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The Passion of Mel Gibson

by Carter Heyward

I'd expected to hate “The Passion of the Christ” – what I'd heard about its over-the-top violence; its anti-Semitic inferences, if not explicit portrayals, of cruel and evil “Jews”; and its overall theological message reflecting the ultra-traditionalist Catholic views of Mel Gibson. I emerged tired and troubled from Mr. Gibson's   “Passion,” but I can't say that I hated the movie or even that it was, for me, the horrible experience I'd been dreading. I found it interesting and provocative. You might wonder why, with such low expectations, I'd gone in the first place. It's because, as an Episcopal priest and teacher of theology, I felt some professional obligation to see the film.

. . .it takes a lot of energy for parts of us to split off long enough to get through traumatic ordeals. As I exited the theater, I felt like I'd been on a psycho-spiritual treadmill for two hours, rather than sitting in the comfort of a Harvard Square theatre.

At a very personal level, my tiredness was, I am sure, simply an effect of a psychosomatic disconnection from the film's violence as I gazed numbly at the seemingly endless scenes of scourging and crucifixion. It was how I made it through the film, and it takes a lot of energy for parts of us to split off long enough to get through traumatic ordeals. As I exited the theater, I felt like I'd been on a psycho-spiritual treadmill for two hours, rather than sitting in the comfort of a Harvard Square theatre.

At another level, my exhaustion was a more complex visceral response to Mel Gibson's particular spin on the Christian story. His movie illuminates a medieval (not biblical) interpretation that it is the blood of Christ that saves humankind. Not Jesus' life, not his healings or his wisdom, not his teachings or his compassion; not his passion for justice but rather his death on the cross is what saves humankind; and moreover, his death on the cross as willed by his Father God who requires him to suffer this excruciating death as payment for the sins of the world. This view of the Passion, as a blood sacrifice to God, is still shared by most traditionalist Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Mr. Gibson has been clear, not only in the film but in interviews, that this particular understanding of Christianity is what saved him. And who am I to doubt a brother's salvation story?

What troubles me is not Mel Gibson's personal story but rather his, and his church's, certainty that this salvation story is The Salvation Story for everyone and that unless we worship this suffering Christ – the rest of Christ's life is almost entirely absent from the film – we are lost as Mr. Gibson declares himself to have been. It's the spiritual arrogance that troubles me, and not just Mr. Gibson's but that of other Christians like him who assume that they, and those who agree with them, know The Way, The Truth, and The Life that is “The Christ.” One of the problems, historically and still today, with this sort of absolutist understanding of “The Christ” as the only way to God is that it is, by definition, hostile not only to Jews but to adherents of all other religious or spiritual traditions.  

I am bone tired and fed up with this theology that promotes violence in the image of a sadistic Father who requires suffering and a masochistic Son who willingly goes along with such a plot. There is no divine love in this drama, but only the narcissistic projections of church fathers and sons. . .

Speaking as a Christian woman, I can assure you that the medievalist understanding of Christ's blood sacrifice as salvific is the antithesis of my experience of the love and healing power of God who has never required the unjust death of a human son or daughter or, for that matter, a goat or a dove. I am bone tired and fed up with this theology that promotes violence in the image of a sadistic Father who requires suffering and a masochistic Son who willingly goes along with such a plot. There is no divine love in this drama, but only the narcissistic projections of church fathers and sons who must surely imagine themselves in the image of such a harsh, punitive Father and obedient Son when they are most fully in control of themselves and others – especially sexually, hence all the outcry these days from conservative Christians about gay marriage.

As for the charge that the film is anti-Semitic, it is in the same way much Christian theology is.   Christian anti-Semitism is a problem anyone making a film about Jesus has to face, because without serious critical interpretation, the New Testament does have some anti-Jewish threads running through it. In this movie, Mel Gibson has handled the problem of anti-Semitism no worse than most Christian storytellers, and actually better than some.   Still, because he portrays the Jewish throngs and Caiphas, their ruthless High Priest, as bloodthirsty in contrast to the rather more likable Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, the movie is likely to stir anti-Jewish sentiment wherever it is waiting to be stirred. Gibson says he was trying to be true to the biblical portraits of these people. But other Christians, myself included, see these characters very differently in scripture. Besides, wherever Christian scripture is , or can easily be read as, anti-Jewish, should Christians today not say something critical about this in our public presentations? Are we not morally obligated to critique our own tradition, including the Christian Bible, especially when it has been used historically as a weapon against particular groups of people?

Theology is never simply a private opinion, nor is it a politically neutral resource. Theology impacts, and should impact, how we vote, what we stand for, the kind of society and world we want to help build. The theology of Mel Gibson, which is very close to the theology of George W. Bush and the dominant forces within the Republican Party, reflects the arrogant assumption that all right-thinking people will share the same values (under the rubric of whatever religion, preferably Christianity, of course) which will shape the same views of marriage, sexuality, patriotism, war, capitalism, and other matters of consequence. There is precious little space for moral complexity or political differences in the world of Mel Gibson's Christ.

