At a local cinema, in a small town in New Zealand, The Passion of the Christ was showing. While I was staying in a four-bed dorm at a backpacker’s hostel one Saturday night last March, a young Canadian girl, also traveling alone, came to bed very distressed. She had just been to see the film and said she had covered her eyes for so long that the people sitting on each side of her had asked her if she was okay. She told me that she had been raised in a fairly religious home but had moved away from her Christian faith, and so, when she saw the film was playing, she thought that maybe she ought to go and see it—perhaps it would have a spiritual message for her. Instead, the experience had proved to be traumatic, due to so much graphic brutality and violence portrayed on the screen.
The next morning, at the communal breakfast table, the local newspaper was spread open. I read a review of the film, which questioned the film’s historical accuracy and the motive for adding violence to the biblical accounts where the Bible does not record any. This point was illustrated by giving the example of a scene in which a crow pecks out the eye of one of the robbers crucified with Jesus—for no reason, it seemed, other than to subject the audience to an additional horror. The article also included quotes from an interview with the actor playing Jesus and the effect it had had on him. One of the comments he made was that since the film had been released, people were coming up to him and calling him Jesus, in all seriousness, and he was feeling very unworthy and uncomfortable about it.
After breakfast, I walked through the pretty and peaceful town, with the flower baskets hanging in the sun along the pavements, to the Friends meetinghouse up the road. It was peaceful and welcoming in the way so characteristic and familiar to me from other meetings I have visited. I sat down, with the others there, with my mind open to whatever would come. I was seeking some hint of the direction I needed for my spiritual life to advance, and was glad of the company sitting with me.
After half an hour in silence (which seemed quite a long time for some reason), a gentleman rose to his feet and said with some feeling, "I don’t want to go and see The Passion of the Christ. I don’t know why I don’t, but I don’t." And he sat down again. This was followed by another member rising to her feet. She said she felt it was pornographic, big business, and no way was she going to give her money to such a film. I think the question of "morality" was raised: that it was morally wrong to make a box-office business venture on the subject of Jesus’ death. She said she had known about the death of Jesus since she was a small child and did not need to see it acted out with all the base cruelty of the crucifixion displayed before her.
A visitor to the meeting, like myself from England, stood up and said he believed that Mel Gibson’s motive was pure and that people had the choice not to go if they didn’t want to. A short silence followed. Then another Friend drew our attention to the fact that people are suffering from torture in the world right now and torture is "alive and well" today. Her feeling was that we should be looking to see what we could do about it in our time rather than focus so much on Jesus’ suffering 2,000 years ago. Each speaker had a valid point and so it went on. It seemed that the subject aroused a response from everyone present.
I was thinking: What will people think about Christianity from this film, especially those from cultures that do not have a Christian background? How could the central message of God’s love be conveyed through this film, with its preoccupation with violence and brutality and this graphic portrait of a good man being tortured to death because God wanted it—"his Father’s" will? I have just been in China and I told a group of students there that I was a Christian. One student said, "Oh, Christianity. That’s a religion that worships a God being tortured, isn’t it? You have statues of him with blood and everything in the churches. In China, we are taught the truth of the No God Theory." How could I have answered? What would it take to convey what the death of Jesus meant to Christians? Where would one start in the long history of changing doctrines of atonement that even Church scholars throughout the ages have struggled to make sense of. But in the New Zealand Quaker meeting, I did not express any of this.
After a bit, someone else stood and said something along the same lines as my thoughts—which often happens in meeting, I find. She said she didn’t understand why Christians put such emphasis on the suffering and death of Christ. For her, what was important was his teaching and his example on how to live with love and compassion and peace, nonviolently and with a forgiving heart.
Without really meaning to, I then found myself standing up too. I said I felt that the great teachers, such as Jesus and Buddha, had all spoken about a way of living that would triumph over the evil around us and free us from suffering and death. Jesus (and later, his disciples) really believed that their teaching—the passing on of the knowledge they had acquired or received—would change the world and change the way people lived. For them, this had been worth dying for. They taught that there is a way of being, of enlightenment, at-one-ment (atonement) with the source of life, of living at a level of love for God and for others (our neighbors), which even physical torture could not destroy. They showed it is possible for the human spirit to be pure enough (or advanced enough) to remain constant and faithful to this level of living, and the very heart of their message is that this way of being is the way to eternal life—that it is eternal life. I probably wasn’t quite as clear as this in what I said about it then, but I did say that perhaps we should look to Jesus’ attitude towards his own death—beyond the Church’s teaching that this death was in some way necessary for our redemption and resurrection (a vicarious punishment paying for our sins). Just possibly, we could learn to live at that level too.
The discussion continued after the hour had passed and the notices had been read. One Friend told me that he had only been a Quaker for three years and was amazed at how varied the attitudes and beliefs expressed in just one gathering could be. There were only eight of us present that Sunday morning.
The day after the meeting, I picked up the January 2004 issue of Friends Journal and read the article "Making Peace: Telling Truth" by Paul A. Lacey. It reminded me again of the man who said that to witness to the truth was the very reason he had been born: "And all who are of the truth will hear me." And I remembered Pilate’s response, "What is truth?" Like many others, I wonder what it has to do with suffering and pain, sorrow and rejection; and why did there have to be a "suffering servant" anyway? This Christian embracing of suffering ("Pick up your cross and follow me" teaching) seems so far removed from Buddha’s teaching—the way of detachment from personal desires and freedom from suffering. And yet, is it so different? Rather than understanding the words "Pick up your cross and follow me" as embracing your suffering, perhaps the point was, "Keep going and follow my way, which ends suffering."
On rereading the biblical passages where Jesus is tortured and dying, I found they portray a man with authority and, one might even say, in control of his life to the end. In spite of the Christian churches’ emphasis on his suffering (the Passion), surprisingly, there is no mention of him suffering in these passages; and only rarely is his suffering mentioned in other parts of the Gospels. John’s Gospel does not mention Jesus’ suffering at all. In the few places where Jesus speaks of suffering in the other three Gospels, where the passage could refer to himself, he doesn’t do so in the first person, almost always removing himself from the statement by saying, "The Son of Man must suffer" (see Matthew 17:12, Mark 8:31 and 9:12, and Luke 17:25). Only in Luke 22:15 is the first person used. In the resurrection discourse recorded in Luke 24:46, a passage from the Jewish Scripture is quoted where the title "Christ" is used: "He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. . . .’" Although Luke presents these words as having been quoted by Jesus, he does not use the first person as he does elsewhere in relation to other statements. Jesus does not say "in my name" as one might expect, and the passage is recorded as said after the death and resurrection have taken place.
So, what can we learn from the accounts we have of Jesus on his way to his death and while he was dying on the Cross? Except for a brief mention of Jesus by Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jews in the first century c.e., we only have the Gospel accounts written by early Christians. In these we are told that Jesus is master over his own pain to such a degree that he can show concern for the women among the crowd lining the road, crying in pity for him. We are told that on his way to the place of crucifixion, having just been whipped, falling down, and too weak to carry the Cross, he stops to tell them not to weep for him but to look to their own safety and that of their children. His words are like a warning, a premonition that the Roman Empire would soon crush the whole nation, as history tells us it did over the following years and up to 70 C.E., when Jerusalem was totally destroyed. The Jewish nation and its religion, based as it was on the sacrificial system of the Temple, were never to be the same again from that time on.
On the Cross, Jesus was able to console another man hanging beside him and to think of that man’s future salvation, promising him his suffering would soon end: "This very day you will be with me in paradise."
While dying, Jesus was still thinking of others—thinking of the grief and torment felt by those who loved him. He sees his disciple John and his mother Mary standing near him and tells them to be a son and mother to each other. While dying, he makes arrangements for them to care for each other in the future, and the Bible record says that from that time John took Mary into his house to live with him (John 19:27).
Jesus also concerned himself with the well-being of those killing him. He prayed to God to forgive them, saying they were living at a level of ignorance: "Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing." One remembers his teaching, "Love your enemies and pray for those who despicably use you."
As well as his concern for others while he was dying, Jesus speaks about his own condition and his commitment to God. He quotes Jewish Scriptures. His cry to God, "Why have you forsaken me?" is a direct quote from the first lines of Psalm 22. This psalm, known as a psalm of lament, speaks of a man of God, dying without help, yet affirming that God is holy and has been his God since he had been in his mother’s womb. The psalmist says that he will continue to praise his God, even though he does not understand the reasons why it appears that he has been abandoned. The lines of Psalm 22, which Jesus did not quote but which are referred to by inference and were known to the crowd (see John’s account where the crowd recognizes he is quoting the Scriptures), speak of what is happening to him at that moment: "All who see me laugh and scorn. . . . I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint. . . . They pierce my hands and feet. . . . They look and stare on me. . . . They part my garments among them and cast lots," etc. This is a psalm written hundreds of years before the Romans had invented execution by crucifixion.
Such a death was certainly not known in Israel at the date the psalm was first included in the Jewish Scriptures, (possibly in the time of King David), yet it describes what is happening to Jesus on the Cross in detail. The psalm ends with the declaration that in spite of his sufferings, "God will be praised, all the ends of the Earth shall remember and turn to the Lord and generations yet to be born will declare his righteousness." It is a pretty impressive message even if one does not agree that the rest of the psalm’s content is relevant. But in that case, why did Jesus think of this psalm and begin to recite it while he is dying, if it had no relevance to his situation or to those of us who seek to understand what was happening? The Gospels say that the crowd recognized he was quoting the Scriptures and wondered why he did not save himself. In my view, he must be applying the whole of the psalm to what was taking place at that moment at the very end of his ministry on Earth. In a similar way, according to Luke 4:21, at the beginning of his ministry, when Jesus was present in the synagogue at Nazareth, he stood to read a passage from Isaiah chapter 61, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." And he had told the congregation, "This passage has come true today as you have heard it being read," which clearly states that at the beginning he was applying the text to himself.
The time of his death also seems to be according to his will, to some extent. The end is when he himself says it is enough: "It is finished," meaning, "I have completed what I came to do. It is accomplished." In Luke’s Gospel we are told that he said, "Father, in your hands I place my spirit." This makes it clear that Jesus’ life was not taken from him; it was a voluntary act on his part to give it up.
Apparently, three hours on the Cross was a relatively short time for someone to die from crucifixion. The other two who were crucified with him had to have their legs broken to quicken the progress because the Sabbath was approaching (Friday sunset). It was against the Jewish law to touch a dead body on the Sabbath because the person was then considered unclean and excluded from the Sabbath. Jesus had already died when the soldiers checked on him and thrust a spear in his side to make sure he was dead in time to take him from the Cross before sunset for Passover.
So looking at the Gospel accounts as they have been handed down to us, we see that they are not drawn-out details of the cruel death. Nor do they dwell on the physical torture Jesus was undergoing while he died, in spite of all those statues and paintings of the man in agony. Although his asking for a drink reminds us in a gentle way of what he is going through, the references to crucifixion are minimal and rather dignified and do not mention his suffering at all. Did the Gospel writers want us to imagine the suffering for ourselves, or did they not mention it because to dwell too much on the physical pain was to miss the point?
I keep coming back to Jesus’ teaching that God is Love and the way of love we are encouraged to follow—as illustrated in the parables of the Prodigal Son, The Sower, and "The Sheep and the Goats"—is that those who feed the poor, visit the sick, and care for their neighbors are the ones who enter heaven. When Jesus was asked, "What should we do to receive eternal life?" he asked the man what it was the Scriptures said to do, confirming that the way to life was to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength (a passage from the Jewish Scriptures). Then he added the second commandment, which was to love one’s neighbor as oneself. When asked who was one’s neighbor, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan—our neighbor might be anyone we are with who needs help. In the parable, the good neighbor was a Samaritan who cared for a stranger, a Jew who had been mugged, in spite of the racial tensions and hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans at the time.
The words from the Cross tell me that Jesus was witnessing and living this same teaching to the end. He was a man witnessing to divine-like qualities, a master over the human weaknesses that we all know, one who lived love to the highest level even in the situation of physical and mental torture, and who lived it without thought for himself. How could such an experience leave us unchanged? His very nature witnessed divine love. If we can take it in, then we, too, are transformed by it and set on another path. We are not the same again. Even one of the hardened Roman soldiers, probably having been present at many executions, was moved while watching this death to say, "Surely this was a good man."
These are the thoughts that came to me concerning the passion of Christ after the Quaker meeting discussion. I do not want to reduce Jesus’ death, as some do, to only an example of how to die or even of how to live. I believe that in some great, mysterious way, in the spiritual and cosmic realm, much more than an example was taking place during his life and death in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. There are those words at the last supper that the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for the many (gave his life as an act of love), and those words in Matthew’s Gospel when he gave the cup and spoke of the new covenant for the remission of sins as though by love sins are "cleansed." At the last supper in John’s Gospel (13:34) Jesus washes the disciples’ feet to demonstrate the way to serve others, and gives them a new commandment "to love one another." Also at the end of his life in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about his death being necessary and in some way connected with the Holy Spirit being made available to the disciples and to us, to have a new spirit, to transform us, to change us spiritually so that we, too, will have this "life." (See the earlier passage, John 7:39, which says, "At that time the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been raised to Glory.") So, in the Gospels at any rate, this death is not represented in the way of the "lamb of atonement" derived from Jewish culture, and the tradition of a goat that carried the sins of the nation away into the desert as a "scapegoat" so that the Israelites could live. Nor do the Gospel accounts present the death of Jesus as necessary in order to appease a wrathful God who demands a human blood sacrifice, even though it was a self-sacrifice through love. Instead, the Passion narratives speak only of the divine and human love and the giving of the spirit of Love, which draws others to Jesus and has the power to transform any who commit themselves to following in the same way—as it changed the man dying beside him, the centurion, and millions of others down through the ages.
I still wonder, though: Did it have to be such a horrible way to die? Perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps he wondered too, when he prayed to his Father to take this cup from him: "But not my will, Lord, but Thine." Was he also unsure of what God’s will was for him at that moment? Could it have been different if he had been accepted by the "establishment," as a Messiah—a Savior? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I have been given something wonderful by his life and death. I am offered a choice to live in this way of love and forgiveness, too, and also given help to do it. It must be possible or those who have given their lives to teaching and demonstrating it would not have done so. It must be possible to love in his way, to forgive and be free, without having to carry around old hurts and resentments that often pop back into the mind repeatedly to block our freedom and peace. There are many people who live "goodness" on a plane of being that incarnates such divine qualities of truth, knowledge, compassion, joy, peace, and love without self-interest. So it must also really be possible for my life too, to be made new, to let go of past hurts, and to follow in his footsteps and to live it.
I don’t know if I will go to see the film or not, but I am glad I went to that Quaker meeting and was part of the discussion that led me to thinking through just what his death means. And, to be honest, I’m rather surprised at just how much it does mean to me. I feel newly committed to try again to live it, one step at a time at the pace it takes me. Not to pick up my cross and follow him in suffering so that it destroys me in the effort, but the very opposite: to start again, with renewed determination—or faith, if you like.
And, with new resolve, to keep going on that old road that "Pilgrim" took to freedom in Pilgrim’s Progress, and to keep in my mind’s eye a goal ahead—to attain a level of being where it is possible to be subjected to suffering and yet free of it; to continue to function and live in love, in spite of what comes. And surely, it is not insignificant that Matthew’s Gospel ends with the promise, "And I shall be with you always," and, in John, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of Truth."