A Passion for the Passon


by Henry E. Neufeld

Yesterday afternoon I finally went to see “The Passion of the Christ” with my wife. (Since we had different, but complementary reactions, I’m including her e-mail devotion from this morning as part of this response.) I’m going to keep this fairly low key, even though the experience of the movie itself is quite emotional. That’s a good reason to wait until the morning after to write my reaction! Please read to the end before responding to my response. You won’t find the whole thing in any one paragraph.

I’ve been hearing things both good and bad about this movie now for months, mostly from people who either hadn’t seen it or had seen only a small preview. Many had already concluded that it was excellent or terrible, a must-see or a must-burn, a display of love or a senseless display of violence, anti-Semitic or not, well before the movie had been released. As various people got previews, the groundswell of opinions grew to massive proportions.

Let me tell you first that I despise being told what I’m going to think about something. I hate being told what I shouldthink about something. I don’t care if it is done by liberals or conservatives or persons of any other position on any spectrum. (I love to read and write reviews and responses, so I can share what others have thought.) People feel very strongly about this movie. There are few neutrals. There is very little “just sharing” going on about it.

I first want to commend Mel Gibson for expressing his faith in the form of film. There are many spiritual things that I do not share with him. I have a hard time finding points of sympathy with his conservative Catholic position. Vatican II seems very conservative to me, and the reaction to it as “liberal” just seems weird. But nonetheless, I think the public media have a very serious problem expressing their faith and spiritual positions. Mel Gibson has paved the way; let’s hear from more of our directors! 

Technical Issues:

The story line is formed by a harmonizing1 approach to the gospels informed by Catholic tradition. Since Catholic tradition on the passion is generally harmonizing, it may be that the movie is simply formed from Catholic tradition. But evangelicals who are used to reading the gospels, and forming their story of the passion by combining the accounts will generally be comfortable with the story as it is told. In some cases those unacquainted with tradition, and particularly with the Stations of the Cross may wonder why certain scenes are there. Unlike those who have felt that this was built around the Stations of the Cross, I would say that it was informed by them. I did not find the non-gospel material obtrusive.

The portrayal of the crucifixion itself is almost totally contrary to the best historical evidence as I understand it. I’m not an expert on this, but recent studies have indicated that those crucified were nailed to the cross bar at the wrists rather than in the palms, and were not supported by ropes. Jesus is nailed to the cross through the palms of his hands in this movie, and supported by ropes, which would likely be necessary with the nails through the palms. It is also unlikely that there was a sort of support to which the feet were nailed. Again, the best evidence suggests that a nail was run through both ankles and into the side of the cross. It is also unlikely that Jesus carried his entire cross. Note that the thieves carry only the crossbar which is technically correct, but Jesus carries the whole cross. The thieves also have not been scourged, which was generally a part of Roman crucifixion.

Since I can read Aramaic and Latin (a little), and even understand a few words, I found this movie particularly interesting technically. I think focusing on some of the technical aspects helped me get through some of the more violent parts. The language seemed to be done quite well. The subtitles were good. I’m glad Gibson decided to add the subtitles, because having the entire film in Aramaic and Latin would not have worked well. Of course there is considerable chatter in Aramaic and Latin that is not subtitled, but for most of that you can guess.

The next issue is the level of violence. I didn’t really want to go see this movie, because I already know what crucifixion is like. In fact, I often include in my preaching and teaching some material on how casually we treat the cross. The symbol has been transformed in our time. In the time of Jesus, one would certainly not have hung nice decorated crosses around their necks, or used them as earrings or as decorations. I can see my own gathering of seven Celtic crosses, beautifully done, from where I’m typing. That it is possible for me to look at these as a positive thing is the result of Jesus’ death on the cross, and the transformation of the symbol. But that same transformation often makes us see the cross in an antiseptic version. “Yes, Jesus suffered, but not too much. He endured the pain because he saw the prize. It’s OK.”

This movie will certainly counteract that image. People who see it should be impacted by the sheer cruelty and degradation. However, in addition to the historical inaccuracies listed above, the movie changes the impact in two ways. First, all the victims wear loincloths. I’m not suggesting that Gibson portray them naked, but we should realize that this is how they were treated. Second, Gibson intensifies the violence and focuses on it. I’m fairly certain that the whipping scene as portrayed would have killed Jesus, and certainly would have placed him beyond standing, talking or even attempting to carry the cross, all of which he is portrayed as doing in the scenes that follow. In fact, he endures another substantial beating on the way to the cross. In addition, the several instances of turning the cross over with Jesus nailed to it seems to overemphasize a point of violence.

Crucifixion is itself bad enough. The violence and pain need no exaggeration. The fact that Jesus submitted himself to death, even death on a cross, is adequate and appropriate. There was not a level of pain that needed to be attained.

Anti-Semitism:

One of the key charges against this movie is one of anti-Semitism. This charge is due to the story line minimizing the role of the Roman authorities, especially Pilate, and emphasizing the role of the Jews. For most Christians, this story line will be very familiar, because it is simply a harmonization of the gospel accounts. In harmonization all events are included if at all possible. (Details such as the number of cock crowings and denials are exceptions.) Thus in a harmonizing approach, events such as the crowd saying “his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25) are simply regarded as part of the story because they are found in one of the gospel accounts. In a selective approach, one would note that only one gospel records this incident, and that the motivation there might be seeking favor with the Romans.

