National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 19, 2004

The anti-Christian 'Passion of the Christ'


Of all the opinions proffered regarding Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” no one to my knowledge has named one of the most biting offenses and ironic qualities of the film: It is not a Christian movie. Why?

• Depictions of Jesus that claim to represent the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but that minimize his Jewishness by an exaggerated separation from his ethnic-religious context cannot be called Christian. Christian faith holds that Jesus as Christian Messiah was born, raised, lived and died a Jewish man.

‘Passion’ stirs passion

Even before it opened, Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial, with some claiming the movie was anti-Semitic or could fuel latent anti-Semitism. The controversy has not been put to rest with the movie’s opening. In their discussion of the historical truth of the Gospels, the movie’s portrait of Christ and Christianity and the charge of anti-Semitism, these writers (Miller, Beaudoin and Tapia) reflect some of the divergent responses the movie has occasioned.
-- Margot Patterson, opinion editor

The movie sets Jesus against Jews by way of appeal to stereotypical depictions of Jews, whether in the form of an appalling fade-out/fade-in shot from a profile of the apostle Peter’s hooked nose to a profile of the high priest Caiaphas’ nose; or in the guise of bloodthirsty, Jesus-hating Jewish clerics. None of the primary Jewish characters on the “good side” in the movie (Jesus or his mother, for example) are portrayed with any easily identifiable “Jewish” characteristics, such as the prayer shawls that identify most of the Jews on the “bad side.”

This dichotomy removes Jesus from his own religious family, threatening to make him simply a cipher from nowhere, a universal “holy man” -- a muting of Jesus’ particularity.

• Depictions of Jesus that treat his suffering as the singular triumph of a spiritual hero cannot be called Christian. Christian faith holds that Jesus experienced the same banality of evil and terror that many political prisoners of his day underwent, and that in this way God shared humanly in the unjust sufferings experienced in everyday human life.

The movie over-individualizes the violence done to Jesus, to the point of making a sick fetish of it. By so relentlessly depicting the scourging, the dehydration, the nails driven into hands and feet, the crowning with thorns, and all manner of physical abuse against Jesus, he is made into a new kind of action hero.

He is not an action hero like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson himself, but, paradoxically, a heroic action antihero. Jesus takes center stage as action hero by being the drenched center of excessive violence. Although Jesus does not physically fight back (despite a brief demonstration that he can take it like a man by picking himself up during his scourging), he becomes the heroic antihero by out-divining everyone else. He is beaten to a pulp, but no one can possibly match him in terms of his divinity.

For example, he speaks flawless Latin when addressed by Pilate; he maintains a serene equanimity throughout, cushioned by scenes of him offering gnomic scriptural sayings while bathed in soft light; the heavens and earth literally shake and tremble when he dies, and the “bad Jews” get their punishment when their own Temple falls apart; the devil is seen confronting and tempting Jesus, and only Jesus, throughout; and most oddly of all, the devil taunts Jesus at the beginning by saying that no one has it within him to take on the iniquity of the world and save all souls -- addressing Jesus from the start as a superhuman being, as an action hero in the making.

Gibson’s Jesus sheds more light on us than on the Passion. His Christ could only ascend to this heroic action antihero status in a culture where we neither encounter nor take responsibility for our own violence. If we Americans regularly saw, for example, the bloodied corpses of Iraqi women and children, or American soldiers’ mangled bodies in the papers and on television, this film would not have the same shocking and exclusivizing hold on our imaginations that it does. Brutal physical violence would be more immediately connected to real pain, to authentic devastation, and to our own complicit tolerance for a faraway war on the condition that we are not drafted and are not told how much of our tax money pays for each Iraqi civilian death.

In this way, “The Passion” also over-individualizes the Christian message by portraying violence against Jesus himself as a central concern of Christian faith, separating this violence from violence in our own lives today. At the showing I attended in Boston, people were eating popcorn, drinking Cokes and Icees, and eating pretzels, while we all sat in comfortable cushioned reclining chairs during the mayhem. The movie further over-individualizes Christianity by divorcing Jesus’ crucifixion from other crucifixions, as if his were utterly unique, as if he were the only one to suffer such intense and humiliating violence. In this way, we are kept from seeing the banality of his death as something suffered by thousands of other political prisoners in his day.

For these reasons, “The Passion” cannot be called a Christian film. Moreover, if these depictions of Jesus are taken by viewers to be accurate representations of the meaning and message of Jesus, then the movie is functionally anti-Christian. It is anti-Christian insofar as the overfixation on violence against Jesus provides a dramatic and persuasive escape hatch from the more complicated and demanding witness of the Gospels: that a man whose intimacy with God reverberated through changed relationships that threatened the religious and political powers of his day, and that our own intimacy with God may demand no less.

If the movie is used as an escape from this Gospel demand, we may well imagine that Jesus is sitting with his popcorn and Coke, watching the movie next to us, crying like so many of us in the theater, but for a different reason, as he silently says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Tom Beaudoin is visiting assistant professor of theology at Boston College, and the author of Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy (Sheed and Ward).

National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004

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