Reflections on “The Passion of the Christ”
First of all, let me begin by saying what these ramblings are not. They are not a film review. I am not a film critic, nor intend to be. They are also not a recommendation on whether to see this film or not. I repeat: I am not a film critic, nor intend to be, so I will not go about advising other people whether to see a particular film or not. Coming from someone who considers the MacKenzie Brothers’ film “Strange Brew” as equally high art as Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” -- both of which I enjoyed immensely but for very different reasons -- I know better than to impose my taste on others.
Thus I am not a film critic. I write as someone who works in inter Christian and interfaith relations, trying not to smooth over differences but to engage in honest and open dialogue. I also speak as an academic, as someone who has done doctoral work in Christianity’s relationship with those it has deemed “other”: heretics, Jews, and Muslims. I speak as a committed Christian who takes tradition and scripture seriously. I speak as a Christian who nonetheless realizes that God is bigger than Christianity. I can affirm the place of Jesus Christ as a unique revelation of God’s relationship to humankind without believing that this invalidates God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people.
I would like to comment on several elements of the film. I will speak briefly to the historical and theological, then address the question of the film’s supposed anti-Semitism, and then note some of its cultural implications before concluding with my own personal experience in viewing the film. These are just some thoughts and reflections; I in no way intend to exhaust the theological, historical, and cultural questions the film raises. To do so would require a book, so I will only comment on a few elements in each section.
Historically this film is a paradox: at times unflinchingly accurate, at times wildly inaccurate.
Perhaps the best example of its historical accuracy is the title itself – the “Passion” (from the Latin patior, “to suffer”). The suffering and crucifixion of Christ, which many have fixated on as being the most uncomfortable part of the film, are also the most historically accurate. Physical punishment and torture were routine in the ancient world, as were beatings and scourgings. Yes, perhaps the scourging of Jesus was a bit overdone – one might argue that anyone who took that amount of beating would have died from shock, trauma or blood loss – but it was not far from the truth. The ancient world was a violent and brutal world. The Crucifixion itself was mostly accurate, except for the part where the Romans have some confusion in nailing Jesus to the Cross. The Romans were well-versed in crucifixion. It would seem some of the confusion in nailing Jesus to the Cross was primarily an opportunity for Jesus’ shoulder to be dislocated.
Other elements in the film were also historically accurate. As much as we can tell from sources, the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was captured in all of its ambiguity. Yes, Jews in ancient Palestine did have certain legal prerogatives to judge other Jews. And yes, there is some uncertainty about the legality of Jesus’ proceedings. The witnesses appeared to contradict themselves (under Jewish law such testimony would be excluded) and there were questions as to whether the Sanhedrin meeting was properly called (as one of the members protested). Elements of Jesus’ trial before Pilate were mostly accurate. Pilate was the Roman governor whose capital was in Caesarea, on the coast, and was only in Jerusalem to help maintain order during the Passover feast. Jerusalem was a provincial backwater which the Romans mostly ignored. Yet during the Passover feast the city would swell to several times its normal population, and rioting and disturbances were commonplace. Pilate would relocate to Jerusalem with a reinforced guard and reside in the Praetorium, or fortress, to monitor the situation. Pilate’s main concern would have been to maintain order and prevent undue bloodshed.
Yet for a work that purported to be taken directly from the Gospel, numerous historical elements were added. Numerous scenes which are not biblical nor drawn from tradition have been added to this film, and it is these particular scenes which I at times found to be troubling. These scenes, which have no historical or traditional lineage, are added despite Gibson’s profession that he is attempting to follow the Gospels. For example, demonstrating his commitment to bringing the Gospels to film, when he was asked to remove the line from Matthew’s Gospel where, in response to a line from Pilate, the people shout that Jesus’ blood “be upon us and upon our children,” Gibson demurred that it would be difficult to do so, “because that happened.”
It is these added scenes which can be seen as troubling. I will outline several.
In depicting the graphic violence of the period – which is accurate – scenes are added to provide even more violence. For example, while being led to the Sanhedrin, Jesus is shoved over a railing of a bridge and dangled by his chains where Judas, interestingly enough, happens to be hiding underneath this bridge. While inserted, apparently, to create more dramatic tension in Judas’ character development (but then again I’m not a film critic) it adds even more violence to Jesus’ degradation (which I will come back to in the theological section). We know from history that Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion would have been violent and bloody, but Gibson seems determined to make it even moreso with added elements such as this chain-dangling and the dislocation of his shoulder noted above.
