One of the nation’s leading ecumenical organizations is now offering a reflection guide for Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”
The National Council of Churches, based in New York, announced Friday that its Interfaith Relations Commission had produced a brief guide for reflecting on the upcoming movie detailing Jesus Christ’s 12 hours before crucifixion. The movie has already sparked controversy for allegedly placing blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews.
The guide, written by Shanta Premawardhana, the NCC’s associate general secretary for Interfaith Relations, is in “a bulletin-insert style suitable for reprinting and sharing with congregations,” according to the NCC Web site. It provides several paragraphs of background about Jesus’ life and death, as well as a list of reflection points—like how early Christian and Jewish communities related to each other.
The guide, posted to the NCC Web site last Friday, has already received more than 3,000 hits—with 1,200 hits coming on Monday’s President’s Day holiday, said Pat Pattillo, the NCC’s associate general secretary for communication.
Because the guide is meant to be reprinted and distributed to congregations and other groups, Pattillo said they have no idea how many people will ultimately use the guide, but they hope it will reach a wide audience and help spark meaningful conversation.
“The NCC Interfaith Relations Commission expresses its concern about the possible rise in anti-Semitism and its desire to foster genuine and constructive Christian-Jewish dialogue,” read an NCC press release about the guide.
“From many conversations, including with those who had seen pre-screenings of the film,” Premawardhana told EthicsDaily.com by phone, “it seemed clear to me that significant Christian and Jewish leaders were concerned that this movie will set back Jewish-Christian relationship by a couple of decades. Although I have not seen the movie, I am very aware that dramatic depictions of the Passion have a tragic history of anti-Semitic violence.”
Premawardhana said no one from NCC’s Interfaith Relations Commission had been able to see the movie, despite requesting a pre-release screening from Gibson’s production company, Icon. Thus, the NCC did not want to make a pronouncement about the film.
“This, however, was an eminently teachable moment,” he said, and the commission decided to proceed with a reflection guide about three or four weeks ago.
“The content of the reflection guide does not say anything about the movie itself,” he said. “Rather it leads people to discuss their perspectives.”
Premawardhana said it is essential for Christians to understand the facts surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, especially since belief that the Jews killed Christ is, among many American Christians, a “prevalent notion.”
“As I said in the insert, Pontius Pilate, Roman governor, by his authority, by his Roman soldiers, killed Jesus,” Premawardhana told EthicsDaily.com. “There were some Jews there who called for his crucifixion, but it is important to recognize that they were some Jews, some people. The vast majority of Jews were out and about in the countryside and had nothing to do with what was going on in Jerusalem that day.”
Premawardhana, a Baptist minister elected to his current position last September, said: “It’s fine to do a movie on the Passion of Christ. It’s a powerful story. But people who do it have to be careful about how they go about doing it.”
Premawardhana said he hopes the guide will offer Christians an opportunity to “think about constructive ways to engage with the Jewish community or build relationships with the Jewish community. If we can do that, I think the efforts are eminently worthwhile.”
Pattillo said Premawardhana’s work is especially valuable right now, and that his efforts are creating “a real renaissance in our interfaith relations work.”
“As a Baptist, he brings an evangelical perspective to interfaith work, which is very rare and very valuable given the present context in which so many of our faith are building walls,” said Pattillo, a longtime Baptist communicator who worked at Southern Seminary and Samford University and as North American representative for Hong Kong Baptist University before joining the NCC staff in 2001. “We’re building bridges.”
The National Council of Churches is an ecumenical organization pulling members from 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations. It has 50 million members from 140,000 congregations nationwide.
Premawardhana, a native of Sri Lanka, was senior pastor of Chicago’s Ellis Avenue Church (formerly Cornell Baptist Church) for 14 years before taking the NCC job. He had been active in interfaith work in Chicago and is vice president of the Alliance of Baptists, an NCC member communion. He chaired an Alliance committee on interfaith relations and was instrumental in helping the Alliance adopt its historic “Statement on Baptist-Jewish Relations” in 1995.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.