Editorial: The Last Passion of Christ (The Movie)

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 29, Lent 2004

There has been something worrying me about Mel Gibson’s movie. I had read how anti-Semitic some Jewish people took it to be. Indeed, it has provoked widespread negative reaction in Israel. I had read Gibson defending it as his understanding of how he perceived Jesus’s last hours to be ‘according to the gospel writers’. I heard priests affirm it, usually with reservations about its violent content. It would be good for peoples’ faith, they said. I had some concerns about Gibson’s own form of sect-type Catholicism, which rejects everything the Second Vatican Council teaches. This includes developed scriptural studies, recognition of the centrality of the Jews in relation to Christianity and the recognition of the communal as well as personal dimension of salvation. Christ came to save the world, not merely individuals.

Like many, I was disturbed at the way fundamentalist Christians flocked to its masthead, welcoming its appearance almost like the Second Coming. For a Hollywood movie to come out of the US fuelling fundamentalism at this point in an election year is somewhat bizarre and a little scary. Evangelical Americans and the conservative wings of mainstream churches have taken to it as a movie for our times. And that is frightening.

I did eventually go and see it. Like most, I was horrified at the brutality shown by the Roman soldiers (no human being could have survived half the punishment that Jesus took on the road to crucifixion), was aghast at the over doing of special effects, did find the over emphasis on the role of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin somewhat provocative and arguably the basis for some claim of an anti-Semitic under-current. However I also found the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, were tastefully played, as were the roles of Peter and other apostles.

But I think what the movie does overall is give a false portrayal of the meaning of the life of Jesus. With the whole emphasis being on the violence of his death, there is virtually no room to actually appreciate anything much of what his life was about. That Jesus came with a radical message of hope and life that has inspired billions of people over 2000 years and continues to do so, is presented through flashbacks almost an after thought. It’s a bit like presenting Nelson Mandela’s life in a sequence of 12 hours during his 1964 treason trial, with flashes of other dimensions of his life and beliefs dispersed in between. While such a film could claim to be only representing that sequence, it provides little context as to why the treason trial was important.

And that is my difficulty with Last Passion. It is claimed to be only a slice of Jesus life. In reality, it is promoted as being the most important part. And it is presented outside the context of other vital parts. The movie focuses on the over exaggerated physical aspects of the passion to the virtual exclusion of everything else. The teachings of Jesus and his resurrection are absolutely vital in terms of understanding his passion, yet are given a scant nod. Instead, we are presented with a Jansenistic, suffering figure for whom pain is the stable diet. The movie is distorted to the extent that the passion is presented as the dominant visual image and message. I think Gibson’s lack of sound theology is reflected in his desire to present the passion as a stand-alone piece. But Christ’s passion cannot be understood truthfully like that. It is central to Christian understanding that Good Friday and Easter be seen as a unit. One does not make sense without the other.

The issue of context is crucial. Context then, and context now. While Christians believe Jesus died and rose historically, they also believe that the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ continues in today’s world. Gibson hasn’t touched on this. The passion of Christ today is not alluded to. We teach that Christ identifies with us so much that when someone suffers, we say Christ suffers, Christ is being crucified again. When someone dies from some injustice or violence, we say Christ dies again. And when great wonderful things happen, when suffering is overcome and hope dawns, we rejoice because Christ is victorious again. This total identification of Christ with people today is part of the gospel belief, reflected in post-resurrection stories in the scriptures. There is no recognition of this dimension The Passion. In omitting this, the movie sells the Christian message well short.

If all the gut wrenching, savage, bloodthirsty, cruel images inflicted on the historical Jesus with such vigour in Gibson’s movie could have been somehow re-imaged to include Christ’s passion and crucifixion today in the pain of millions who suffer and die through war, poverty and violence, we would have had a movie worthy of its director’s intent. Regrettably, in this narrow version of The Passion of the Christ, we don’t. It is a huge opportunity lost. It would have been a movie the world would have needed to debate. And it probably could have been shown in Israel.

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