Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hollywood and interreligious dialogue

As both a cinephile and someone interested in interreligious dialogue, I note with some fascination that Kirk Douglas, who is ethnically Jewish,* has spoken out about Mel Gibson, advising Mel to get Catholic help:

Movie veteran KIRK DOUGLAS has advised disgraced MEL GIBSON to seek help from his own Catholic church leaders before speaking with rabbis and Jewish groups. Gibson outraged Jewish community leaders last month (JUL06) when an anti-Semitic rant he made during a police arrest hit the headlines. The MAD MAX star has since apologised for his drunken comments and is now seeking help from Jewish leaders in Los Angeles to help him make amends. But in a column in today's (11AUG06) Daily Variety trade paper, Jewish Douglas has further blasted Gibson for his comments and urged him to seek "spiritual guidance" from his own church. The angry SPARTACUS star writes: "Mel's first apology was too contrite and seemingly not remorseful. His second was an afterthought. Mel is now ready to talk to a Jewish group or a rabbi. I disagree. He is a Catholic and appears to need some spiritual guidance. Perhaps he should talk to one of his own faith. Maybe CARDINAL ROGER MAHONEY (Los Angeles cleric) could be a great help." But Douglas does accept that Gibson desperately needs help for his alcoholism, which prompted his anti-Jew rant. The movie legend adds, "This is a serious problem that Mel has to face... Mel is in a mess." Douglas stops short of calling Gibson, himself, an anti-Semite, adding, "I don't find Mel Gibson anti-Semitic. He worked with Jews and has a lot of Jewish friends."

11/08/2006 20:00

Full points to Mr. Douglas for exhibiting enough compassion and perceptivity not to brand Mel an anti-Semite. I've written on this already: alcohol doesn't reveal the real you. If it did, we should concede the dubious contention held by some feminists that all men are potential rapists: after all, a lot of drunk guys feel freer to grab ass than sober guys do. That makes them all rapists, right? No: your rationality, which is no less a part of you than your animality, is a major component of the real you. When you're drunk, much of that rationality disappears, and you become less than the real you.

While I think the Gibson issue is more about alcohol and personality than it is explicitly about religion, I'm interested in Douglas's recommendation that Gibson seek help from fellow Catholics. This suggestion stems from a recognition that one's own community likely contains the medicine one needs; the recommendation is also on a par with the Dalai Lama's insistence that Christians should deepen their Christian practice, Muslims their Muslim practice, etc. There's a dash of nonconvergent pluralism in such a stance, which I appreciate.

Besides, historically speaking, Jews haven't held their religion up as a panacea for the world's ills. It would be quite odd for Mr. Douglas to suggest that Mel get a taste of that old-time Judaism. While Judaism has had its moments of proselytism, these moments have been few and far between: as a matter of religious history, Jews have generally kept to themselves. Their religion cannot legitimately be characterized as "missionary." That the Jews might view themselves as the Chosen People has also been misinterpreted by many non-Jews as some sort of religious elitism. From within the religion, however, quite a few Jews cry, "Why us, Lord?"-- an attitude with plenty of scriptural justification, and very much a part of (dare I use a PoMo expression?) the collective Jewish metanarrative.** Even the most famous Jew of all, Jesus, had his version of the "Why me?" moment in the garden of Gethsemane.

More generally: the idea that the adherent of a given religious tradition might find healing and succor within his own community is, to my mind, legitimate. Mr. Douglas is right to suggest that Mel take such a course. While I disagree that all religions are self-complete, I believe they do address, each in their own ways, most of humanity's basic needs and questions. And before a person from one tradition tries to reach out to people in another, as Mel seems to want to do, it does make sense to seek grounding in one's own tradition first: sincere dialogue demands this as a prerequisite.

However, there is one practical problem with Mr. Douglas's suggestion: Gibson is not a mainstream Catholic, which makes me wonder to what extent he feels he is part of the larger Roman Catholic fold. Not having access to Gibson himself, I don't know the answer to this. And while I, like Mr. Douglas, am not willing to condemn ol' Mel as an anti-Semite, I do wonder about the breadth and depth of the man's religious and cultural prejudices. Those prejudices, coupled with Mel's natural nuttiness (he did, after all, turn violent in that police car, banging himself repeatedly against its interior), present a danger all their own.

*I was unsure whether Mr. Douglas was a practicing Jew, which is why I referred to him as ethnically Jewish: he was born to Belarusian Jewish parents according to this Wikipedia article. However, a glance over at E! Online reveals an article claiming that Mr. Douglas is indeed a "devout" Jew.

**For more on the idea that chosenness is not a privilege but a responsibility, see p. 171 of Fasching, Darrell J. and Dell Dechant. Comparative Religious Ethics. Malden (MA): Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001.


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