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More to religion
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The meaning in the message

Before we jump into a critique of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a decent respect for people who are other than Christian requires that we set the ground for the discussion by saying a few words about the film's premise.

From the New Testament writers, through St. Augustine to the present, Christian apologists (explainers) have used the narrative of Genesis 3 to establish the necessity for God to "beget" a Son who can bear God's Wrath against us for the Sin which we have inherited as a result of Adam and Eve (the first humans) having eaten a piece of fruit from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" that God had forbidden them. To the first Christian community, almost all of whom were Jews familiar with Genesis, this made sense. But judging from the declining membership in mainline churches, it doesn't make sense to many people today.

Rather than scoff at the doctrine — and scoff one can, starting with St. Augustine's argument that we inherit Adam's Sin through our fathers' semen — let's try to extract its meaning by letting go of Genesis and focussing on the Crucifixion itself. And though we will only extract mere words, we ask that they may point to the Living Truth whose silence answered Pilate when he asked, with haughty cynicism, "What is Truth?"

Let's start with the barest outline of the Christian narrative: God, the Creator of the Universe and everything in it, chose to become born as an ordinary person, like you and me, named Y'shua (whom we call Jesus) about 2000 years ago, as we reckon time, in Judea (a remnant of the ancient kindgom of Israel, which in Jesus' time had been annexed and occupied by the Roman Empire). At the same time, God remained God, separate from Jesus, so that Jesus could only connect with God through prayer, just like you and me. Ordinary people, like you and me (many of the Judeans and their religious-political leaders), had Jesus killed because his practices and his preaching threatened their existence in three ways:

  • Jesus' laxity of ritual observance undermined the purity of Judeans' system of beliefs and worship practices (the root of both modern Judaism and Christianity). Many writings in their Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament Scriptures) led them to believe that purity of Religion was necessary to retain God's favor, which they believed necessary to sustain them as a people, especially under the brutal heel of Roman occupation.
  • Jesus' thinly veiled sedition against the Roman occupation of Judea (His "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's: render unto God that which is God's," would seem to indicate that he thought Judeans owed their primary allegiance to something greater than Caesar) threatened to ignite a new round of violent persecution by the Romans. The Judeans had been exiled from their land once before — into Babylon — and they were afraid the Romans would exile them again. Indeed, the Romans coined the term Palestina (after the Philistines) in order to divorce the Judeans from their land by changing its name.
  • And finally, the Judean leaders were concerned that Jesus would turn the subjugated (and angry) populace against them for desecrating their Faith by collaborating with the Romans. Certainly he seemed to demand a kind of "inner purity" that he accused them of not practicing.

So, they did the prudent (and self-serving) thing. They handed this charismatic, but dangerous kook over to the Roman authorities, who routinely killed barbarians (non-Romans) by crucifixion, a method so horrific, that no one depicted Christ on the Cross until about A.D. 400, a century after the practice had been abolished and had passed from living memory.

As for the Romans — they thought it only proper to kill any overly religious Judean who might be taken to impugn the Divine Mandate of Caesar to rule Judea or any other part of the whole world. As for the Judean leaders and many of the Judeans themselves — their moral compromise was in vain: within forty years, the Romans massacred the Judeans and dispersed the survivors into the wider world. (Which set the stage for Jewish and Christian sensibility to shape the mores of Western Civilization to this day.)

But then, on the third day after his execution, people began seeing Jesus alive, and having conversations with him in which they walked with him, touched him, and ate food with him. Finally, after many days he appeared to be taken upward into heaven.

These events transformed the followers of Jesus. They had been humiliated, disillusioned, and terrorized by the brutal and comtemptuous execution of their leader. But after the Resurrection, they embraced death — both his and their own — and defiantly proclaimed his teachings, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection against all authorities, despite all ridicule, and despite all hazards. And they changed the world.

But first they had to explain the meaning of the events they had witnessed. Which means they had to interpret these events using words and images that would be understood by their audiences, both Judean and Greco-Roman.

Now all explanation is simile and metaphor. One can only explain the unfamiliar by likening it to something the novice already knows and understands. All human language is a series of symbols, which stand for things, or point to things, but are not the things themselves. One is not going to capture the infinite God in a finite string of words, even if that string is as long as the whole Bible. Nevertheless, they had to explain, and, between forty and ninety years after the events themselves, their explanations (which had become oral traditions of several tiny and persecuted minorities) were written down as the four Gospels familiar to us now. But even before the Gospels were written, the gifted, educated, and driven Apostle Paul, wrote letters that explained Christ in terms familiar to both the occupied and their oppressors.

Though it seems inoffensive to us now, the reaction of anyone who had seen a crucifixion to the Paul's declaration, "I knew only Christ, and him crucified," would be shock. They would think him to be an idiot. Yet many would listen for a while, in horrified fascination.

Jesus is indeed our Messiah, he would tell the Judeans, because he conquered the greatest enemies of all, Death and Evil. He came into this world precisely to submit himself to the worst they could do, and then to triumph over them, on our behalf. And now that he has triumphed, he will come back for every single one of us who will follow him and lead us to Eternal Life with God — not some dim semi-existence like the Judean Sheol, or the Greco-Roman Hades, but Eternal Bliss with the Father, the Son, and the angels.