The diversity within the Jewish leadership itself is woefully ignored. There are several lines which say, for example, that “the Pharisees hate him.” However, the Pharisees were not a Jerusalem-based movement. They were primarily a Galilean one, based around the developing synagogues, and Jesus’ confrontations with them in the Gospels take place almost exclusively outside of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was focused around the Temple which was rebuilt after the Jewish people returned from the Babylonian exile and which received an enormous “facelift” from Herod the Great (37 BCE- 4 CE; in common scholarly discourse, BCE stands for Before the Common Era and replaces BC; CE stands for Common Era and replace AD to avoid a perpetuating a Christocentric rendering of time – without denying the centrality of Christ’s Incarnation for Christians, it is presumptive to force such reckonings of Muslims, Hindus, and others) . In Jerusalem, Jesus’ confrontations are with elements of the Temple leadership. He contends with lawyers, scribes, Sadducees (a different and distinct party within Judaism at the time), and the Temple priests at various times in Jerusalem. The only party mentioned is one whose has become a synonym for hypocrisy in English (“pharisaical”) and there are no attempts to account for varying parties within the Jewish leadership. The portrayal of the rich diversity of Judaism is truncated: there are the high priests and the faceless Jewish crowds that scream for Jesus’ death. This is not to say, however, that this oversimplified depiction of the Jewish leadership is monolithic; there are some who oppose Jesus’ execution and claim that his trial before the Sanhedrin is illegal. The Jews of Gibson’s piece are portrayed only on the basis of whether they are for or against Jesus.
In other areas, Gibson, as a traditionalist Catholic (more on that later) adheres faithfully to elements that tradition has ascribed and which are not clearly to be found in the Gospels. There is nothing inherently wrong in doing so; some of these traditions are centuries old. Yet he is selective in which historical traditions he chooses to include, and, despite his profession to be following the Gospels, incorporates traditional elements that directly contradict the Passion narrative he purports to portray faithfully. For example, in a flashback scene, Mary Magdalene is depicted as the woman Jesus saves from stoning in John’s gospel. This woman is never mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, and there is not a single bible verse which links Mary Magdalene to prostitution. Yet tradition has depicted her this way. I will not belabor the other examples (Veronica wiping Jesus’ face after he falls carrying the Cross, for example). I will only note that these incidents are not in the Gospels, but have been part of Christian tradition from a very early time. I could detail many other scenes. Gibson is not bringing a literal version of the Gospel narrative to the screen. If Gibson is willing to include elements of tradition, and add scenes not drawn from the Gospels or from ancient traditions, then why is he unwilling to amend certain elements of the Gospel narrative which are patently anti-Jewish and probably ahistorical?
Other historical additions I will examine in the theological section. In sum, as noted above, the historical aspects of the Passion are both historically accurate and historically inaccurate.
There are several elements of the historical additions that speak to larger theological themes in the movie. I will speak to two in this section.
The first has to do with the suffering of Jesus himself. The movie covers the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life, from the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to the Crucifixion, with a coda on the resurrection. The theological reason for doing so is stated quite clearly in the opening quotation from Isaiah 53: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” This is a long stream in Christian theology which focuses on the redemptive element of Jesus’ suffering. The actual pain, humiliation, and degradation suffered serves an atoning purpose for the sins of humankind. This is the theological reason for Gibson’s focus on Jesus’ physical suffering.
It is equally important to note that many have noted that this emphasis on the suffering of Jesus as having theological value in and of itself is a relatively late development. The Crucifix – Jesus’ broken body on the Cross with crown of thorns – is a relatively late development in medieval art. Early images have shown Jesus as young, clean shaven, and without a pained look on his face; Christus Victor, Christ the Victor, as the one really in charge of the whole Crucifixion event. Devotional exercises such as the Stations of the Cross (focusing on the Via Dolorosa or the agonies Jesus suffered the Passion), the Rosary, and the devotion to the Sacred Heart, are later still. This is not to invalidate what have been powerful and meaningful devotional practices to some: I am only noting that this is not the only historical interpretation of Jesus’ death, nor should it be scene as the only valid or determinative one. Christians have never been required to believe in a particular theology of the atonement. The mean word itself – at one ment, being made on with God through Jesus – has had a long and varied theological development.
