Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ

“Beyond every personal form of witness, I remain convinced that my Christian faith, in order to be faithful to itself needs the Jewish faith. From every Christianizing theology on Judaism and from every Jewishizing theology on Christianity, I tried to witness all that Martin Buber expressed so well: it is the Alliance of the same living God who makes us exist, Jews and Christians, and who creates a community beyond the breakage” — Cardinal Roger Etchegaray.

When I was growing up my Italian mother and grandmother would remain in prayerful silence on Good Friday marking the three hours Christ suffered on the cross. As a child, this sort of solemn piety seemed remote and almost incomprehensible. Of course, even then I knew the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, but it is easy for 2000-year old events to seem remote. However, after spending two hours watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ perhaps I can better understand at a deeper emotional level the piety my mother and grandmother appreciated without the crutch of state-of-the-art cinematography.

There is no way events portrayed in The Passion of the Christ could come as a surprise. Christians have told and re-told the story for two millennia. Catholics explicitly recall the Stations of the Cross every Easter. It is also true that the Scriptures from which we learned the story are not a screen play. Therefore, any movie maker, and Gibson is obviously a skilled one, must fill in the structure. After re-reading the relevant portions of the Gospels, despite small quibbles, most reasonable people would conclude that Gibson’s film remains faithful to the story as told in the Gospels. Indeed, a reading of the Gospels is a necessary pre-requisite to meaningfully comment on the movie.

What the film provides is authentic immediacy. The subtitled film is spoken in Latin and Aramaic, the languages of the time. Considerable effort was devoted to re-create the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago using authentic costumes and actors who appear as Jews and Romans might have looked. There are no blue-eyed, Nordic-looking, carefully-coiffed Jews or Romans in this film. The realism of The Passion of the Christ confronts us with the depth of the sacrifice that Christ experienced and the love for us with which he embraced the suffering. It is just that simple. This is not a movie in the conventional sense with a tidy plot. It is really a scene pulled out of the entire Bible story.

More than one reviewer has written that this is the most violent film they have ever watched. I think that such comments, while honest, miss the true nature of the film’s graphic violence. There are other films with depictions as brutal. Indeed, the popular Lord of the Rings has scenes as violently graphic. Certainly, Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction exceed the violence in The Passion of the Christ.

However, it is also true that the violence in this film has far more emotional impact than the violence in other films. We are inured to conventional movie violence. In this film, we are reminded at the beginning that Christ’s suffering is a consequence of our sins. Therefore, with every stroke of the lash on Christ’s back, we not only see the immediate damage to Christ’s body, but feel the sting of our own guilt. Every time Christ falls under the weight of the cross, we understand that our own transgressions have added to the crushing weight. We recognize that the nails used to attach Christ to the cross were forged by our faults.

One of the tenets of deconstructionism is that artistic works have no absolute or fixed meaning. Rather the meaning of a work is dependent on the beliefs of the observer. While I am unwilling to allow artistic works to flail about unanchored with totally arbitrary meaning, it is clear the much of what people who view The Passion of the Christ walk away with will be dependent the viewpoint they walked in with.

Those for whom Scripture and Christ’s death and Resurrection are normative will have a heightened appreciation of the enormous suffering Christ willingly endured as recompense for our sins. For those whose Christian religiosity is latent or forgotten, the film may provide motivation to revisit their churches and re-read Scriptures. For others, it may provide an insight to the source of the faith of their Christian brothers. For those who seek to find fault in the film, fault will be found.

The most damning charge against The Passion of the Christ is that it is anti-Semitic. At present, anti-Semitism is very real and a growing threat. Without going in to personal details, I confess a passionate familial interest to speak out against anti-Semitism wherever it is.

There is real anti-Semitism at Harvard, when the school’s newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, was concerned that there were too many Jewish writers on its editorial page. There is real anti-Semitism in the rantings of Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. It is anti-Semitic when a Canadian Left-wing web site Adbusters finds it appropriate to list American neoconservatives highlighting those that are Jewish. There is a flaming anti-Semitism igniting synagogues in France and blowing them up in Turkey. The popular media in Muslim countries is filled with the vilest anti-Semitism imaginable since the Nazis. Reasonable viewers will not find The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic.

This controversy is reminiscent, on a much smaller scale, of the arguments that periodically crop out about the use of the n-word in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. There can be no doubt that the n-word has been deliberately used to degrade and insult the black population. Where the n-word is used, racism is often found. If one focuses only on the use of the n-word with out considering the anti-slavery theme of Huckleberry Finn, it is possible to foolishly conclude that the book is “racist.”

