Religion

Intolerance on trial, and the jury’s still out

Marcia Douglas October 30 1978
Religion

Intolerance on trial, and the jury’s still out

Marcia Douglas October 30 1978

Intolerance on trial, and the jury’s still out

Religion

Tad Jaworski is quietly watching the turmoil he hath wrought, and enjoying it. He is the creator of The Jesus Trial, a TV series yet to receive its first breath of air time but already shaking the religious world with apprehensions reminiscent only of those preceding broadcast of last year’s Holocaust. Some theologians do not want the series to be aired at all; Jews and Christians alike denounce it in the press as biased, anti-church, likely to stir up anti-Semitism. Some TV critics write that the series is flawed, uneven, jarring. The producers, from Ontario’s educational channel, TV Ontario, run a disclaimer at the front of the film stating it “may be intellectually or emotionally disturbing to some people.” May be? It obviously is.

“I made this film to stir people up,” says Jaworski, an expatriate Polish film-maker who came to Canada in 1969. “As long as people go to church and pray and return immediately to intoler-

ance in their daily lives, we must endeavor to convince them they are wrong.” The Jesus Trial traces Jesus’ life and death and the persecution that followed in his name. Scheduled for broadcast on four consecutive Sundays this November on TVO, the series took two years and $500,000 of TVO’s money to complete. And the furor in Ontario’s religious commmunity is only the beginning; network sales are being negotiated now ih the rest of Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

The story is woven from five different visual elements into what Jaworski calls a “drama of facts.” “Drama,” because it tells a story. “Facts,” because the elements exist—Jaworski did not invent them. The largest piece is a trial that took place in Troyes, France, in 1974; lawyer and author Jacques Isorni (Marshall Pétain’s defence lawyer) sued a priest, Abbé Georges de Nantes, for libel. Isorni and his book, The True Trial of Jesus, contending that Pontius Pilate alone, and not the Jews, was responsible for the death of Christ, were attacked in print by de Nantes in his

right-wing periodical, Catholic Counter-Reformation in the 20th Century. Isorni won. According to Jaworski, this was the only trial in 2,000 years in which civil court judges actually heard evidence and handed down a verdict that cleared Jews of all responsibility for Jesus’ death.

Threaded into the re-enactment of the trial as further drama of facts are: film footage of a bloody passion play staged every year in Ixtapalapa, Mexico (a million peasants from 65 villages follow a chosen “Jesus” to Calvary, where he is hung from a cross); dialogues with 17 theologians, historians and scholars on issues raised by the trial; rare documentary and archival footage from Auschwitz, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Ireland and other recent scenes of religious war. And finally, Christopher Plummer, as the on-camera host, reads scripture and poses questions, focusing the series like a zoom lens. “I wanted to do something so powerful that the facts are the drama,” says Jaworski. “I wanted to build a bridge from the crucifixion to today. You cannot cheat your audience—my camera is honest to the extreme.”

Which is not to say that his camera’s honesty is not carefully crafted by his vision. When de Nantes proclaims that “the Jews wanted to be punished” and Jaworski cuts to death-camp scenes never before broadcast, the emotional effect is staggering. “The film quite rightly wants to fight against religious

prejudice and picks up a theme that is valid and important—that the death of Jesus Christ in Christian preaching is the source of Christian anti-Semitism,” says Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian and author who is one of the film’s scholars. “But it’s a delicate thing to fight religious prejudice. If you aren’t careful, instead of removing prejudice you intensify it.” Baum ended by withdrawing his support from The Jesus Trial. “Tad presented a right-wing priest whose views are condemned by the Catholic Church. He reflects the beliefs of l’Action Française, a monarchist, anti-democratic, anti-semitic group that was condemned by Pius XI in 1926. De Nantes regards Pope Paul VI and the Vatican Council as heretical and schismatic; and was suspended in 1967—he’s hardly representative of the church,” says Baum. “Tad thinks there’s a lot of room to shake people up and I agree 100 per cent. But I think the

shaking up would have been more convincing if it had been accompanied by recognition that these issues have been raised and dealt with by Christian churches.”

Many other Toronto ecumenical leaders are worried about the fires The Jesus Trial could stoke. A group led by Roman Catholic Archbishop Emmett Carter, W.

Gunther Plaut, head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and Rabbi Jordan Pearlson of Toronto’s Board of Rabbis, is already petitioning TVO to change certain parts of The Jesus Trial—even though only two members of the deputation had seen a bare 35 minutes of film at the time the protest was organized.

Asks Irving Layton, who tasted Christian guilt over the persecution of the Jews in the uproar over his book of poems, For My Brother Jesus, and who also appears as one of Jaworski’s scholars:

“What is the big hullabaloo for, that a TV show is being broadcast that the Jews are not responsible for killing Jesus? For me, this is only the beginning.” He continues, “Many Chris-

tians have shoved the Holocaust under the carpet... ‘We can’t take this, it’s too melodramatic, exaggerated.’ I want my

Christian neighbor to be told plainly the story of Christianity’s insane and

relentless persecution of the Jew. The worst thing is indifference and that’s what I hope this program will do something to end. Apathy and indifference do have a consequence and the consequence can be murder.”

Tad Jaworski—creator, researcher , co-writer, producer, director, editor, auteur— is unfazed by the controversy: “Trying to stop this thing is ridiculous, another intolerant move by churches and synagogues formed by leaders who should be letting these ideas through to the people. Their stand is highly intolerant, a censorship of thought.” Jaworski’s vision of intolerance found a vehicle— The Jesus Trial—which is, ironically, experiencing intolerance itself. The film poses many questions, not the least of which seems to be: when will we ever learn? Jaworski is optimistic. When he talks about the first airing on Nov. 5th, he smiles, “Onward and upward. The dogs are barking and the caravan is going forward.”

Marcia Douglas