A particular theology of atoning death of Jesus, while present in strains of Christianity, only achieved dominance in the Latin west in the Middle Ages through the theology of Anselm of Canterbury. It is important to note there have been other theologies of atonement which do not lay emphasis on the suffering of Jesus. These theologies of atonement focus on the entirety of Jesus’ life in conjunction with his suffering and death. For instance there is that of Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in the middle of the second century, who speaks of “recapitulation” or “summing up” in which Jesus birth, teaching, death, and resurrection are all inseparable elements. There is the “ransom” theology of atonement whereby Jesus’ death served as a payment to Satan and freed humankind; the fact of the death itself, and little emphasis on the suffering, is central to that theology. A later medieval notion by Peter Abelard argued that Christ’s death was part of a larger arc of his life and teaching: Christ’s life, teaching, and obedience served primarily as examples of God’s love.
I do not presume to judge between any of these theologies of the atonement, only to note that Christianity historically has had numerous ones and has not required believers to ascribe to any particular understanding the actual place of the physical suffering of Jesus. In fact, the earliest historical references to Jesus death, the letters of the apostle Paul, do not dwell on the physical suffering of Jesus at all. The mere fact of Jesus life, death on the Cross, and resurrection are all that Paul focuses on in his epistles. In fact, Paul chooses a different emphasis than that of Jesus’ suffering. Paul is well aware that Jesus died by Crucifixion, yet does not focus on the suffering and pain of such a form of execution. Rather, it is the fact that Jesus died such a shameful death, reserved for base, common criminals, which is important, not the suffering. For Paul it is part of an overturning of the conventions of this world announced in the incarnation; God took a symbol of degradation and shame and made it into the exaltation of Jesus. The only theological element Paul highlights from Jesus’ death is the obedience shown to God’s will.
Theologically it is rather obvious than Gibson’s film lays its emphasis on the atoning aspect of Jesus’ physical suffering. In and of itself, this is not particularly troubling; as I have noted, such a theology has been present in Christianity for some time. Yet he does so by doing something which is theologically deficient: he divorces the Crucifixion and Passion from the overall birth, life, and teaching of Jesus. The Passion must be read in conjunction with the entire arc of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Christian theology has been consistent in doing so, no matter what theology of atonement one might hold. Gibson has chosen to only highlight those elements of Jesus’ teaching in selective flashbacks that portray Jesus as martyr. Among these are quotes that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep; that no greater love has one that to lay down his life for his friends; that the disciples cannot drink the cup of suffering that he must drink. Jesus was many things. He preached a Gospel of love; undoubtedly. He spoke that he would most likely be killed for his actions – without question. But Jesus was also a radical prophet who overturned tables in the temple, challenged conventions of his day, stressed his continuity with his own Jewish self-understanding, and was a wonderworker and healer. Gibson backed up this theology of the atonement with selected flashbacks to Jesus’ life and chose to portray only one aspect of who Jesus was. The fact that this movie is only about The Passion will not hold water. Gibson includes flashback scenes solely to tug at our heart strings; he adds non-biblical scenes emphasizing Jesus’ torture; and he tacks on the Resurrection (more later) which occurs two days after the Passion. I would have gladly sat through an extra fifteen minutes of flashback scenes which rounded out Jesus’ teachings. The scene of Jesus’ scourging itself is nearly that long. Gibson is not bringing the Passion of the Gospels to the screen. He is bringing a truncated and theologically shriven version.
