By the time I saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, much had been written about the film’s violence. Most of the attention focused on Gibson’s personal psychology. Little has been said about the connection of the violence in the movie to the larger culture of violence in which we live and which Jesus’ nonviolence challenges.
I would suggest that the excess violence so commented upon in The Passion emerges from Mel Gibson’s discomfort with his hero’s pacifism, as if splattering enough blood across the screen might obscure the central—and uncomfortable—fact that Jesus makes a conscious choice not to fight back.
Clearly, the image of the crucified Jesus challenges us. As a child, I would view with horror the writhing, bleeding Christ in museums. I would also examine a history book that contained a photo of an African American man who’d been lynched. The black-and-white photograph showed the man’s thin arms tied back with ropes that were stretched out behind him, leaving his mutilated torso vulnerable and exposed. His face was twisted in anguish.
In my mind, the two images, Christ on the cross and the lynched man, superimposed. The lynched man became Christ. I understood that, yes, both the crucifixion and the lynching were disgusting and abhorrent. Both were instruments of terror, meant to cow others who might otherwise cross an invisible line into dissent. To run and hide from a crucifixion or a lynching out of fear or disgust, as the disciples initially did, gives the oppressor the power to intimidate. We triumph over violence when we face it and refuse to let it influence how we act.
To grasp the point of the Passion story it is absolutely crucial to face the violence and suffering Jesus endured. A core message of the New Testament—and of early Quakers—is that Christians triumph over brutality by having the courage to confront it, no matter how bad it is. The Passion story pits the power of the Roman Empire against the power of Christ’s message of nonviolent obedience to God. Jesus modeled for us "speaking truth to power,” even when speaking that truth meant torture and death. Lying would have saved him when death was imminent; Jesus chose truth. Pilate is mystified that Jesus would put faith in God and obedience to God ahead of suffering, torture, and death, just as many an authority figure were mystified that early Quakers would put faith in God ahead of freedom, property, and even life itself. Jesus, like the early Quakers, was uncompromising in his obedience and in his defiance of earthly authority. He submitted to God, not to Rome.
However, while facing violence is central to the Passion story, throughout the movie I found myself saying, "Earth to Mel: less is more!" After they arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, the guards beat Jesus until one of his eyes turns purple and swells shut. It is this distorted—and distracting—face that we watch while Jesus is on trial. Later, Jesus is scourged by Pilate’s men. His hands are chained and he is brutally beaten by gleeful guards wielding cat-o’-nine tails until his back is a bloody mess. If this alone is not horrific enough, the guards then bring heavier, spiked instruments to beat him with. Finally, they unshackle his wrists—but no, it’s not over yet! They lay him on his lacerated back and scourge his front. Christians have rightfully argued that many movies display similar violence without raising the kind of uproar greeting The Passion; this is a reason to decry Hollywood violence, not excuse Mel Gibson’s excess.
It’s hard to imagine any other Hollywood script in our warrior culture not being reworked to allow the hero, dead or alive, to break free and wreak vengeance on his captors. I worry that the hard, uncompromising, and radically nonsecular nature of Jesus’ message—that you forgive your enemies no matter what and trust in God to make it right—will be lost under all the blood.
Some have argued that we must see this graphic display of violence so that we can fully understand how much Jesus suffered. This view alarms me. Do we suffer a cultural absence of imagination? Has the violence in our culture ratcheted so high that we need this level of ultraviolence to "get” that Jesus suffered?
In my heart, I fear the violence that saturates this film will reinforce in the minds of non-Christians the idea that Christianity is a sick, twisted religion that feeds on suffering and guilt.
I saw the film with Janet King, a Jewish woman with a deep interest in Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue. She was concerned—and I share this concern—that while the movie was faithful to the gospel account, those who are inclined to think the Jews killed Jesus will find that view reinforced by the film.
Mel Gibson made the movie he wanted to make, but there is a bigger picture. Whether you believe in the Christ story or not, there is no question Jesus triumphed in his death. For the secular world, he triumphed by becoming, inexplicably, the biggest superstar of all time. The Christian world triumphs through what happens following the crucifixion. We do get two minutes of the resurrection in the film, where a miraculously healed, living Jesus complacently walks from the tomb. This is part of the win, but the bigger part for those of us left on Earth is that his disciples finally understood and began to live his message. A resurrected Jesus without followers would be worth little. Luckily, the disciples grasped the new paradigm in behavior that he modeled and began to imitate it. In the book of Acts, Jesus’ disciples move from fear, despair, and secrecy to boldly proclaiming Jesus’ message. They are arrested and told not to talk about Jesus. The next day they are out again talking about Jesus. They are beaten and told not to talk about Jesus. The next day they are out again. Some of them are killed and others come up and speak the same truth.
They are killed by the thousands and more spring up. Some are Quakers. Some are the peace activists being jailed right now for speaking out against war. They have not gone away. This is the legacy. This is the triumph. Without ever perpetrating violence or descending to its level, they refuse to be stopped in standing up for what they believe.
While Mel Gibson inserted key teachings of Christ in movie flashbacks (forgive your enemies, love God and people, serve others humbly), the movie sadly did not enhance my understanding of Jesus. Sadly too, I worry that this is a movie that would be incomprehensible to somebody unfamiliar with the Christ story.
The Passion of the Christ reveals the power of the gospel to command the attention, if not the comprehension, of our culture. I hope the box-office success of this film will encourage sequels that will grapple with issues that will truly stir our souls.
An earlier version of this review appeared on the QuakerInfo.com website at http://www.quakerinfo.com/passion.shtml.