I was in a unique position for the original release of The Passion of the Christ. I was teaching in a liberal Christian college, which was nestled in a very conservative Christian culture. From my liberal colleagues—most of whom refused to see the film—I heard strongly worded condemnations of the supposed anti-Semitism of the film, and critical, even horrified, assessments of the “unnecessary” violence of the film. From my more conservative church members, I heard the elevation of the film to the level of Scripture--also often before they had seen it.
There’s some justification for considering the film to be faithful to the spirit of Scripture, even if it’s not exactly revelation. With an emphasis on John’s gospel, borrowing from other gospels and certain mystical works, it’s hardly a mistake to consider the film a reliable resource for historical, even theological, information. In that context, the charge of anti-Semitism needs to be addressed. This is a more complex line of thought than it might seem. The canonical evangelists, all but one of whom were Jews themselves, tended to be very hard on their own people. Their frustration with the Jews was born from the exasperated love for beloved family members who refuse to act in their own best interest. “He came to his own, and his own knew him not.”
But the fact is, the Jews had no power to execute anyone. They were an oppressed and occupied nation. Only the legal authorities of the Roman state, represented by Pontius Pilate and his military support, had any power over rebels, traitors, or insurgents. Both history and Scripture make it clear: the Romans, not the Jews, are responsible for Jesus’ death and punishment. The film does not equivocate in this matter. Pilate was conflicted and compromised, Roman troops ranged individually from compassionate to sadistic, and in that context, Jesus suffered standard Roman punishments.
Though director Mel Gibson doesn’t leave the burden of blame on the shoulders of the Jews, he certainly does fail in exploring the untenable position the Jews were in in relation to Jesus of Nazareth. Gibson plays the Jewish contingent at the surface level, giving his actors very little complexity to attach themselves to. It’s faithful to the letter of Scripture, but misses an opportunity to flesh out the conflict, especially on the Jewish side.
The objection to the violence of the films is another matter, and it’s hard for me to be patient with that line of thinking. I’m reminded of the anecdote about the British lady who objected to the film, because “it makes our Lord’s crucifixion seem so unpleasant.” Whatever one thinks of Jesus, he was both flogged and crucified. This is no sanitized-needle lethal injection in which the criminal just falls asleep. It’s not even a bloody but quick beheading. It’s one of the most tortuous and violent means of death ever perpetrated by men upon other men. If you’re going to make, or watch, a film focusing on the suffering (and “passion” means suffering) of a historical figure, you’re going to have to deal with that suffering. If you can’t stand it, then don’t watch it, but don’t criticize the filmmakers for being honest to the historical events. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a point of honor; I can’t keep him from suffering, but since he did it for me, the least I can do is watch without turning away.
It’s that devotional impulse—the “he did it for me”—that appeals to the devoted Christian audience. These are folks for whom the same Jesus portrayed by Jim Caveizel is a living, active presence in their lives. To be exposed to the real suffering of the One they love most, to have it taken out of stained glass and Italian sculpture, is an incredibly powerful experience. In that power is the reason for the film’s success. For the faithful viewer, it’s all about the conviction that while Jesus was suffering, he was thinking of me.
Nevertheless, Gibson understands that even those of us who were “washed in the blood,” can’t maintain an emotional investment in non-stop, unbroken violence. Gibson tempers the harshness of Jesus’ suffering, especially as he is more and more disfigured, with flashbacks of Jesus teaching and healing. In these flashbacks, we see Jesus as active, intentional, and above all, strong. This is a masculine, assertive Jesus, with both compassion and joy—and a bit of a temper.
Thank God for that.
Heaven knows that between numerous “Jesus films” and the efforts of countless preachers, we’ve had enough portrayals of Jesus that reduce him to a weak, asexual, effeminate being, the “declawed Lion of Judah” we so often get in church—“fit only as a pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.” In addition, Jim Caviezel is beautiful—physically beautiful—in this role. The more bloodied and objectified Jesus gets, the more desperate we are to see the agent Jesus—acting on others, not being acted upon, and full of glowing health and vitality. By the time Jesus dies in ugly horror, we need the Resurrection. It’s a privilege and a profound relief to see our Jesus restored to his intensity and masculine beauty.
Gibson’s film is not above criticism, and it would be a mistake to transfer our love for Jesus to Mel Gibson. Jesus’ suffering seems abstract at points, leaving the viewer to wonder just how much Gibson counted on his viewers to fill in motivation and conflict. The figure of Judas is creepy and pathetic, but we are given little insight into why he betrayed Jesus. The androgynous Satan figure actually works surprisingly well as a symbol of the insidiousness of temptation, though I spent too much time trying to discern whether that was actually the actor’s own voice the figure used. But in the end, the film was made with love for its subject matter, and believers, at least, benefit in the making-real of something that has too often been kept at a distance.