This carries even to the Resurrection. Once again, this is where Gibson, despite his professed desire to be as accurate as possible, once again takes liberties. Even though he claims his film focuses on the Passion, and that he will deal with Jesus’ last twelve hours, he chooses to conclude his film with the Resurrection. I have no problem theologically with this, since for me Crucifixion is inseparable from Resurrection which is inseparable from the Incarnation which is inseparable from the life and teachings of Jesus. Yet his portrayal of the Resurrection, quite simply, flies in the faces of every single Gospel description of it, because the Gospels do not describe the actual Resurrection. Ever single Gospel narrative is from the perspective of the women who come to the Tomb. Yet in Gibson’s film were are given his version of what a real-time Resurrection looks like, even though there is no biblical or traditional understanding of how this event unfolded. We are treated to the camera’s viewpoint of a stone being rolled away; there is a grinding sound and sunlight fills the tomb. The body is shown on a slab of stone, wrapped in the burial cloths. Then, in a manner which almost made me burst out laughing, the burial clothes deflate slowly and rest flat on the slab. The camera pans to the left, and Jesus is shown sitting. He stands, and Gibson’s last image is to once again reinforce the theological centrality of physical suffering: our last image is of the hole left by the nail in Jesus’ hand.
I was offended that I almost burst out laughing. The central component of my faith as a Christian was treated as a deus ex machina, an absurd coda torn completely from its biblical, traditional, and theological context. As someone who takes Scripture seriously, it was portrayed in complete contradiction to any of the Gospel accounts. There is no discovery by the women at the tomb; no appearances of the risen Christ; no angels which announce what has happened. Merely a Jesus who transports himself from underneath burial shrouds as if in some Star Trek film. Whereas one can defend Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion within the boundaries of the Gospels and much of Christian atonement theology, as a Christian and a historian I see no defense of his cartoonish portrayal of the Resurrection.
The role of Mary is a second theological emphasis of Gibson. Once focus consists of the added dialogue and scenes on Mary and her suffering as she sees her own son go through his torments. Once again, as with the atonement, I will not judge the worthiness of such additions; I only note that Christians disagree on the exact place of Mary within the salvific event of Jesus’ birth, life, and death. Some of the additions range on the rank cinematic sentimental – such as a flashback scene where Jesus is building a table back home in the carpenter’s shop. Designed to show familial bliss (though Joseph is nowhere in sight), after Mary insists, like any good mother, he wash his hands before dinner, Jesus playfully tosses the water her face and runs away. In another flashback scene, after Jesus falls carrying the Cross, Mary thinks back to when he ran and fell as a child. Such crass sentimentality makes for a good tearjerker. Yet once again the professed Gospel literalist Gibson ignores the only Gospel account of Jesus’ childhood. Before his ministry commences, this childhood account from Luke’s gospel shows him as neither playful carpenter or awkward toddler but as a deadly serious young boy who confounds the scribes in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel. Once again, it would seem, this professed insistence of being faithful to the gospels may be dispensed with when it suits other purposes, in this case pulling heart strings.
So on the one hand Mary merely serves as a cinematic prop in a Hollywood tear-jerker. The second added emphasis I found frankly disturbing. The physical pain and suffering of Jesus are historical fact. The almost sadomasochistic cumulative addition of scenes in which the two Marys’ practically roll in Jesus’ blood are not. They sop up the blood with towels after his scourging (which, in the second scene which made me laugh out loud, the towels are given to the two Marys by Claudia, Pilate’s wife. The role of Claudia is another glaring historical inaccuracy which only serves to sentimentalize events); Mary kisses Jesus’ toe after he gives up the Spirit, smearing her face with his blood.
Once again, I note that Christians have differed on the exact place of Mary and her suffering at Jesus’ death. There are verses in Luke’s gospel which indicate that Mary knew all along her son would meet an untimely death, and carried this burden with her throughout her life. All the Gospels agree only that she was present at the Cross. I am sure Jesus’ mother, like any mother, was anguished at the suffering her son endured and heartbroken beyond words at his death. But Gibson has, as he did with Jesus’ own suffering, added cumulative scenes to push this to an even greater extreme and reduces the mother of God to rolling in blood.
Let me conclude this Marian section by noting that the place of Mary reflects the larger role of women in this film. Women are ineffectual, passive players in the entire drama of Jesus’ passion and death, and are only extensions of him. Claudia, in expanded scenes not in the Gospels, speaks of Jesus as someone who is “holy” and begs Pilate to spare his life. She watches with a pained look on her face during the proceedings in the courtyard at Jesus’ trial before Pilate. She hands towels to the two Marys and slips away. The two Marys are most frequently shown groveling on the ground, either in anguish at Jesus’ death or sopping up his blood. What of the other women the Gospels tell us who were present? What of the emphasis that the disciples (except for the unnamed, beloved disciple, who is only in John’s gospel) fled, and that the women alone were with Jesus at his death? What of the resurrection appearances, in which Jesus first reveals himself to the faithful women who came to anoint his body while the disciples were hiding in a locked room?
