This has to strike the sincere, decent, loving, believer as supercilious.

Rabbi Lerner is obviously and justifiably concerned with the prospect that emotions generated by this film, which Christian evangelical bodies are hyping big-time, will produce anti-Semitism in a society where, actually, incidences of anti-Semitic violence have of late been few. But the Christian fundamentalists most eagerly anticipating this film tend towards uncritical support of Zionism, and are not interested in beating up on dudes in yarmulkes. The "rekindling of hatred" Lerner predicts will not come, if it comes, from the Pat Robertson crowd but from others. Of course conditions elsewhere in the world vary, for various reasons.

My concern about rekindled anti-Semitism differs from the rabbi’s. As Lerner knows, the U.S. war against Iraq was and is a moral outrage. It was promoted by a systematic campaign of lies. And integral to that lie-spreading effort were the "neocons," who as the Israeli progressive press (Haaretz, April 4, 2003) has matter-of-factly noted, happen to be overwhelmingly Jewish and often dual (Israeli-U.S.) nationals who see the interests of the two nations as inseparable. Douglas J. Feith, David Frum, John Hannah, Michael Ledeen, I. Lewis Libby, William J. Luti, Richard Perle, Abraham Shulsky, Paul Wolfowitz, David Wurmser. Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, Josh Bolton, Eliot Cohen, David Kay, Edward Luttwak, Daniel Pipes, Michael Rubin, James Schlesinger, Dov Zakheim, etc. Several of these men are now confronted with legal problems, and some having deliberately spread disinformation in pursuit of their campaign to transform the Middle East in Israel’s interest (an effort so far taking about 550 American lives) they may in the near future find themselves objects of widespread hostility. They deserve strong criticism (and maybe prison sentences), although nobody ever deserves anti-Semitic vilification. But it could happen, tragically mirroring the vicious anti-Arab, anti-Muslim feelings they have encouraged in pursuit of their goals, baldly stated in the recent idiocy penned by Frum and Perle.

The antiwar movement here has been led to a significant extent by Jews. Maybe half of the activists I’ve worked with are Jews. Obviously the ongoing war on Iraq is not the product of a Jewish conspiracy, any more than the progressive anti-imperialist left is a Jewish enterprise. Jews hold as many viewpoints as does the society at large. But because this is a racist society, with a deep-seated cultural proclivity to conceptualize in ethnic terms, I think it quite possible that as the criminal assault on Iraq takes its toll, some will say (intelligently): "Iraq was never a threat to us! Why are our kids dying there? For oil?" And (unintelligently): "It’s those Jews! Sending our kids over there to die for Israel!"

In that context, for progressive Jews to attack the foundations of Christian faith (however intellectually insupportable those foundations may be) strikes me as a grave political error. You don’t want aggrieved Christian families declaring "My son died in Iraq because of those neocon Jews. They lied about Iraq, and now they’re even trying to cover up what the Bible tells us about how they killed Jesus!" But anticipating that possibility, I urge the rabbi to take care to apply his fire where it will do most good, and leave the critique of the gospels for another day, lest its expression, right now, serve a wave of anti-Semitism that might target Perles and Lerners alike.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu