Reflections after seeing Mel Gibson’s version of “The Passion” of Jesus, 3/10/04
“They have taken away my Lord, and we do not know where to find him.” (John 20:2)
Near the end of the last book of the Bible, a verse says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city. (Rev. 22:18-19) Of course we think of this as referring specifically to the book of Revelation, but historically that admonition has been understood as cautionary about the way we treat all scripture. To try to improve on scripture by adding to or taking away, no matter how pious the intent, inevitably reduces and diminishes it.
I object to what has been added to Scripture and taken away in this movie. ( I would not detract from any genuine faith and devotion to Christ (or “godly sorrow,” in the words of II Cor. 7:10) this film may evoke in some believers. But with mindfulness of II Timothy 4:1-5 and its warning to “Keep alert” because sound doctrine is always in peril of being eroded into unsound, I would offer cautions here about what’s being presented in this film’s graphic depiction.
I object to the way physical torture is allowed to run away with the story, crowding out the inner, spiritual agony that Jesus went through.
There is no reporting in the Gospels of a relentless, continual, repeated, lashing of Jesus that starts in the Garden, continues through all the trial scenes and keeps up all the way to Calvary, until it finally overwhelms everything else Jesus stood for, becoming the only fact, instead of a fact about Jesus’ sacrificial death. The Gospels report the scourging or striking of Jesus, vicious and brutal as it was even to happen at all, in single verses, as single episodes, (Matthew 27:26, Mark 14:65, Luke 22:63, John 19:1) happening primarily at a specific time in the unfolding of the action and then followed by other events in the course of the trial. A few additional scenes refer to single actions of striking or slapping (John 18:22, Matthew 26:67, Mark 15:19), in connection with a question or an insult. But nowhere do the Gospels indicate that the beating and lashing started in the arrest and continued over and over and relentlessly up to the Cross in an orgy of gratuitous, sadomasochistic violence, that finally seems to be for its own sake rather than redemptive. I believe in the Gospels’ chaste, sober, factual, unsentimental way of describing the passion as meant to help us keep our attention on what it was about.
The Gospels make clear that the suffering Jesus endured was not only physical—perhaps not even primarily physical—gruesome as it was. It was the inner, spiritual agony also of seeing his message rejected and misunderstood: the failure of everybody, his disciples, his family, the leaders of his people, to comprehend the Kingdom, and of having to go on alone abandoned even, it seemed, by his Father. This is what gets diminished, it seems to me, by the movie’s excessive dwelling on the physical violence.
I object to the movie’s isolating the passion of Christ as an event in itself, on its own, without due consideration of what led up to it, and (aside from a brief glimpse of an empty shroud) the new situation that followed from it. This narrow-lense, close-up concentration, changes, in my view, the meaning and nature of what God was doing through Christ’s sacrifice. The movie misses, in my judgment, the connection between his being killed and what N.T. Wright calls the “radical alternative, the entirely different way of construing reality” that was Jesus’ message. Making the resurrection just a tacked-on single brief allusion at the end, further detracts from the understanding of what was going on.
I object to the way the film lets me “off the hook” so as to rob the cross of its saving power for me and the society I know.
Part of the power of the cross is making us see the vicarious nature of Jesus suffering. It was our sins he was dying because of and for—not just the brutality of a few inhuman savages. Jesus’ trial and passion fascinate us because it makes us recognize ourselves in the fateful drama played out there: the realization as we watch the fear and cowardice of the disciples, the slowness to comprehend of Jesus’ followers, his family’s bewilderment, the failure of all to understand the Kingdom that he was inviting them into, the stubborn inability of the leaders to think new thoughts and the will to hang on to old certainties instead of trusting new wineskins—this could have been me, any of us, as easily as it was they. But in this film, I can walk out of the theater feeling pretty good about myself, even in my sorrow for Jesus. I’m not one of those savage soldiers. I’m not one of those stubborn Jews. It’s just a few monstrously cruel persons responsible for this: Caiaphas and his fellow rulers, and a few loutish soldiers who do all the bad stuff. The rest of us can feel pretty good about ourselves.
“Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children,” Jesus says to some women watching him bear his cross up Golgotha (Luke 23:28). Nothing about Mel Gibson’s movie prepares me to understand Jesus’ saying that to the women. Instead the movie fastens us in accident-scene fascination on the horror of what this individual is going through—the literalism of the savage beating that goes on and on, the nails piercing bone and ligament, the pulling of an arm from its socket. It’s about him, not about us. Neither the Gospels nor the Epistles choose to linger emotionally over these scenes. Jesus’ predicament is not the tragedy; it’s the predicament of all of us that is the tragedy.
I object to what seems to be the Counter-Reformation, pre-Vatican II theology that predominates in this film. I object to its fixation on the physical, the sensual, the visual, that bespeaks centering worship in a crucifix with Jesus still hanging on it, instead of on an empty cross, a fixation on Jesus’ martyrdom, pity verging on self-pity, forgetting what it’s for: the absolutely new creation that it brings about as the resurrection leads to repentance unto new life. I cannot believe that there would be many won over to lifelong commitment by this film; they would need continuing views of the gruesome suffering to keep them motivated.
I object to the unscriptural veneration of Mary, (the word “mother” has a capital “M” in connection with her), in Mel Gibson’s movie. I object to the way she is made so pure and supportive that Jesus could not have needed to die for her as for the rest of us--there’s not a hint of the fact that Jesus had to break free even from her in order to carry out his ministry. As she kisses the floor above his holding-cell, follows worshipfully each step of the way up Golgotha, she seems almost a partner with him in his redemptive role. This is not supported by Scripture.
I object to the unscriptural equating of Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery reported in John 8. Scripture does not say this, and making them the same person may damage the individual role each plays in the gospel narrative.
I object to the unscriptural appearing of the movie’s version of Satan in and through many of the trial scenes. We may imagine how Jesus remembered his struggle with the temptations Satan posed at the beginning of his ministry. But to make Satan physically present in the trial scenes is unwarranted and manipulative of the viewer’s understanding.
I object to the reducing of Jesus’ message (in what little reference there is to it in the movie) to person-to-person niceness instead of a world-turned-upside-down announcement of God’s rule, that was too subversive a challenge to the way Israel understood itself and Rome’s need to dominate for either to ignore him . If what Mel Gibson gives is the gist of Jesus’ message, I can’t see how any governing power—whether the high priests or the Roman officials—would have seen Jesus as enough of a threat to bother with him.
I object to the unscriptural way the movie absolves Pilate and the Roman occupiers of playing a major role in Jesus’ crucifixion—their being made to look relatively innocent and at the mercy of the Jews—even to the presence of Caiaphas at the foot of the cross, supported nowhere in the Gospels. This retelling is untrue to the complexity of what the Gospels describe.
Thanks be that the Gospel is still the good news according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not the atonement-according-to-Hollywood.
Nice to know that I'm not the only one in my particular theological corner of the world who sees some of these things the same way.