desire steadfast love, not your bloody sacrifice." Hosea 6:6
tens of thousands of words in newspaper articles, advance reviews, commentary
from religious leaders of various faith groups, after listening to a score of
pre-release television shows and a lengthy interview with the film maker, I was
excited, and a bit anxious as I made my way to my local theatre here on Manhattan's
upper west side on opening night, Ash Wednesday 2004, to actually see Mel Gibson's
Passion of Christ.
It was a scene with protestors and the media jamming
There were throngs of protesters and a score of television
crews, not only from the U.S., but from the foreign press, waiting outside the
theater on this beautiful late winter evening. Among the theatre goers there were
quite a number with ashes on their foreheads, indicating attendance at religious
services earlier in the day, and highlighting in my mind, what a masterful job
Gibson did not only in drawing pre-release attention to his film, but having public
interest peak on opening night. And the wave of interest continued for weeks,
carried by the back draft of Lent and Holy Week and Easter, release of the DVD,
and the ongoing controversy. It seemed to me that the Jewish protestors outside
the theatre were perfect foils for the publicists who had already succeeded in
making this film pay off at the box office; add to this the special assist the
movie recieved from religious leaders interested in using it as a "teaching
tool" and thereby keeping it alive for years to come.
Christian splatter film. If that is not an oxymoron.
had prepared me for the level of physical violence that fills the screen in this
movie, prompting some to aptly refer to it as the first Christian splatter film.
Never in the history of film making has a single character spilled so much blood,
so vividly, so prodigiously, in such graphic color, with such a dazzling combination
of lighting and sound effects. This is a reverse mirror image of Gladiator, with
the hero, Jesus, not inflicting violence on others, but stoically taking it in.
But aside from the profusion of blood, I can characterize this film in a word:
The best film-making money can buy.
Gibson is a very good film maker: not a gifted artist, but highly polished at
his craft. The costumes, the lighting, the sound track, the special effects, the
computer graphics, and yes, the make-up, these are all first rate here. But there
is nothing in this movie that is innovative or ground breaking. It struck me as
being a composite of all the Bible movies I have ever seen, and I've seen a lot
of them, from the Ten Commandments forward. Add to that the razzle dazzle of up
to date animation and cinematography, the best that money can buy, and you have,
if not actually a faithful rendering of the passion and death of the historical
Jesus, at least a solid and compelling expression of one man's deeply felt faith.
Mel Gibson's faith is that of an "evangelical catholic," and
I use that phrase deliberately. He belongs to a sectarian movement of former Catholics
who have broken away from mother church, seeing it as being far too accommodating
of contemporary, secular culture. But Gibson's faith has also been influenced
by the popular evangelical movement that came to the fore in late twentieth century
America. Both Gibson's Catholic background and his evangelical (protestant) foreground
are evident in this film.
Aside from Jesus, Gibson spins Mary and
Consider this. One of the weaker characters in the film
is the apostle Peter, who in a Catholic context, represents the magisterium of
Rome. Here Peter not only betrays Christ, which he does in the gospel narratives,
three times, but he shows little of the robust leadership qualities that Jesus
identified in him, resulting in Peter's later being taken as the leader of the
church and a paradigm for all future Popes.
Rather than Peter, the strongest
character in this movie is unquestionably Mary. Her relationship with Jesus comes
through as the redemptive heart of this film, at times upstaging the heroic suffering
of Jesus himself. In the movie's climactic moments, she cradles the corpse of
Christ in a lovely and moving pieta that echoes a venerable tradition of Catholic
art, piety and formal theology in which this minor player in the biblical narrative
emerges as nothing less than The Mother of God. Gibson may have grave doubts about
the Catholic Church's supreme, patriarchal leader, but he seems to identify passionately
with the Blessed Virgin Mary, his tradition's symbolic matriarch. It's
all about the blood.
At bottom this film is a dramatic and powerful
statement of the core theological premise of evangelical protestantism. It is
in and through Christ's suffering on the cross that humanity is saved. According
to this widely preached tradition, human sinfulness is so great, and human nature
is so depraved, that there is only one thing that can possibily restore humanity
to a right relationship with God, and that is the sacrificial death of God's Only
Not Christ's wise and prophetic teaching, not his loving,
healing ministry, not his advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, not his fierce
condemnations of the privileged and the powerful, not his resurrection, or even
his relationship with the Father, are sufficient for salvation. It is the perfection
of his suffering alone that can make all things right. In the film, Gibson rips
a phrase out of its actual context in the Bible and places it in the mouth of
Jesus as he encounters Mary on his way to the cross: "See how I make all
things new." This is renewal of creation written in a trail of blood.
Flaws at the heart and core of Gibson's theology.
But there is
a problem with this theology, with this piety, and with this movie, a fatal flaw
at the very center of Mel Gibson's faith, as well as the popular forms of contemporary
Christianity that this film reflects. As Mel Gibson's Passion so powerfully illustrates
by negative example, the suffering of one human being, even if it happens to be
Jesus of Nazareth, is not sufficient to make all things new. For however bloody
and painful the death of Jesus was in fact--and this movie pulls out all the stops
in making that suffering clear--ordinary people in the world today, two thousands
years after the time of Christ continue to suffer and die just as he did and in
the same old ways as victims of ruthless violence, and they do so in the same
old places, such as the streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Baghdad, not to
mention the awful, violent deaths occurring weekly, daily, hourly right here,
much closer to home.
Was the death of Jesus on the cross any more ghastly
than the deaths not long ago of nearly 3000 human beings in the towering infernos
of the World Trade Center, where, within a few painful minutes, these thousands
were burned, asphyixiated, crushed, pulverized or buried alive? And as this bloody
world turns, such deaths continue daily, hourly, minute by minute such that we
are incapable of counting, let alone remembering them.
A symptom of
our problem rather than a cure.
I happen to believe that the world
will not be saved by the repetition of such violent stories, but rather by the
saving acts of a loving God who reaches out to each and every one of us in ways
that are as numberless as they are real. Today in contemporary America we are
fixated upon violence both fictional and real, and I am afraid that Mel Gibson's
film is a symptom of that fixation, rather than its cure. What the world needs
now is the good that can come from God, and all of God's people acting in concert
to repair this broken world, not a ritual of violent sacrifice from which some
still believe the good may flow. In America today we need to listen to the words
of the prophet of old, who put it quite plainly: "I desire steadfast love
and not your bloody sacrifice." Hosea 6:6 -- translation mine.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.