The Judeans would understand Jesus in terms of the sacrifice of Abraham, and the lamb sacrificed at Passover, as being the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. For the point of all sacrifice is to give up something of value in order to make things right with God. Now God himself has provided the highest value, his Son, just as God provided a ram so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God's Son, Jesus, is the stand-in for us all, for the debt we owe God, because, on our own, we are not right with God. The Judeans would understand this through the narrative of Genesis, in which Death and hardship entered the world, because the first humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed the only commandment God had given them.

To the Romans, Jesus would be understandable as a tragic hero, who, like Hector in Homer's Iliad, carried out his honorable duty, though the path of honorable duty was doomed to a tragic and painful end. He would also be understandable as a truth-teller, who, like Socrates, chose to die rather than to appease respectable society by abandoning the truth. The Romans would understand that we are not right with God by observing the evil and corruption rampant in society. They were also familiar with Death and hardship entering the world through an act of disobedience — Pandora opening Epimetheus' box, against his order.

To either audience, the occupied or the oppressors, Paul and the Apostles would preach that the crucifixion of Jesus had been necessary, not for human purposes, but for God's purpose of redeeming humankind from Sin (actually hamartia which refers to a tragic flaw or a tragic mis-direction, in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written) and the consequence of Sin — Death.

We, on the other hand, now know that hardship and Death were in the world from the beginning of Life, long before there were humans. Further, we know that evolution is the response of Life to hardship and Death, and that humans are one of the expressions of that response. In other words, God used hardship and Death to make humans. In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise. It is a shock, a horror, and a scandal. And since we don't want to be confronted by the inference that we are that bad, we deny it, and attack (at least verbally) those who proclaim it.

Ecce Gibson

"The Passion of the Christ" opens with the camera moving at night between tree trunks toward the sweating, trembling figure of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. "Oh my God, this is really Catholic," I think as I brace myself for a two-hour ordeal. James Cazviel portrays spiritual distress so intense that it manifests itself in physical agony even before Judas and the Sanhedrin's private guards arrive. (Protestants discreetly emphasize the spiritual agony of the Passion, while Catholics emphasize the physical suffering. Points to the Catholics — we Protestants are often too prissy about embodiment. On the other hand, most lay Catholics I know have never really thought much about theology.)

We go on to see Jesus beaten and spat upon by the Sanhedrin's guards, and then beaten, whipped, flayed, kicked, and crowned with thorns by Pilate's Roman soldiers. We see him forced to carry his own cross, which he embraces. We in the audience are relieved that his torture is nearly over, but the worst is yet to come. Gibson forces us to look as each nail is driven into Christ's sacred hands and feet. Mother Mary watches, her hands clenched into the gravel on which she kneels. I look down at my own hands, clenching the arms of my seat.

Other commentators have deplored this graphic depiction of violence as excessive and offensive, unaware of what views they have been spared. We do not see Jesus naked, even though the Romans commonly humiliated their victims by exhibiting them without clothing. We do not see Jesus raped, even though Roman soldiers had license to further humiliate their captives by sexual abuse. (Perhaps Jesus was spared such treatment, as he was spared the breaking of his bones, but the Gospels and Catholic tradition are silent on this point.) Nor do we watch for six or eight hours as Jesus hangs from the cross, the motion of each involuntary gasp for breath causing such agony that he prays it to be his last.

Other commentators take issue with some of Gibson's portrayals, as do I. Pilate, for one, comes off far too sympathetically. Roman writings by his contemporaries describe Pilate as being so wantonly cruel that he was eventually recalled (fired) from his position as Prefect (Roman Governor) of Judea, because his brutal repression of the Judeans was itself causing too much resentment. I can't imagine that Pilate would have given a damn about yet one more charismatic, faith-healing preacher. Even Jesus' admission, "My Kingdom is not of this world," would have offended him. The only kings were those to whom Caesar and the Senate granted that title.

By the same token, Caiaphas (the chief Priest) comes off too unsympathetically, and the story suffers his loss as a potential figure for instruction. I have given my own more sympathetic interpretation above. In Gibson's rendition, however, Caiaphas has about as much regard for human life as the Taliban, and even threatens Pilate with stirring up a rebellion if Pilate does not crucify Jesus. Caiaphas and his followers may have been the official priests of the Temple, but they had been installed and maintained by Rome as useful collaborators, and everyone knew it. Those with legimate claim to be priests — descendants of Aaron and members of the tribe of Levi — had been suppressed, and their line of descent had been obsured. In other words, Caiaphas and the Judean religious-legal body called the Sanhedrin were in no position to start a rebellion.

They were not even in a position to execute a man (although stoning the occasional adulteress seemed to be okay). The Roman occupation reserved that power for itself. That is to say, Jesus was executed on Pilate's order.