 

The Rev. Carter Heyward, Ph.D., is professor of theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and a resident of Brevard, N.C., where she is founder of Free Rein Center for Therapeutic Riding and Education and liturgical coordinator of the Mountain Mission of St. Clare: An Episcopal Chapel of Peace. She is also author of a number of books, including most recently Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right ( Fortress, 1999) and God in the Balance: Christian Spirituality in Times of Terror (Pilgrim, 2002). Carter may be reached by email at carterheyward@aol.com .

 

All Faiths Can Appreciate “The Passion”

by Patrick P. Augustine

 

My wife Myra and I went to view the movie “The Passion” last week. I went with an open mind, although I have been reading quite a bit of commentary critical of the film. We invited a Muslim couple to join us, both of whom teach at the University of Wisconsin (La Crosse).

Dr. Wahhab Khandker sat on my right and his wife Amena sat next to Myra. You know that Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified, but was instead taken alive into heaven. Judas' face became like Jesus' face. He was punished by God and instead of Jesus, he was crucified on the cross. 

Dr. Wahhab said, “It's definitely going to increase the faith of the faithful. I thought Gibson's depiction was true to biblical scriptures and also to the Koran, which honors Jesus as a prophet but not as the Messiah. The film projected the same message of peace and love preached by both faiths.”

After the movie, we were interviewed by a local media reporter. Dr. Wahhab said, “It's definitely going to increase the faith of the faithful. I thought Gibson's depiction was true to biblical scriptures and also to the Koran, which honors Jesus as a prophet but not as the Messiah. The film projected the same message of peace and love preached by both faiths.”

While watching this movie, the gruesome depiction of Jesus' suffering reminded me that the cross of Jesus was a violent and horrific act against an innocent and sinless man. You can not separate the blood and pain from the Passion story, but it is a reality. To many of us, over the years Jesus has become a “buddy,” a “goody goody,” or an “O.K. guy.” All of a sudden it reminded me and it became a reality that the Lamb of God was sacrificed on the cross for my sins. It was a powerful message but difficult to digest. It impressed upon me deeply the suffering of Christ and the suffering around us everyday. On the cross of Christ the naked face of ultimate aggression, violence, hatred, jealousy, injustice, greed and evil forces is exposed.

There are evil forces which crush our common humanity today in Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Kashmir. Christ even today suffers with the people dying all over the world because of starvation, oppression, illness, despair, violence and war. There is no suffering of our world that has not been suffered by the Son of the living God in his Passion. So the good news is that there can be no human beings who are completely alone in their suffering, since Jesus Christ in his incarnation has become Emmanuel, God with us. That is our proclamation that “God so loved the world that he gave his Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life everlasting” (John 3:16). It is this life everlasting which is offered by Jesus Christ to the world and it is a message of hope that death cannot bury in its womb the author of life, and that darkness cannot hide the Light of the World.

At the end of the film, I was left hanging with my feelings of sadness and chaos. The question I asked myself was: Can we face the death of Christ without knowing about his resurrection? The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the death does not have the last word, that Jesus' sacrificial death was the gateway to new life. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).

The cross of Jesus inspires us to be the harbingers of hope. We need to work as followers of the cross of Christ so that the tyranny, oppression, injustice and exploitation against any members of the human family become our pain and Christ is crucified again.

We experienced in the movie the gruesome acts of the nailing of Jesus to the cross, the jeering of the Roman soldiers, and passing of Fatwas by the high priest. This is the ultimate harm, shame, rejection and condemnation any human being can suffer. But the sting of death could not kill Jesus. The same way the forces of evil, racism and hatred cannot win victory in our world, a world that is facing terrorism and even the imperial might of a superpower. The cross of Jesus inspires us to be the harbingers of hope. We need to work as followers of the cross of Christ so that the tyranny, oppression, injustice and exploitation against any members of the human family become our pain and Christ is crucified again.

For me the crucial points of the film were when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) and then “It is finished” (John 19:30). At that moment I saw that the sting was taken out of death and that Christ indeed was victorious over the power of sin and evil. I felt that at that moment it was the vision of the risen Christ emerging in the midst of human suffering. That is why as Eucharistic people we give thanks to God for his sacrifice and each time proclaim during the celebration of our worship service: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Alleluia!


The Rev. Canon Patrick P. Augustine is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Born in the predominantly Muslim nation of Pakistan, he is a third generation Pakistani Anglican priest and is strongly dedicated to world mission, particularly in regions where Christians have experienced persecution, such as his home country and the Sudan. Patrick may be reached by email at patchristch@centurytel.net .

Related Link : Read the Rev. Canon Mark Stanger's critical review, Walking the Via Dolorosa with Mel Gibson , published on A Globe of Witnesses on Feb. 11, 2004.