There are two explanations as to why the plague didn’t devastate the small Bavarian town of Oberammergau. The first is that, in 1633, the residents made a sacred vow that if they were spared they would repay God by performing a Passion play for as long as the town existed. The second is that the astute Germans who lived in this picturesque settlement at the foot of the Alps posted guards in the area and refused entry to newcomers. The romantic to the prosaic, the theological to the medical. Either way, it worked. While most of Europe was losing large chunks of its population, Oberammergau remained healthy.
And ever since they have kept their word—who would be brave enough not to?—and, with a handful of exceptions for the odd war, the villagers have gathered together to recreate the last days of Christ. It’s usually performed every 10 years, and in 2010 (this year’s play opened May 15 and runs until Oct. 3), more than half a million people will sit for six hours as 2,000 actors, all of whom have to have been born in the town or have been a resident for at least 20 years, continue the plague-defying and God-thanking tradition. It’s a big production and it’s a big business: $40 million in tickets and goodness knows how much in sales of books, hats, bags, pictures, carvings and statues. I write this, by the way, while wearing a deluxe Passion play T-shirt.
The actors, though, aren’t paid above basic expenses, and they act, sing and work as though this is personal, this is family. To a large extent it is. It’s profoundly moving as an experience, whether in a religious, dramatic or simply historical context. How could it not be so? The location is the Alps, the history is an unbroken link to the early 17th century, and the story is, well, the greatest one ever told. As such there is a glorious juxtaposition of simplicity and sophistication—in front of a bucolic backcloth there is the most modern sound equipment and set design. But there’s also baggage here. Hitler saw the play twice and praised it for its able presentation of “the menace of Jewry.” Oddly enough, he didn’t dwell on the peace, love and forgiveness bits. The Nazis saw it all as peasants doing what peasants do, uncluttered and untainted by urban modernity. When the obese cross-dresser and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring heard the word “culture” he allegedly reached for his gun. When Nazi propagandists heard the word they reached for the Passion play.
Cheap trips were organized for loyal Germans, and the party paid for posters advertising the production. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a new, National Socialist script.
So I, as a Roman Catholic with a Jewish father whose family escaped Poland not so many years ago, approached the whole thing with a certain degree of what could kindly be called ambivalence, more harshly described as cultural and emotional schizophrenia. The reality, though, is that if any one entity epitomizes the new, postwar Germany at ease with its atavistic guilt and open to admission and contrition, it’s the Passion play. What is at the core and heart of all this is the extraordinary transformation from the Jew as Christ-killer to the Jew as Christ.
Indeed, one of the reasons that the play is so long—too long in fact—is that the latest script goes to such lengths to emphasize the Jewishness of the story and the essentially internal struggle within first-century Judaism between supporters and opponents of Jesus.
If anything, everybody tries just a little too hard. The nasty, avaricious merchants in the temple are hardly mentioned, Jesus is constantly described as a rabbi, the Sanhedrin divide loudly and almost violently over messianic meanings, the crowd that condemns Jesus is also bursting with His followers, and the menorahs are larger and more numerous than at a meeting of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
But cynicism would be a painfully flawed reaction. This has all come about not because of some human rights commission intrusion or the spasm of contrived political correctness, but due to a new, organic relationship between Jew and Catholic. It’s not as though Germans don’t know about what happened 70 years ago.
They’re taught it in schools, they’re lectured about it by their political leaders, and they’re the best financial and moral friend Israel will ever have. Very few Germans complain about this, and in Bavaria in particular the conservative, Catholic right has long embraced philo-Semitism.
The producers of the play began to approach Jewish organizations for advice decades ago, and in this latest rendering there is one particularly moving moment when the actor depicting Jesus recites the first verses of the Shema in perfect Hebrew. This is the central prayer of Judaism—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”—and when spoken by a German actor in a Bavarian town that once boasted a strong Nazi party membership it is chillingly effective. Words spoken by millions of Jews before they were murdered by German soldiers now echoing in the German night and listened to with a tearful respect by everybody on the stage. The history and evolution of a relationship between Jew and German crystallized in a single moment.
This new friendship isn’t confined to Germany, of course, and it’s been considered a self-evident truth within post-Holocaust Christianity that the Christ story is essentially a Jewish one. But in the past 10 years, many liberal Protestants have begun to almost institutionalize anti-Zionism as one of their new sacraments. When religious orthodoxy leaves, political radicalism fills the vacuum. In this country, the United Church in particular, as its membership hemorrhages away, has embraced a fashionable opposition to Israel that sometimes spills over into an aching insensitivity to Jewish feelings. In the United States, Britain and northern Europe, we’ve seen similar clumsiness from Anglicans, Presbyterians and Lutherans. It’s not that they have no right to criticize Israel, but it might be nice if they realized that if Christians had acted more like Christians in the first place, the Jews of Europe would have been less enthusiastic about building a safe national homeland in the Middle East.
The Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals in particular have not followed this path, and have done most things possible to repent for what happened in the past. Sometimes it’s been difficult, with evangelicals unjustly being accused of using Jews as part of their end-times ideology, and Catholics having to endure waves of attacks for the supposed indifference of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. The latter seems finally to be dribbling away as yet another report from a non-Catholic group reveals just how courageous and active was the pope and the Vatican and Church throughout the Second World War. In other words, sometimes it’s been a one-way street—and this isn’t always mentioned, partly out of genuine decency on the part of Christians but also due to fears of being accused of anti-Semitism.
Some of the writings by Jewish authors around the Passion play have been so uncompromising as to be unhelpful and even damaging. Professor James Shapiro from Columbia University is a good example, with his influential 2000 book Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play. The book dwells on an occasionally ugly past and seems annoyingly reluctant to admit the triumphs of the present. It’s as though no reform is good enough, no motivation sufficiently pure. As my friend Rabbi Reuben Poupko in Montreal has it, “Jews can never take yes for an answer.” I always remember a story a colleague told me about a private screening of the movie produced by Garth Drabinsky entitled The Gospel of John. It was a dry, literal version of the New Testament book, but the evangelical, Christian Zionist consultants to the film had done everything possible to make this an in-house Jewish story. At the end of the screening, the lights came on and there sat the beaming Christian moviemakers and their proud Jewish producer. They were preparing their “It was the least we could do but thank you for the praise anyway” response. Silence. Then a leading Jewish community leader stood up and in portentous tones asked, “How could you have done this to us, Garth, how could you have done this?”
This liturgical dance around historical injustice and contemporary overreaction will doubtless continue, but it would be far better choreographed if we could be brutally honest. There is such a thing as Jewish anti-Christian feeling just as there still is anti-Semitism. But the Jewish people’s problem ceased to be Christians a long time ago, and now comes from a very different religion indeed. It’s tragic that there are still people who seem to prefer denial and ancient feuds to making that tough leap of understanding about the genuine culture war that is being fought. Oberammergau is a living symbol of hope and reconciliation, not of past wrongs, and to interpret it in any other way is not only dumb but dangerous.
As we left the huge auditorium that night in Bavaria, just a few miles from the border with the Austria that was the birthplace to little Hitler, we heard an American couple with deep southern accents discussing what they’d just seen. They were delightful, thoughtful people. “I hadn’t realized just how Jewish He was,” said the husband. “Me neither,” replied the wife. “That’s lovely. Just lovely.” It is, really. In German as well as in English.