Review of “The Passion of the Christ”

1] I was asked to review this movie because I am a Pastor of the ELCA whose father was Jewish in heritage and because I have an active relationship with members and organizations of the Jewish community in Chicago.

[2] If I may be permitted a personal comment, I would mention that as a child around 1952 in Australia I was deeply affected reading about the Holocaust, realizing for the first time that our last name could have killed our family. During high school I experienced anti-Semitic comments from one teacher. My family, including my father, was Christian and yet the Jewish aspects of our father’s heritage involved me in my making sense of the postwar world and the churches’ painfully uncritical hostility to Jews.

[3] Perhaps that may warn the reader off from this review. But, if you grant me your patience in reading this article, I hope that your caution may prove to be unnecessary.

[4] Preparing for ministry academically I was very grateful for the insight my teachers gave me on how to frame the nature and use of the Bible in the church. This movie raises this issue for pastors and lay persons alike. While I believe that the Bible is inspired of God, I do not forget that God inspired the authors of the Gospels to write in their historical contexts with their insights and oversights.

[5] I think it is fruitful to consider that the four Gospels, written in a range of several decades after the death of Jesus, were composed in an atmosphere of conflict of both Jewish and Gentile Christians with non-Christian Jews. Real conflicts: divided families and synagogues, a struggle by this emerging Christian movement for recognition by the Roman Imperial power, a recognition to distinguish them from the ancient non-Christian Jews —these are the subtexts of the four Gospels we cherish.

[6] Given this background of conflict and struggle, we cannot assume that the portrayals of Jews and of the Romans in the Passion narratives, upon which this film is built, are historically accurate. The vision of the Passion events, seen from contexts some 30 to 60 years later, has been affected by the local struggles. Given this assumption, we really do not know what happened to bring about Jesus’ crucifixion. It is quite possible that Jewish leaders could have been involved. It is more certain that Roman Imperial power was involved given that the common testimony was that Jesus was crucified —a Roman form of capital punishment.

[7] We ought to see and to reflect on this movie with this subtext of struggle and recognition taking place. With humility in not knowing the actual events and persons involved, the movie is nevertheless a valuable art form to help us understand the extent of horrible suffering Jesus and other victims of Roman power would have possibly experienced. I know I was deeply moved as I had been reading about the Holocaust at nine years of age.

[8] The question now is what to make of that awful suffering. What the movie does is raise the question of the meaning of the doctrine of the Atonement. This will be answered variously depending on how the story has been told to you. Or, perhaps, that the idea that God needed blood satisfaction for our wrongdoings is hard to make sense of for some people. I want to say that Jesus has suffered and died enough for everyone —we do not need to suffer and die, to cause others to suffer and die —but to live. While the sufferings and sacrifices of my parents move me to guilt consciousness, the unalloyed love for all their children moves me more deeply.

[9] Similarly, the picture of Jesus’ suffering and death must be balanced, if we are to have really good, healing and inspiring news, by his teachings and example of love for all —especially the marginalized.

[10] Because of centuries of literal reading of our sacred Scriptures, without the frame of the subtexts of conflict and recognition, we have marginalized Jews and other followers of God. Whereas the Jewish Jesus embraced the marginalized Samaritan, we have yet to embrace the Jews, God’s people of an eternal covenant, whom we have not only marginalized but, wittingly or unwittingly, sought to humiliate, even exterminate. Why has this happened?

[11] There are many reasons, but chief among them is clinging to a way of reading Scripture that avoids our asking the hard questions about our forebears who wrote these very human and yet, paradoxically, very divine Gospels. This is the challenge of preachers, Bible teachers and catechists: helping our people to see both the divine and the human in our Gospels.

[12] In conclusion I turn to the future and not the past. If Bible interpretation produces hate, prejudice and “fear of the Jews,” to use a biblical phrase, then what fruit is that? The Bible should not only convict us of our sins, both personal and communal, but also empower us with a Spirit of love that accepts, respects and learns from a people who have heard God speak to them as Jews. Is that not what he died for? So, go see the movie in this light.