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God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

The Passion of the Christ

a film directed by Mel Gibson


If you relish the sight of a healthy male body being systematically demolished, beyond the farthest reach of plausible endurance, The Passion of the Christ is your movie. It is not simply the scourging scene that is at issue, though that deals out an unspecified number of stripes—more than sixty and still counting, half of them inflicted by whips that have been made into multiple-hook tearing instruments. Even earlier, at the arrest of Jesus, he is chained, beaten over and over, thrown off a bridge to crash below. He arrives at his first legal hearing already mauled and with one eye closed behind swollen bruises. From then on, he is never moved or stopped without spontaneous blows and kicks and shoves from all kinds of bystanders wanting to get in on the fun. On the way to execution, he is whipped while fainting under the cross. A soldier says to lay off or he’ll never make it. But the crowd just keeps whipping and beating him all the rest of the way.

My wife and I had to stop glancing furtively at each other for fear we would burst out laughing. It had gone beyond sadism into the comic surreal, like an apocalyptic version of Swinburne’s The Whipping Papers. At one of several points where Gibson is following the mystical visions of an anti-Semitic Bavarian nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, he has Mary swab away at the lakes of blood sluiced out of Jesus by the scourging. In her book, first published in 1824, Sister Emmerich wrote:

When Jesus fell down at the foot of the pillar, after the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present…. [Mary] knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.1

But the nun did not see what a project Gibson would make of this effort. If Mary really wants to collect the blood, it will entail wiping down the scourgers, who are splattered all over with it. And at every later incident, new freshets of blood are drawn from an apparently inexhaustible source. Enough is left in Jesus’ body to spurt out all over the people below when his side is pierced to certify his death. If Gibson is making a theological point, that the blood is an abundant source of salvation, one wonders why the scourgers get more of it than the believers. It is not as though Gibson were a Universalist when it comes to salvation. He told The New Yorker that not merely non-Christians but nonorthodox Christians (including his wife) are going to hell.2

In Gibson’s film the union of the divine and human in Jesus is not explored or explicated. He is just a sponge for punishment. Which makes one wonder why so many call their viewing of the film a conversion experience. From what, or to what, are they being converted? From Christianity to philoflagellationism? Some fear that the real conversion will be to anti-Semitism, but Gibson says that he cannot be anti-Semitic because he killed Christ himself. All sinners did. To emphasize the point, he publicized that the hand in the film holding the first nail driven into Christ’s palm is Gibson’s own. But as we sinners watch the killers in this movie—the insane glee of those plotting against Jesus, lying about him, beating him, demanding his death, inflicting his death—do we really feel that they are our surrogates? We might, because of our sins, feel that we should empathize with them, but we cannot actually do so—the manipulation of the situation does not allow for that. With whom, then, are we to empathize—with Jesus, not so much because of our being saved by him as by our undergoing pain and humiliation with him? Certainly Gibson feels that empathy. He told Rachel Abramowitz of the Los Angeles Times: “I’m subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man.”3

Perhaps it is easier for Gibson than for some others to feel associated with his film victim, since his own movie characters have often been pulverized, brutalized, mangled by evil men and sinister organizations. If, in this case, he is the man being persecuted, who are his persecutors? The movie’s critics are. They are the real Christ-killers. Ra-mesh Ponnuru, a senior editor of National Review, said of the film that those “who choose to mock it” are “Christophobes.”4 Gibson has characterized resistance to his movie as resistance to Christ himself, to his suffering church:

I didn’t realize it would be so vicious…. The acts against this film started early. As soon as I announced I was doing it, it was “This is a dangerous thing.” There is vehement anti-Christian sentiment out there, and they don’t want it. It’s vicious…. There’s a huge war raging, and it’s over us!

Gibson finally removed (from the subtitles, not the Aramaic sound track) the verse taken from the Gospel of Saint Matthew—“His blood be on us, and on our children” (27.25)—after reflecting: “If I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me.”5 The “they” is ominous.

That mood is reflected in the large numbers of people who have praised the movie by attacking its critics. This may be at the root of the “religious” experience so many receive from the film. These people feel persecuted, like Gibson, victimized by a secular world or by unfaithful fellow Christians. The chosen groups Gibson showed the movie to at the outset included members of the Legion of Christ, an ultraconservative group that feels its fellow Catholics have deserted the true faith—the Legion is even included in the movie’s closing credits.

The alliances formed around the movie are interesting. Gibson has been supported not only by Legionaries of Christ but by members of Opus Dei, an equally conservative Catholic group. Although Gibson does not recognize the validity of the postconciliar Church or the current papacy, those two Catholic groups tried to manipulate a papal endorsement for the film—this despite the fact that Gibson violates almost all the guidelines concerning performances of the Passion issued in 1988 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. For instance: “Jesus and his disciplines must not be set dramatically in opposition to his people, the Jews.” Or: “Displays of the menorah, tablets of the law, and other Jewish symbols should appear throughout the play and be connected with Jesus and his friends no less than with the Temple or with those opposed to Jesus.”6 Disregarding the bishops will not bother Legionaries, who think the bishops have betrayed the faith by not enforcing the Pope’s strictures on, for example, contraception.