Similarly, Passion plays, particularly in Europe have been the occasion of violence and against Jews and synagogues. Of course, such a reaction is based on a deliberate misreading of the entire Gospels. All humanity is culpable in the suffering of Christ. Blaming all Jews for the death of Christ is like blaming all Germans for the Holocaust based on the movie Schindler’s List, or all whites for the slavery after watching the mini-series Roots. There are both positive and negative portrayals of Jews in The Passion of the Christ and there are positive and negative portrayals of Romans. Indeed, the Roman soldiers are perhaps the most egregiously cruel, taking obvious sporting pleasure in whipping Christ with various implements.

Nonetheless, movies are not made in a vacuum. It is possible there are cultures anxious to willfully misinterpret Gibson’s movie as an excuse for anti-Semitic behavior. Even with positive intentions, a work can foster anti-Semitism. Part of the film maker’s art is calibrating how images will likely effect people. If the showing of The Passion of the Christ were accompanied by a significant up tick in anti-Semitic words or actions by people leaving theaters, then we could rightly concern ourselves with the effect of The Passion of the Christ. The meaning of the Gospels is not anti-Semitic, yet it is possible for clumsy or insensitive re-telling of the Passion story to exacerbate negative emotions.

By all accounts, certainly consistent with my observations of the audience at the showing I attended, the collective mood created by viewing the film was not anger or hatred. Rather the mood was somber and reverent. By this measure, accusations of anti-Semitism seemed thus far to have been empirically proven incorrect.

Given the charitable frame of mind the movie has, at least temporarily, put me in I am disinclined to address some of the more vitriolic criticism of the movie. If anything, the criticism has been so angry and personal against Gibson, that not to address it would be allow animosity to linger in the air unchallenged.

To be sure the most hateful aspect of the movie has been the criticism leveled against Mel Gibson. Gibson’s father appears to be a clearly anti-Semitic Holocaust denier (or at least Holocaust mitigater). While not subscribing to his father’s beliefs, in an act of filial loyalty, Gibson is unwilling to criticize his father. Gibson’s father had no part in the making of this movie, yet he is used to call indirectly Gibson’s motives in to question. The sins of the father should not be placed on the shoulders of the son.

Andy Rooney of CBS, without the benefit of viewing the movie snidely asked of Mel Gibson, “How many million dollars does it look as if you’re going to make off the crucifixion of Christ?” To compound his insensitivity, Rooney told Don Imus in a radio interview he was not going to see the movie. After all, Rooney explained, “I’m not going to spend $9 just for a few laughs.” Does anyone else see an androgynous hooded character slinky behind at least one office at CBS? However, it is difficult to summon too much ire since Rooney has ceased to be a serious commentator. Few take him seriously.

It was much more disappointing to read the review of Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic. That periodical is usually so much more responsible. Wieseltier establishes his snooty credentials by criticizing Jim Caviezel, who played Christ. According to Wieseltier, Caviezel’s “Aramaic, like everybody else’s in the film, is grammatically correct and risibly enunciated.” How relevant is this to the appreciation of the film by Americans who are surely reading the subtitles during the Aramaic speaking? No. The remark was a smug way of saying: I know Aramaic. I am really smart. You should submit to by judgment about the film.

Unfortunately, intellectuals are often the last people to recognize the obvious. He asserts that “The viewing of The Passion of the Christ is a profoundly brutalizing experience.” Collectively recent movie viewers have testified to the intensity of the violence, but not to its brutalization. It is not often, Wieseltier can be proven so empirically wrong so shortly after making an incorrect assertion. I believe Wieseltier when he says, “I see only pious pornography in The Passion of the Christ.” However, the remark probably says more about Wieseltier’s limited vision than it does about The Passion of the Christ.

How do we explain the movie’s obvious popularity and the profound reverential impact it is having on many viewers despite some critical reviews? There are only a couple of choices: There are millions of easily led Christian religious zealots who eagerly gobble up any brutality. Or the movie speaks to some deeply held religiosity and some of the critics represent narrow minded individuals who see brutality where most see sacrifice. Is Wieseltier right when he argues that The Passion of the Christ “without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film?” Or are people who blindly cling to such a belief about the movie, despite its obvious effect on audiences, mired in cynical distrust of their brothers?

Rabbi Daniel Lapin has lamented that the unrelenting criticism of Gibson and the movie by some will do far more damage to Christian-Jewish relations than the movie itself could. After all the issue of how responsible Christians and Jews deal with the story of the Passion has been settled for a while. Most modern American Christians feel sympathy and genuine brotherhood with the Jews they know. According to Lapin, Christians are left wondering whether Jewish neighbors could really believe that “…exposure to the Gospels in visual form will instantly transform the most philo-Semitic gentiles of history into snarling, Jew-hating predators.” Such a negative reaction has not happened and should there turn out to be isolated pockets of anti-Semites who exploit the movie, Christians who embrace the Gospels should be the first to realize that the sin of anti-Semitism adds to the weight of the cross Christ carried.

One Response to “Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ”

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