Contrary to what many Christians would argue, and what Scripture might say, in Gibson’s film the women are inconsequential, ineffective, and can only resonate with Jesus’ suffering. They are flat and one-dimensional, and once again Gibson creates non-biblical and non-traditional scenes to highlight this.
Let me conclude the theological section by reiterating I do not have central problems with any of the theological issues Gibson portrays except for the Resurrection. Even his inclusion of a physical Satan is not outside of the bounds of the Gospels, though one should note that every appearance of Satan in the film comes neither from the Gospels or early Christian traditions and are creations of Gibson. His understanding of Mary and the place of Jesus’ suffering are important elements to all Christians and particularly important to some. As noted, though, his portrayal of the resurrection is biblically inaccurate and theologically deficient.
ANTI-SEMITISM AND ANTI-JUDAISM
Now to the most covered aspect of the film. I have three points to make in regard to the supposed anti-Semitism of the film. Before doing so, a couple of introductory remarks. Anti-Semitism, properly defined, is a fairly modern creation. It is the result of Christian-Jewish tensions but not the direct result. Christian anti-Judaism, combined with a variety of racial, cultural, political, economic, and other factors in the post-Enlightenment period produced what we now call anti-Semitism. The Gospels themselves are not anti-Semitic because the term is an historical anachronism when applied to the first century CE. The Gospels are undoubtedly critical of some elements of first century Judaism (though not others) and in many places can be characterized as anti-Jewish leadership, in other places anti-Jewish as a whole. There is an enormous complexity to Christian-Jewish relations, and blanket charges of anti-Semitism or attempts to explain away anti-Judaism do not do justice to this complexity.
That said, the film accurately captures that Jesus’ death came as a result of combined efforts from certain Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. However, as noted above, there is little effort to distinguish among groups within the Jewish leadership. Likewise, Gibson repeats the Christian mythology that Pilate is somehow a tortured soul-searcher. He was anything but that. Pontius Pilatus was one of the most brutal and ineffective Roman governors ever appointed. He did not hesitate to have people in crowds killed or to crucify persons he thought a threat to public order. He was also so corrupt that after his ten-year reign (26-36) Rome changed its policy in governing the province. His goals were to collect taxes and maintain order. Yet Gibson combines the Matthean attempt to exonerate Pilate and shift blame to the Jews with John’s account of Pilate as someone debating the nature of Truth with Jesus. Gibson has also been frankly disingenuous: while taking out the most offensive subtitle, “his blood be upon us and upon his children” it is left in the spoken dialogue, as the rabbi sitting next to me pointed out. I assume he did so because he professes that this actually happened, which, as I have pointed out, he is more than willing to forego when for cinematic, dramatic, or particular theological purposes. The trial before Herod (this is Herod Antipas, the one who beheaded John the Baptist, and not the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth; not to get into the dynastic fortunes of the house of Herod, but the New Testament mentions at least five different Herods) is frankly puzzling. This trial before Herod Antipas occurs only in Luke’s Gospel and there is no dialogue recorded. Gibson has chosen to portray Herod as some sort of rowdy frat-boy king with a drunken court. He includes only Herod’s wish that Jesus perform some sign; leaves out that Herod apparently questioned Jesus for some time, with chief priests and scribes present. While puzzling, this particular depiction of Herod is in line with Luke’s account.
It is not so much the actual portrayal of Jewish leaders, or Herod Antipas, or Pilate that is troubling. It is once again added non-biblical and non-historical scenes. He shows soldiers of the high priest going door to door, giving out money to make sure people show up in the courtyard for Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Two of the Gospels speak of the priests and elders “stirring up” or “persuading” the people to cry out for Barabbas instead of Jesus (this tradition, by the way, of freeing a prisoner at the Passover appears only in the Gospels and in no other historical source). Gibson has chosen to take these two words and create a scene which involves bribery through money. So it is once again a Jewish conspiracy involving a well-funded elite, a tired anti-Semitic cliché. To me this scene is the single most, and perhaps only, element of the film I would call anti-Semitic because it perpetuates stereotypes born in the Middle Ages, developed in the modern period, and pervasive in some places today.