Some see the cooperation of evangelical Christians, Catholics, and some conservative Jews in praising The Passion of the Christ an ecumenical aspect to the film. According to Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University, the movie may indicate that “while anti-Semitism is still alive in the United States, anti-Catholicism is finished.”7 But the bond between these groups is not ecumenical. The bond is religious extremism. What its admirers like is precisely the unflinching nature of the film, reflecting their own sense that a true church must make extreme demands. That other people do not accept the film just confirms their own sense that the world is against them. Casting about for some parallel to the conversion experiences prompted by the film made me look again at the choices for Christ made at nineteenth- century revivals of the sort led by Alex- ander Campbell, the early-nineteenth-century co-founder, with his father Thomas, of the Disciples of Christ. Those, too, were not doctrinal conversions, but emotional reactions to an extreme challenge. The people who underwent conversion were confronted with hell, and could be rescued only by self-surrender to the Lord—a surrender bolstered by the triumph over all those around who were not saved.

Even the great Jonathan Edwards was afraid that he was not going to have the experience of being saved registered by his neighbors. When he finally escaped that unsaved condition, and could number himself among the elect, he felt a great relief—the emotion most often expressed after “awakening.” Because the revivals have been such an important part of American history, the conversion experience has been extensively studied, and the results of survey after survey are remarkably stable.8 Two thirds of religious conversions are gradual, the result of intellectual and emotional quest. Only a third are sudden. Conversions usually occur to adolescents, the sudden ones early in one’s teens, the slower ones later. I thought of that when I noticed that much of the audience was young at the theater where I saw the film, and most of those who were standing in line for the next showing were also young—many of them teenagers.

It was young people who were especially responsive to Edwards’s first great awakening. But he soon found that their fervor cooled. Their separation from the unsaved was quietly abandoned. Their conversion had been triggered by hellfire. Gibson’s unrelenting, unforgiving vision of punishment is similar. Edwards’s theme was “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Gibson gives us “God in the hands of angry sinners.” Behind both these minatory visions stands a bloodthirsty Father, damning and punishing. It can be said in Gibson’s defense that he was not narrowly anti-Semitic when he wanted to include the verse from Matthew 27.25. He sees vast hordes becoming subject to God’s vengeance, to be carried off to hell. He offers equal opportunity damnation. Saint Augustine came to see that this view of a vengeful father was unworthy of God, and abandoned the “ransom” theory of Christ’s death,9 the notion that the death of Christ was a price paid to God in order to bring about the redemption of humanity.

Not many thinkers have followed Augustine’s lead in this, although the philosopher René Girard has done so brilliantly.10 But without formal theological reasoning, most Christians have quietly realized that God the inflicter of eternal torture is not a concept they can live with. The recent and rapid fading of belief in hell is one of the things that conservatives deplore. “Real men” support hell—even for their wives. It is hellfires that are warming the hearts of the “tough love” Christians who watch Gibson’s Jesus being beaten into a mess.

The way this film of bludgeoning can be used as a bludgeon came home to me as I talked with a friend who is a fundamentalist looking forward to seeing the movie. While we talked, he got a phone call from his wife. Their pastor was not only encouraging but requiring his congregation to see the film, for which group tickets had been bought. She had called the pastor to say that she was having back trouble and, though she did plan to see the movie later on, she did not want to go now. The pastor would not take that as an answer. He insisted. She was calling her husband to ask him what she could do. They agonized over the problem while I withdrew. It seemed unlikely that she, or anyone, could get an exemption on the grounds that she dislikes films of excessive violence. In the past, some conservatives have been critical of Hollywood for indulgence in that. But when the sadism is sacred, people must be forced to see it, the bloodier the better.

  1. 1

    Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Lulu, 2004), p. 210.

  2. 2

    Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2003, p. 71.

  3. 3

    Rachel Abramowitz, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2004, p. A1.

  4. 4

    Ramesh Ponnuru, “A Movie and Its Meaning,” National Review, March 8, 2004, p. 32.

  5. 5

    See Boyer, “The Jesus War.”

  6. 6

    Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” by the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, 1988, in The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Documents (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004), pp. 76–78.

  7. 7

    Stephen Prothero, “The Personal Jesus,” The New York Times Magazine, February 29, 2004, p. 30.

  8. 8

    There is a very good survey of the studies made from conversion, dating from 1883 on, in Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 285–300.

  9. 9

    Saint Augustine, “Analysis of Some Theses in the Letter to the Romans 48.”

  10. 10

    René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford University Press, 1987).

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