Luther, The Passion and civil discourse
September 29, 2003
By now you have read of the turmoil surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion. Many have maintained that the movie will incite hatred against Jews. They believe that the actions of a few over 2000 years ago will be attributed to our Jewish neighbors.
I am wondering if there will be a comparable outcry concerning the movie Luther (rolled out with a limited release on September 26). It is the story of Martin Luther. No, not Martin Luther King Jr. (the civil rights leader), but Martin Luther (the Reformer), one of the first Protestants. He is regarded by many as the principal torchbearer of the Reformation.
I have not yet seen the piece. I am very interested to see how this conflict is presented. Make no mistake - it is a conflict. I can't see how it can be produced without offending one side or the other.
The movie has been accused of taking a "pro-Luther" slant. According to the reviews I have seen the major point of contention between this monk and his church is the selling of indulgences. Certainly, this was one of Luther's beefs. However, there were other more foundational differences that spurred the protest during the time of the Reformation.
One of those major issues was salvation by faith alone (championed by Luther), others included sola scriptura, and the priesthood of believers. These ideas turned the structure of the Roman Catholic Church upside down. The list could go on with transubstantiation, veneration of Mary, etc. The point is that the Reformation was bigger than Luther and was more than simply a reaction against a particular Pope that even many Roman Catholics would judge as immoral.
However, I digress. Let me get back to the comparison to Gibson's Passion. If Gibson is to be true to the record of Scripture, he must point out that indeed a group of Jewish leaders incited a mob of Israelites to call for the crucifixion of Jesus. However, people seem to forget that at the same time there were many Jews who were Jesus' disciples or were neutral towards him. Not to mention that Jesus himself was a Jew. It is certainly not our place to judge an entire people because of the actions of a few.
If the producers of Luther are also to be true to the historical record they must present a Roman Catholic Church plagued with corruption. They should also present a less than perfect Martin Luther (here I reference such views as his anti-Semitism). They could (though I doubt they will or can) delve into the deeper issues dividing Protestants and Roman Catholics that I have mentioned.
Now, just because certain Jewish leaders called for the death of Christ, that doesn't bring condemnation upon our Jewish neighbors. That would be like asking all white Southerners to pay reparations to our black neighbors because perhaps a very few of our ancestors might have once owned slaves.
I like to point out that in the larger picture you and I placed Jesus on the cross. It was for our sins he died. If I must affix blame, I need not look farther than my nose. The greater lesson for us all is in the last request of Christ to his father, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." The story of Jesus' Passion did not incite vengeance among his disciples. Rather it produced kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness. First and foremost, Christís forgiveness of those who claim his gift that brings about within them the image of himself.
At the same time the actions of parties on both sides of the Reformation in the 1500's need not be expected from Protestants and Roman Catholics today. Many ecumenists would cry "Amen" for they seek to ignore the fundamental differences in doctrine that fanned the flames of that movement. Some Protestants have forgotten what they are protesting. Some Roman Catholics think the estranged cousins should be brought home.
I have little respect for either. I have more respect for the Roman Catholic who knows what he believes than the Protestant who doesn't and seeks to avoid the honest conflict. I disagree with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, but that disagreement comes nowhere near hatred towards my RCC neighbors.
"Ah, but what about Northern Ireland?" you ask. That ancient conflict is not so much flamed by theological differences as nationalistic desires. Groups that are so often divided as Protestant and Catholic could be better classified as Unionists and Nationalists. The actions of the Irish need not define how American Protestants and Roman Catholics approach our differences.
Have some perverted scripture to advance their own agenda? Certainly, but those have been the exception not the rule. Could there be some that would use these two movies as an excuse to do something stupid? Sure. This is true of a myriad of books, movies, etc. It is our responsibility as a culture to condemn such actions and reprove them.
Watching this movie (if indeed "pro-Protestant") would not incite me to violence towards Roman Catholics any more than watching Gibson's Passion would incite me to violence towards Jews. Both representations would certainly cause me to entertain questions generated by the experience. In our day of theological ignorance, that would be a good thing for all of us.
Freedom of speech is a wonderful right. However, with the right comes a responsibility. Even in our disagreements we need to celebrate the rights of others to express opposing views. Indeed you should welcome opposition for it gives you an opportunity to express your own ideas and beliefs. This will at most win others to your side and at least strengthen your own understanding and resolve.
More important than the movies themselves will be our reaction to them. It will show us if civil discourse is still possible in our society.