There are elements in the film which are clearly anti-Jewish. But the Gospels have strong anti-Jewish elements, and a Christian cannot condemn those in this film without a close examination of those elements in the gospels.
Far more troubling to me is the deliberate theology of supersessionism. Supersessionism is a term that describes how Christianity is the completion of the promise made to Abraham and the Jewish people and, that Christians have replaced Judaism in God’s eyes. This allows for an appropriation of some symbols of Judaism – that the “Old” Testament as merely prepatory to the “New” Testament – and to dispense with others.
This theology is shown quite clearly in the film – what a surprise, all together now – in two added, non-biblical scenes. The first is when Judas flees from Jerusalem, his conscience racked. That Judas had a change of heart Matthew’s gospel demonstrates. Yet Gibson creates a long, drawn-out scene to heighten the role of Judas. Chased out of Jerusalem by a gang of young boys, he is lying in the desert. Satan mysteriously appears and he and the crowd of boys disappear. Judas glances over and sees what appears to be a rotted corpse. Though it is difficult to tell, this is an animal corpse. This is the famous scapegoat (Leviticus 23). In the “Old” Testament, a goat would be driven out into the desert to atone for the sins of the whole people. In the film, seeing this scapegoat is what drives Judas to hang himself from a tree. The message is clear: Jesus is the new scapegoat and Judas is driven over the edge by seeing the corpse of the old scapegoat. Perhaps Gibson is drawing from the Letter to the Hebrews, which speaks of Jewish rituals as “shadows” and that Jesus, the true High Priest, has shown the true or real meanings behind these Jewish rituals. Or perhaps Gibson has read Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ, though I doubt it since the right has marginalized Scorcese’s adaptation with a knee-jerk reaction as surely as some liberal elements have attempted to marginalize Gibson’s film. In that book, Jesus comes to understand his own messianic purpose when he stumbles across the scapegoat during Kazantzakis’ description of his temptation in the wilderness. Gibson clearly expresses classic Christian supersessionism by appropriating this symbol from The Day of Atonement, the holiest of the high holy days of Judaism, as a symbol of Jesus and what drives Judas to suicide.
It also shown quite clearly in another added, non-biblical scene which is a second supersessionist appropriation of important elements of Judaism. After Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee, the scene shifts to the two Marys. Hearing the tumult, they awake. Mary Magdalene looks to Mary. Mary says, “Why is this night like any other night?” Mary Magdalene replies, “Because we were once slaves.” Then John the disciple bursts through the door and announces that Jesus has been seized. These are lines from the Passover seder wrenched from context and put in the mouths of the two Marys. Having given the Day of Atonement a Christological meaning, Gibson does the same to the Passover seder. Jewish rituals only have purpose in this film to undergird Christian claims. One could not find a more textbook example of supersessionism.
I find this theology of supersessionism, frankly, more troubling than the anti-Judaism. Once again, there is diversity of opinion on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. As I noted above, I am not troubled by God’s covenant with the Jews. I do not think Christianity and Judaism are incompatible. I am not threatened in my Christianity by affirming God has made an eternal and everlasting covenant with the Jews because I take the Scriptures seriously (though not literally), and both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament make this quite clear. Paul himself is of two, if not several minds, on this matter. In the letter to the Romans Paul speaks favorably of God’s covenant with the Jews, while in Galatians he indicates a more formal incompatibility of Christianity and Judaism. Likewise early church authors often urged Christians not to persecute Jews because of God’s covenant with them. There is also very early on, as the Letter of the Hebrews and the timing of the Crucifixion in John’s gospel (which is one day earlier than the other three, making Jesus the Passover lamb himself), a strain of supersessionism. Recently many Christians have attempted to embrace this ambiguity and affirm God’s covenant with the Jewish people. The Second Vatican Council speaks of a “spiritual patrimony” common to Jews and Christians and says that “God holds the Jew most dear.” Gibson, as a traditionalist Catholic, rejects the Second Vatican Council and enshrines that rejection in his film once again in added, non-biblical scenes.
