Those who virulently criticized Mel Gibson’s The Passion even before its release seem unassailable: Are they not justified to worry that the film, made by a fanatic Catholic known for occasional anti-Semitic outbursts, may ignite anti-Semitic sentiments?
More generally, is The Passion not a manifesto of our own (Western, Christian) fundamentalists? Is it then not the duty of every Western secularist to reject it, to make it clear that we are not covert racists attacking only the fundamentalism of other (Muslim) cultures?
The Pope’s ambiguous reaction to the film is well known: Upon seeing it, deeply moved, he muttered “It is as it was”—a statement quickly withdrawn by the official Vatican speakers. The Pope’s spontaneous reaction was thus replaced by an “official” neutrality, corrected so as not to hurt anyone. This shift, with its politically correct fear that anyone’s specific religious sensibility may be hurt, exemplifies what is wrong with liberal tolerance: Even if the Bible says that the Jewish mob demanded the death of Christ, one should not stage this scene directly but play it down and contextualize it to make it clear that Jews are collectively not to be blamed for the Crucifixion. The problem of such a stance is that it merely represses aggressive religious passion, which remains smoldering beneath the surface and, finding no release, gets stronger and stronger.
This prohibition against embracing a belief with full passion may explain why, today, religion is only permitted as a particular “culture,” or lifestyle phenomenon, not as a substantial way of life. We no longer “really believe,” we just follow (some of) the religious rituals and mores out of respect for the “lifestyle” of the community to which we belong. Indeed, what is a “cultural lifestyle” if not that every December in every house there is a Christmas tree—although none of us believes in Santa Claus? Perhaps, then, “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing in them, without “taking them seriously.” Isn’t this why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians,” as a threat to culture—they dare to take seriouslytheir beliefs? Today, ultimately, we perceive as a threat to culture those who immediately live their culture, those who lack a distance toward it.
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on February 27th, 2004. (full text).]