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.

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.

In Gibson’s film the union …

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