Culturally, I am saddened by this film. The greatest opportunity for Christian evangelism is instead the projection of an adherent of a form of Catholicism that most Catholics, let alone Christians, do not hold. As I have repeatedly noted in these reflections, there is diversity of opinion among Christians not about the various factual elements involved in Jesus’ suffering, but its exact place in the atoning death of Christ. Likewise there is diversity of opinion about the role of Mary, and the place of the Jews, and the exact involvement of Jews and Romans in Jesus’ death. Despite his profession that he is only following the Gospels, Gibson has added scene upon scene upon scene drawn not form the gospels or mainstream Christian tradition to enshrine a particular vision of each of these theological opinions on film. In an increasingly post-Christian culture, the version of Christianity which is currently being debated in the public sphere is one from the margins of Gibson’s traditionalism.
Thus we have a film that is very appropriate for our current reality. It is a film meant to divide rather than unite. Those whom one would expect to dislike the film dislike it, often uncritically as the flinging of the term anti-Semitic has shown. Those whom one would expect to like the film, like it, again uncritically, as many evangelical Christians who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture have not commented on the rampant inclusion of dozens of non-biblical scenes and the conflation of others.
This film has become another episode in the wearisome culture wars. Rather than talk about human sexuality and how to truly strengthen families we can fight about the marginal issue of gay marriage. Rather than honestly having Christians explore the place of Jews within God’s salvific plans we are spoon-fed supersessionism. We can be entrenched in what we already believe rather than have a forum to discuss important questions. I am deeply saddened that the Passion, in which Gibson vividly portrays a Christ broken for our sins, has become yet another occasion for Christians to commit the sin of disunity and division.
Culturally the film also is a monument to what celebrity and money can do in an America that is increasingly divided along economic lines. The gap between rich and poor has grown, and the Jesus who regularly denounced the rich is having a version of his Passion produced by the rich. It is not surprising Gibson only included flashbacks where Jesus foresees his own death and suffering; otherwise he might have had to include one of Jesus’ many commands that we sell our possessions and give them to the poor, or that it is harder for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than enter the kingdom of heaven.
I saw this film with a young rabbi and an older Episcopal priest. It was Ash Wednesday, and we saw the film at a downtown cinema. There are several downtown churches and I began to see people showing up from noonday Ash Wednesday services (we went to a 2 pm showing). There is also a large seminary of evangelical persuasion nearby and there were obviously many students there at this showing. Yet I was moved by the large numbers of people who did not look like seminary students or people just from church: mothers with children, young couples, and a very broad racial mix. To me it was testament to the rich diversity of American Christianity despite most persons’ perceptions of it as a monolithic evangelical culture.
We got off on a bad foot when a woman sitting in the row behind us sweetly asked the rabbi, who was wearing a yarmulke, “Are you a messianic Jew?” He politely (with more grace than I would have had were I in his shoes!) replied, “No, I’m not,” and sat down. Afterwards he asked me, “So why, exactly, are you Christian?” He had captured an important point. To a non-Christian or non-believer, Gibson (intentionally or not) reduced Christianity to sympathizing with Jesus’ suffering. To me this is an appalling indictment of Christianity. What of the Jesus who ate with tax collectors? What of the Jesus who called the rich to account? What of the Jesus who quoted the Hebrew Scriptures and summed up his preaching by calling us to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves? Jesus becomes the lily-white prophet of submissive martyrdom which cheapens the love he preaches in flashbacks as the platitudes of a doormat.
After the film we strolled out and Salvation Army members were flanking the exits. Seeing a rabbi and a priest they advanced. I was dressed in jeans and a rumpled turtleneck covered in dog hair, so I knew I was safe from them. But all three of us were just reluctant to say anything. Why do so when we knew that they would have a different interpretation than we would? It was then I realized the dividing power of this film. I would have friends with whom I know I could not talk about it, because I know we would disagree. And it saddens me that Gibson has provided Christians with opportunities to disagree.
My lasting feeling is one of sadness. I watched a portrayal of Jesus which millions of people will see and felt that it did not accurately reflect my faith as a committed Christian. Its one-sided portrayal of Jesus’ suffering, of the place women, of the theology of supersessionism, all through added, unbiblical scenes, combined with, to me, its insulting portrayal of the resurrection left me with the words of Mary Magdalene from John’s Gospel: She cries out, “They have taken the Lord, and I do not know here they have laid him.” Gibson has taken my Christ and for two hours I watched what he did with Him.