2014 marks the tenth anniversary of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (and of Mel Gibson’s own passion.) Although a sober Christian for more than a decade before “The Passion”, Gibson’s rep was as a hard-living action figure until he made a film about Christ. The industry to which he brought billions of dollars has never forgiven him for breaking the stereotype. His own outrageous behavior – fueled by alcohol when he broke his own recovery — justified the condemnation in the minds of those who condemned him. This top box office draw before “Passion” has not found employment with a major Hollywood studio since its release.
There was his 2006 arrest for drunk driving when he shelled the arresting officer with a torrent of anti-Semitic invective, and the tapes of abusive phone calls to the girlfriend for whom he left his wife and other children. That he was reacting – as an alcoholic and not as a rational man – to the relentless attacks he received from the Jewish community over what they perceived as anti-Semitism in “The Passion” is no excuse. (The film accurately depicts the Roman occupiers as the executioners of Christ.) That the tapes of the calls – in their entirety – show an ongoing shakedown of a wealthy movie mogul by someone skilled at pushing the buttons of an alcoholic way off the wagon does not lessen the fact Gibson has a violent temper – when he is drinking. But it has been ten years. He has held countless meetings with Jewish leaders and groups attempting to reconcile; he has donated millions to Jewish causes and concerns. He has been sober again these past seven years. Is forgiveness and a second chance on the horizon, or is his the unforgivable sin?
According to Allison Hope Weiner, a print journalist who wrote some of the most vitriolic material against him before she got to know him, it is past time to forgive.
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I met Gibson a few weeks prior to “The Passion’s” release. I was part of a focus group of about seventy people – one of many groups invited to a screening of a rough cut of the film in multiple cities – and Gibson showed up, took questions, and gave us a couple hours of his time over and above the screening time for the film. I saw a visibly shy man who had already absorbed massive amounts of criticism for a film no one had yet seen. Although we were all Christian leaders and expected to be at least sympathetic to his efforts, he seemed fearful that we too would open fire. I saw also a man who believed – despite his clearly expressed faith in the Lord who had rescued him from alcohol and self-destruction twelve years earlier – that he could prevail over his personal crises on personal strength alone. That is a recipe for disaster, and especially in a recovering addict.
But I keep remembering that screening and picture a man so humble on the one hand, and so committed to making a film that glorified his Lord on the other, that he sought – and accepted – recommendations from the audience for improving it. One strategic scene in particular was seriously modified for the theatrical release as a result of our input; there may have been others. At the same time, his grim determination to tough things out makes him more a slave to pride than he is to alcohol. But which one of us is free from that addictive demon? His fall should serve as a lesson.
Mel Gibson is an amazingly talented and committed man. I love films like “Braveheart” and “Signs” and “The Patriot” – where he portrays strong but conflicted characters battling their personal demons and seeking the face of God as the only and ultimate solution. I loved “Gallipoli”, and I hate films like the “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon” franchises – because the latter are, to me, all action and no struggle for truth and abundant life.
If Mel Gibson is anti-Semitic in his heart, and not just a man who struck out blindly and stupidly in an alcoholic rage, then I am Santa Claus one night. And if he is anything but a flawed human being who wants to be better than he is and often blows it, I am Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. He is certainly not the Pharisee in Luke 18 who thanks God he is not like other men and goes away self-satisfied and self-congratulated. He is more like the tax collector who cries out for the mercy of the Lord and finds it in Jesus.
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And it has been ten years.
Photo credit: Kim Davies (Flickr)