'Passion' Film Sparks Impassioned Response

Australian actor and director Mel Gibson's controversial movie "The Passion of the Christ" has sparked debate and discussion around the country and has led to a few church-state problems.

The R-rated film, which depicts the last hours of the life of Jesus in graphically violent detail, opened Feb. 25 to mixed reviews. While many fundamentalists and traditionalist Catholics have praised the film, some critics have scored it as too bloody and accused Gibson of fomenting anti-Semitism by implying that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.

In Washington, D.C., a public school teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School was placed on leave after he showed portions of the film to sixth-graders in class. It was unclear how the teacher, Ronald Anthony, obtained a copy of the film, which was showing in theaters at the time.

The Washington Post reported that several students walked out of the screening. One girl, 11-year-old Cutairra Ransom, said she was upset by the film's gore.

"I saw Jesus getting beaten," she told the newspaper. "Needles were going in his arms. It was scary the way they was beating him. It made me feel really bad, terrible."

School officials said they are investigating the incident. They added that showing religious films is against school policy.

"You don't show R-rated, you don't show religious," said Principal Vaughn C. Kimbrough. He said the school would provide counseling for any students upset by the movie.

In Oklahoma, public high school personnel in one community apparently helped promote an outing to see a special advance screening of the film sponsored by a fundamentalist Christian group. Education officials in Ardmore allowed representatives with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), a student group, to distribute promotional flyers offering students a chance to see the movie for free at a theater after school hours. Due to the film's rating, students had to first get parental permission.

Brent Smith, a youth pastor at Southwest Baptist Church in Ardmore, told Baptist Press News Service that FCA leaders asked kids already involved with the evangelical organization to hold off claiming tickets so that "the majority of the kids we would see would be lost or unchurched."

Students attended special screenings on Feb. 24, the day before the film opened nationally.

"We enlisted either a teacher, an FCA huddle leader or a counselor in each district as a contact person," Smith said. "We told the students to go to that person and get their permission slips and sign up. As they did that, the contact person wrote their name, address and phone number on a list."

In Denver, several cadets at the Air Force Academy were reprimanded after they used the academy's e-mail system to encourage attendance at the film, the Associated Press reported.

Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. John Rosa reminded cadets that rules forbid product endorsements at the academy. Rosa acted after some cadets complained about the e-mails, pointing out that not all cadets are Christians.

"When you put on your uniform, you do not have to leave your faith or religious convictions behind," Rosa wrote to cadets. "Nonetheless, we all need to be sensitive and considerate to those who may not share our beliefs."

In Missouri, state legislators saw "The Passion of the Christ" for free, courtesy of two Baptist churches. Baptist Press News Service reported that the churches purchased 197 tickets for a Feb. 23 screening, enough for each state legislator. More than 100 came.

The Rev. Odell Beauchamp, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Festus-Crystal City, one of the churches that sponsored the event, said he hoped the film would lead the lawmakers to examine their religious lives.

"I think it's a tremendous evangelism tool," Beauchamp said. "For lawmakers to go and see it, I just really believe it will touch their lives. My prayer is that this will impact them in their decisions also."