The Passion According to Mel

[1] The latest film by Australian film-maker and actor Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, has kept people busy both at the box office and at the computer. Biblical scholars scramble to assess the scriptural authenticity of the dialogue. Theologians of all stripes sift scenes for implicit theories of atonement. Jewish leaders register appropriate outrage at the film’s portrayal of the Temple hierarchy. And movie reviewers have had a field day critiquing film, audience, and other critics. A violent movie invited violent responses from all sides of any ideological spectrum. My modest contribution hopes to create an oasis of calm amidst the mudslinging.

[2] Title to the contrary, the film may not be primarily about Jesus. The film says as much about Mel Gibson and his piety as it says about Jesus. But this seems an occupational hazard for someone who is fully human and fully divine. Jesus offers a window through which mere creatures look into the heart of their Creator. At the same time, he also holds a mirror up to us, forcing us to look at the human condition in close-up. It’s important not to confuse the two views. I’d like to focus on the latter view of the human condition, asking what a violent film and its violent reception say about our time, our tastes, and our task.

Our times….
[3] Some critics seem shocked that Gibson would tackle the crucifixion, as if it were an event better left unprobed, the stuff of the laconic language of creeds. They should attend to the history of film-making. Every decade in recent memory has produced its own Jesus, and the resulting productions leave a fascinating record of attempts to make the Son of God in our own image. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964) liberated Jesus from captivity to the ecclesiastical establishment and presented him as an outcast Italian peasant. The movie highlighted the teachings of Jesus, counter-cultural in every time. If you knew Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the film was a great way to practice your Italian. Andrew Lloyd Weber walzed in with “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) in the Seventies, and Weber’s lyrical score conspired with New Age sensibilities to smooth the rough edges away from both Jesus and his message. Martin Scorcese’s film of Nikos Katzanzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ” boldly introduced a Jesus who worked miracles, a direct assault on scientific attempts to explain away the mysteries. Supernatural healing comes easy to this Jesus, but teaching is harder. Played to perfection by Willem Dafoe, Scorcese’s Jesus stumbles through the Sermon on the Mount, as if he is struggling to remember his lines. As events grind toward Jerusalem, this Jesus wants to climb out of his script, and he dies longing for a life of wife and children, marriage and family he was never destined to have. Canadian film-maker Denys Arcand’s “Jesus of Montreal” (1990) zooms in on a Montreal theater troupe beginning rehearsal for the annual passion play. The play begins to leak into the lives of the players, and both Jesus and the actor in his role suffer persecution for tackling the status quo.

[4] Now, as we watch Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ it’s worth remembering that every decade has its Jesus. These efforts record the signs of the times even more than they recount the story of the Son of God. They speak to our own deepest longings, whether for a teacher of timeless truths (Pasolini), or a New Age guru (Weber), or a return of mystery to a world weary of scientific reasoning (Scorcese), or a counter-cultural witness in a culture of consumerist consumption (Arcand). The question then becomes: What deep human longing does “The Passion According to Mel” address?

[5] I am sympathetic to the fear that The Passion reveals a residue of cultural anti-Semitism, and I am appalled by the church in Denver that advertized its Ash Wednesday services with a sign that said “the Jews killed Jesus.” Yet I found that the movie did not so easily locate blame. The Romans get high marks for brutality. Throughout the film they sadistically indulge in scourging, flogging, and gratuitous violence. In greater and lesser degrees, the disciples Judas and Peter waver in their loyalty to their master. Even Jesus’ mother hesitates. Torn between her desire to be with her son and revulsion at what she sees, she cannot bring herself to approach Jesus as he staggers through the streets of Jerusalem under the weight of his cross. Memory must prompt her, and only when she recalls a much younger Jesus falling in the midst of childhood play is she shaken into solidarity. In some of the advance literature for the movie, Gibson says that he held the nail driven into Jesus’ hand and that he made Judas’ dying cry. Like the androgynous figure of Satan threading through the jeering crowd, blame for the crucifixion touches everyone-including those in the audience.

[6] But I found the political dimensions of the movie even more disturbing, because they so closely parallel the present. The Romans occupied Galilee at the time of Jesus’ death, and it was a brutal occupation which bled the Jews of their lifeblood and their wealth. Taxation was high; humiliation was everyday and everywhere; and insurrection was no empty threat. The Romans were outnumbered by the people, and they knew it, a knowledge that only escalated their brutality. Anything could ignite the wrath of the people, and Pilate constantly calculates the cost of his actions. I didn’t find him sympathetic or weak, as so many of critics did. He comes off as a shrewd negotiator as husband and as consul-and he knew he was caught in circumstances that could easily surge beyond his control. So are the high priests, and their negotiations with Pilate are powerfully rendered. On one hand, they barely mask their contempt for the Romans; on the other, they barely hide their fear. Behind the Roman and the Jewish leaders there is a faceless, angry crowd, and incurring its displeasure means certain death. No one has the upper hand in this situation, except perhaps the one who says to Pilate “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above….” (John 19:11) And he gets crucified.

[7] People wonder how this movie will play in largely Jewish or Muslim countries. I wonder how it plays in occupied-and occupying-countries. Now in our eleventh month of occupation in Iraq, we in the United States know to our cost that volatile mixture of fear and hatred that occupation manufactures on all sides. While possessed of superior military might, U.S. troops know that the Iraqis have the superior numbers-and could marshal them in an instant. Might on one side and sheer numbers on the other come together with devastating toxicity. It is shocking to imagine that the brutality we witness on the silver screen in “The Passion” could be happening in Iraq, in Guantanamo, in Pakistani military barracks to which the U.S. remands its terrorist suspects for questioning. That fact should shock us far more than the violence we witness onscreen. Every decade that has produced a movie of the story of Jesus has also served up real-life versions of the brutality that Gibson portrays. Only think of the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, Nicaragua. My only hope is that in looking at Gibson’s graphic presentation of torture, we will be horrified to learn that it still goes on. If we regard this kind of physical brutality as an anachronistic practice of ancient and unenlightened peoples, we deceive ourselves-and the truth is not in us.