By contrast, I almost weep for Peter's anguish at realizing how he had betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him. I feel the same even for Judas, who in his mortal regret for having betrayed Jesus, commits suicide before he could see the Resurrection, and seek the Forgiveness that the Risen Christ would surely have granted him. Perhaps these shadings of emotion are merely my projections, derived from my prior meditations on the Crucifixion. Or perhaps they are reactions to the shadings of portrayal in the cinematic art of Gibson and his cast.

May we legitimately ask of Gibson that he slant the portrayals ever so slightly toward more modern sensibilities? After all, the Gospels themselves are slanted toward the sensibilities of a Greco-Roman audience (they were written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic) living in the latter part of the first century, A.D. The Gospel writers whitewash Pilate and tar Caiaphas, because you don't win converts and avoid persecution by implicating your audience's favorite governing structures in a crime against the God-Man for whom you seek to win their conversion. But you must implicate some group — religion back then was even more of a team sport than it is now — so why not some group who wasn't able to defend itself, like the Judeans? And besides, the Judeans were there, many of them must have called for, or at least assented to, the Crucifixion, and just as most of them had successfully resisted contamimation of their religion by the Romans, most of them also resisted contamination of their traditional religion by the Jesus movement, which must have engendered some animosity on the part of the early Christians, both Roman and Judean.

[OK. I could call them "Jews," but the Judeans were divided into about five religio-political factions, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Jesus movement. Of these, the Pharisees evolved through the crucibles of the occupation and the Diaspora, and their creative reaction to them — the Talmud — into modern Judaism. The Jesus movement was absorbed by Greco-Roman culture and became Christianity, which means that Christianity is, culturally speaking, an extremely Hellenized branch of Judaism. The other factions did not survive the Roman occupation. Besides, the Romans didn't call them Jews, either. They called them Judeans, which is translated into modern languages as "Jews."]

So, the Gospels are anti-Judean, or at least anti-the-Judean-factions-that-were-not-the-Jesus-movement. Thus written, they have lent themselves to later interpreters who were anti-Semitic, which contributed to anti-Semitism becoming one of the Sins of the Christian Church. Can we therefore ask that Gibson re-slant the story, so that the Judeans appear more sympathetic, and the Romans less so?

Within limits, Gibson already does it. It is clear in the film that many Judeans are in the Jesus movement. Several members of the Sanhedrin itself challenge the legitimacy of Caiaphas' midnight "trial" of Jesus, before they are ejected. But the limits are narrow.

The limits are set by mostly by the Gospel texts as we have received them, collected, selected, and preserved for us by the Roman Catholic Church. And with the exception of a few touches, Gibson stays within them. Jesus and his Mother Mary, for example have few speaking parts in the Passion narratives, and therefore, few speaking parts in the film. Rather than fully developed characters, they are cinematic icons. Jesus, is the innocent Lamb of God, who bears the Sins of the World. Mary is the Mother is the embodiment of comfort and strength, even as she herself bears the unbearable torment of witnessing her Son's slow and brutal execution. Other than Christ, she alone seems to understand what is happening and to accept its necessity.

The other limits on Gibson's film are set by the extra-biblical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the Passion. One of those extra-biblical traditions, perhaps one may serve to illuminate Gibson's motivation.

As Jesus collapses yet again while bearing his Cross toward Golgotha, a woman steps forward to wipe his bloody face with a cloth. In Catholic tradition, she is only named for what she posesses, Veronica, the True Image (of Christ). Again, I feel tears welling in my eyes. If only the tradition were true, and if only the Veronica had not been lost. I care not so much to look on an image of Christ, whether true or not, but something in me yearns to touch, even to kiss, something that had touched my Lord in kindness. I surprise myself that I am capable of such piety.

Piety is obviously Gibson's motivation for making this film. It is a thank-you card from Mel to his Redeemer, and to the Church that instructed him in the Faith. Mel gave it everything he had, and stayed as close as the film-maker's art would allow to the text and traditions as given. His piety permits no slanting or softening to meet the demands of modern sensibility. Nor is it needed. Rather, modern sensibility has for too long been trying to forget its roots in the ancient faith. It is modern sensibility that could stand to be less smug.

So, bottom line. Is "The Passion of the Christ" anti-Semitic? As writer-producer-director, he had complete creative control over this film. I was told that the hand he chose to show driving the nail into Christ's hand is his own. (And until you can come to an understanding that, spiritually speaking, the Blood of Christ is on your hands, too, you have yet to make a truly Christian confession.)

The Passion of the Christ (both the narratives in the Gospels, and Mel Gibson's film) is a shock, a horror, and a scandal, but it is also the beginning of the Good News. The completion is the moment of Resurrection, with which the film ends.

If you are Christian, I recommend that you see "The Passion of the Christ" for the opportunity to expose yourself to the emotional impact of what it is you say you believe. If you are other than Christian, this is an opportunity to find out what makes the Christians with whom you share this world tick. There is very little "background" in the movie, so you might want to read one or more of the Gospels first. But don't bring the kids. It's rated R for a reason.

He keeps coming back to this. Dude, get over it!

After 2006, it appears that if you get Mel Gibson drunk, let him drive, and then try to arrest him, he gets anti-Semitic Tourette's Syndrome. The film may not be overtly anti-Semitic, but we're not so sure about Mel.