"I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." - Jesus of Nazareth
It is one of the chief ironies of history that the person who taught us to turn the other cheek and to return good for evil has been one of the most divisive characters we have ever seen. That he remains so to this day is clearly shown by many of the reactions to Mel Gibson's controversial portrait of his suffering and death, "The Passion of the Christ." Apart from the polarizing impact of the person of Christ himself, it is hard to understand the intensity of those reactions, both positive and negative. It is especially hard to understand the attacks on Gibson and on the film, and the passion with which they have been pursued.
The two main raps against the movie are that it is anti-semitic and that it presents a skewed and unbalanced portrait of Christ marked by gratuitous violence. It requires an astounding level of inattention both to the story and to Gibson's treatment of it to maintain either thesis. The outcry on both points has to be explained by something other than the merits or even plausibility of the complaints themselves.
The film is allegedly anti-Semitic because it shows Jewish religious leaders finagling, and a mob of the Jewish people clamoring, for the execution of an innocent man. One wonders how this particular bit of history is to be portrayed at all apart from the recognition that this was in fact what happened. The incident in fact took place in the first-century Roman province of Judea. Who else was there to do these things?
Only the regrettable history of persecution of Jews by so-called Christians taking advantage of these facts can explain the level of denial in those elements of the Jewish community who object to any recognition of what actually happened. It is almost like a kind of reverse Holocaust Denial. For in the film as in the Gospels, Jews are portrayed as both good and evil. Gibson even goes out of his way to emphasize this balanced portrait. Bracketing Jesus himself (a Jew) for the moment, the most admired people in the film are Mary and Mary Magdalene (Jews). And Gibson adds to the Gospels a scene in which Simon of Cyrene (a Jew) risks his own life to take a stand against the cruelty of the Roman soldiers on the Via Dolorosa. The most selfless act of nobility in the film aside from the passion itself comes from . . . a Jew. And the most despicable characters in the film are surely neither Caiaphas the devotee of realpolitik, nor the clueless mob, but rather the Roman soldiers below the rank of centurion who enjoy the brutality of their job for its own sake.
The film itself simply refuses to cooperate with the theory that it is anti-semitic. And Gibson's own statements in interviews have been equally telling. Asked point-blank by Diane Sawyer who killed Christ, Gibson's reply-delivered with apparently spontaneous and heartfelt emotion-was, "I did." We all did. It was our sins. And he joined a long confessional tradition in Christian art of expressing that sentiment that goes back to Michelangelo and Rembrandt, who portrayed themselves participating in the crucifixion, when his own hand was shown driving the nail. One finally gets the impression that it does not matter what Gibson says or what he puts in his movie. Certain people are going to use it as an excuse to advance their own cause regardless of what the evidence shows.
Christians must realize that their own history of persecuting the Jewish community is partly to blame for helping to create the blind emotions that now seem to some Jews to justify this reverse Holocaust Denial. And for this, Christians must be profoundly sorry. But that history does not excuse the character assassination to which Gibson has been subject on this issue. Nor does it excuse a refusal to deal with facts, the facts about Gibson's film or the full facts about Christian history. Not all Christians can validly be implicated in the truly evil actions of some of their ancestors. Nor can those ancestors be fairly portrayed as ever having been legitimately speaking for the Christian faith. It is quite true that the Jews in the mob asked for Jesus' blood to be held against them and their descendants. It is also true that those Jews did not have the last word on the subject. The last word on that subject belongs to Christ himself: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Anyone who claims Jesus as Lord must adopt the same attitude on the subject of Jewish guilt for the crucifixion that He did. And no one who does not adopt that attitude can claim to be speaking for Christ, no matter what ecclesiastical organization he represents.
The second criticism tends to come from liberal Christians in mainline denominations: that Gibson presents a skewed and unbalanced portrait of Christ marked by gratuitous violence and thus perpetuates a na´ve and unsophisticated view of Christian faith. This criticism has a bit more credibility than the charge of anti-semitism, for the film does indeed immerse us relentlessly in the full brutality of a Roman crucifixion. It is at times hard to watch, even for people raised on the graphic violence of much modern cinema. But this criticism also ultimately fails to convince, mainly because again of its inattention to the actual details of the film itself. It breaks the most basic rule of interpretation, which was given to us by Alexander Pope long ago: "A perfect judge will read each work of wit / In that same spirit that its author writ." For this movie does not attempt nor claim to attempt a balanced portrait of the life of Christ. It is not about the life of Christ; it is about his passion, his sacrificial death to atone for human sin. Its stated purpose in Gibson's own words is to reveal to us the "enormity" of that sacrifice. These critics are guilty of one of the worst and most common sins of critics, whether of movies or of books. They say nothing about how well the work succeeds at what it is trying to do, which they have never bothered to try to understand, but rather criticize it for not being the treatment they would have preferred to attempt. It is no valid criticism to say that an artist or a work of art fails at doing something which was never its purpose in the first place.
Only two questions are really pertinent: is the work's purpose worth attempting, and, if so, does it do a good job of achieving it? For Christian believers, gaining a deeper understanding of the enormity of Christ's sacrifice on their behalf is central to their very concept of the purpose of life. And even for non-Christians, being given an opportunity to understand what lies at the emotional heart of so many people's faith can hardly be considered an unworthy goal.
Gibson's purpose, then, is a worthy one. Does he succeed at it? I think that, for most people who are open to that purpose, the answer is a resounding yes. There is room for some discussion about the issue of gratuitous violence, not from those who have ruled out blood sacrifice in advance as being potentially relevant to Christian faith through a kind of theological question-begging, but from those who are willing to admit the necessity of some accurate presentation of the cruelty of Jesus' death as essential to Gibson's purpose. For some, the film may present more reality than they can bear. The question of whether the film might have benefited from some application of the "less is more" principle is worth pursuing. But ultimately I think we will have to conclude that the violence is not gratuitous per se. Even in the most controversial scene, the flogging, the camera often pulls back from the actual blows to record the reactions of those standing around. The film audience is protected, as the actual audience was not, from the full reality. But we definitely get enough of it to get the point.
And what is the point that we get? I think it is often exactly the one Gibson wanted us to get. This film is about Jesus' passion--and it is about how that passion relates to us. Jim Caviezel is the first actor ever to convince me that Christ might actually have looked-and behaved-like he does. And I have yet to meet anyone who came out of the film hating Jews. The most common reactions I have heard are either utter bewilderment or, more often, a profound emotional bonding with the character of Christ. "Oh! He did that for me? How can I not love him?"
Others can talk about Gibson's masterful use of cinematic technique. My purpose here has mainly been to remove the stumbling blocks which unsympathetic critics have tried to put in the way of our appreciation of this film. When those stumbling blocks are removed and the criteria of worthy purpose and powerful fulfillment remain, I must conclude that even if I were not a Christian I would have to give this film an A+.
Updated 4/4/2004 2:25 PM