Our tastes….
[8] One reviewer wrote, “If you didn’t like the book, you won’t like the movie!” Moviegoers who loved the book feel cheated, and moviegoers who don’t know the book at all meet Jesus for the first time as “Braveheart.” There are two big problems with packing the whole Jesus story into the passion. The first problem is that you miss the beginning. Gone is Matthew’s lengthy genealogy, a document that seems stolidly patriarchal until we notice the interruptions: Ruth, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Mary. Gone are the spirited words of the evangelist in a hurry: Mark’s breathless account of Jesus’ baptism and the string of healings and miracles that follow in its wake. Gone is Luke’s gracious birth narrative, which cannot introduce Jesus without the presence of angels and strong women. Gone is John’s cosmic invocation of the Word who was in the beginning with God, who “was with God,” who “was God.” In short, without these portraits of Jesus from the four evangelists, we never know who Jesus really was and what he was really up to.

[9] Gibson’s Christ is just another guy who gets beat up unfairly. It’s bloody and it’s unjust, but the audience is never pressed to ponder why God became human in the first place. We’re robbed of the insight of another theologian whose name began with the letter “A:” St. Athanasius’ conviction that God became human, so that humans might become divine. We miss liberation theologian Jon Sobrino’s challenge that practices of political and economic oppressions crucify the poor around the world every day. Nor can we be comforted that in these moments of deepest suffering, Christ is present, because Christ has suffered. Through Christ God takes on the whole range of human experience. That’s why God became human to begin with.

[10] The second big problem with collapsing the Jesus story into the passion is that you miss the ending. Beyond the cross lies resurrection. Resurrection does not give us a merely resuscitated body, as Gibson’s final sequence of a restored Jesus leaving the tomb suggests. Resurrection means a resurrected body: new life, new body, and full communion with God. It’s probably hard to put this on film, and we’ll only know it when we get there. But we aren’t there with Gibson’s film.

[11] The Passion plays Jesus’ suffering and death as his life’s climax. This is crucifixion without resurrection, Good Friday without the pilgrimage of Lent, and suffering without Jesus’ very deliberate teachings about the “suffering servant.” I have to confess that the movie scared me, and it scared me because it sucked me in. But then evil is like that: it sucks us in, drawing us into the black hole it creates. Evil is always more fascinating than good, which seems dull and lack-luster in comparison. “Give me a grand villain any day!” even if he gets blown up at the end. Throw a good guy into the works, and you’ve got a concept, the makings of a great Hollywood script. I reviewed a book on evil once, a book which moved from petty addiction to major-league vice to Satanism and devil worship. I suspect the author wanted to show a seamless spectrum of sinning, but I felt he had gotten seduced by his topic, sucked in by the subject matter. Evil enthralls us, and fourth century St. Augustine knew why. Bishop of an ancient city in North Africa close to where Gibson filmed The Passion, Augustine puzzled over the problem of evil and finally concluded that it was the absence of the good. We know that nature cannot stand a vacuum, and neither can evil, feeding off goodness to give itself the charade of substance. Since we’re talking movies here, the soundtrack for Augustine’s insight is the sound of water flushing endlessly down the working end of a toilet.

Our tasks…
[12] I needed a long walk and an even longer shower after seeing The Passion. I felt dirtied, beat up, bludgeoned by the brutality. It all went on too long, and repetition intended to impress only numbed me instead. I understand critics who rate the film as “religious pornography.” But I refuse to dismiss the film.

[13] In conclusion, I think Gibson’s effort commits me to two tasks. The first is to remember Jesus-and to remember him whole. By whole, I don’t mean remembering the beautiful resuscitated body of actor James Caveziel walking into the light. By whole, I mean the whole story of Jesus, beginning to end. That story did not end with the crucifixion: it began with incarnation and ended with resurrection. That story continued, as Jesus returned to bring his feckless disciples the thing they most needed: peace (John 20). It continued, as Jesus came back to cook them breakfast by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21). It continues today as we break bread and drink wine in his memory, becoming his body in the world. Fed on his body and blood we Christians re-member Christ’s body, as we are knit together bone-on-bone, flesh-on-flesh in service to the neighbor.

[14] Remembering Jesus means being reminded of him, not merely to recall his story but to receive his mind. Paul writes his beloved Philippians to re-mind them of Jesus: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus….” (Phil. 2:5-11) Then he telegraphs the life of Jesus in the cadence of a hymn. True to Gibson’s film, this Jesus “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” but where Gibson ends the film, Paul keeps the camera rolling. This Jesus was also “highly exalted,” and God bestowed on him “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow….” I want to commit myself to remembering Jesus and receiving the mind of Christ.

[15] The second task is both more difficult-and more ordinary. We need to live into the promised resurrection. “Practice resurrection,” Wendell Berry writes in his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” I doubt we’ll get any help on this from Gibson, so don’t hold your breath for the sequel. The hard work of resurrection doesn’t make for an exciting script. Rather, it’s done in the quotidian: being an informed citizen, a responsible teacher, a good mother or father, a loving child. Practicing resurrection is meted out in the tiny gestures we make in our everyday lives to step away from violence and to make peace. Gibson’s film does not prepare us well for the day-to-day business of practicing resurrection, but the Gospels do. My hope is that people who liked the movie will want more contact with the real thing.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).