Within the movie, however, there are some other significant points in the story line. In a scene in the trial before the council, two council members object and leave (or are thrown out). This introduces the idea that there were violations of Jewish law and procedure in the trial as portrayed by the gospels, and takes note of the fact that we are not witnessing some kind of unanimous act of the Jewish people or even of the Jewish leadership. In addition, we see Judas being asked to get together a friendly crowd-the very crowd that will later say, “His blood be on us and on our children.” These points may be too subtle to be noted in the midst of an intense and violent movie, however. Mel Gibson said that he removed the subtitle of the Matthew 27:25 quotation due to the issue of anti-Semitism. I note that it is extremely clear when it is said, and it stands out in Aramaic, though of course that probably won’t be noticed by most listeners.

The portrayal of Pilate, on the other hand, I regard as inadequate. There is a scene in which Pilate discusses the political dilemma he is in, and that one scene seems fairly authentic to me. His concern is not the preservation of an innocent man. His concern is that if he has Jesus executed, one group will rebel, and if he doesn’t, another group will rebel. He hopes to play politics and work out a compromise that will not result in an incident of unrest that might be reported to Rome.

Historical Jesus researchers, and many Christian liberals have tried to purge the account of the crucifixion of anti-Semitic elements by determining historically that the Romans, rather than the Jews were responsible. (It is apparent that we’re not likely to begin persecuting Italians (or Germans) because of the actions of some of their ancestors.) I dislike this solution, even though I think the gospels do give the Romans a free pass, and that we’d do well to understand that. What we need to face is the reason that many Christians have continued over hundreds of years to place blame on the Jews. It is a totally unreasonable and unjustified attitude, and I would suggest totally contrary to the spirit and teaching of Jesus himself. One can question whether such people are “good” Christians or whether they are “really” Christians, but I’m not going to argue that here. Suffice it to say they were regarded by their neighbors as Christians, and they persecuted, tortured and killed Jews in the name of Jesus, as if he needed us to avenge him. 

No matter how we reconstruct the history, it is probable that the Romans, and a small group of Jewish leaders who were Roman collaborators, carried out a conspiracy to have Jesus executed. There is no justification in that scenario for hatred and revenge against an entire group of people. It was fear and hatred that resulted in the crucifixion in the first place. Fear and hatred is what drives revenge and persecution. Hatred of any group of people is a manifestation of the same fear and hatred that resulted in the persecution in the first place. Diverting blame onto someone else is the best way to keep the light of truth away from me and from my beliefs. If we don’t repudiate that attitude we take on a form of bloodguilt ourselves. But “correcting” the history, even if the correction is justified, doesn’t solve the root problem. We’re just waiting for the next group of people we can unjustly blame for something.

In addition, in Christian theology we believe that Jesus chose to die and chose to accept the circumstances of his time as part of his act of redemption. In this sense no nation or people is responsible for the death of Jesus. Each and every one of us is responsible in our own way and has no basis to blame anyone else.

Seeing with Other Eyes:

We need to recognize that others will not respond to this movie in the way that we do. No matter what we might like to do we cannot wipe out the history of passion plays and of the acts of hate and murder that resulted from them. We need to take the opportunity provided by this movie to discuss the crucifixion and why it is not appropriate to assign blame or to persecute those who disagree with us. 

Hearing and Seeing the Story:

I strongly believe the majority of Christians who go see this movie are going to be deeply touched by this portrayal of the crucifixion. We need to hear clearly all of the story. If we see Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them” and then we find ourselves unable to forgive, we are missing the point. If we respond with anger, then we are missing the point. If we respond with a type of Christian triumphalism, with a “that will show them!” attitude, then we’re missing the point.

I have heard many claim that this movie is an evangelistic tool. I would suggest that it is more of a tool for renewal of the faith and commitment of those who are already followers of Christ. Without an understanding of the related theology, this is merely an extremely violent movie. To someone unacquainted with the Bible stories, many of the flashbacks may be unclear. It is our understanding of who Jesus is and what he is accomplishing that makes it into “the passion.” 

Personal Responses:

From my wife, Jody . . .

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; 
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
                              Isaiah 53:4-5
 

The usual interpretation of these verses has been quoted to me many times with regards to sickness and disease. I agree that my Lord is the Great Physician but the illness of my physical body is not what put Jesus through the last twelve hours of His earthly life. The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson is a movie I will probably never view again but I will also never read these verses in Isaiah with a lukewarm feeling in my heart either. 

“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life-only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
                               John 10:17-18
 

Throughout the movie the phrase, “See how much I love you, Jody” kept running through my mind. I heard it watching Jesus pray in the garden with sweat pouring off Him and remembered the times I wept and prayed in the middle of the night. I heard it as He stumbled through the streets of Jerusalem dazed with pain. I heard it as Jesus crushed the snake under the heel of His sandal. “I love you, Jody.” Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth to die for me. If there had been no one else, Jesus still would have had to go to the cross for ME. If there had been no one else, Jesus still would have done it…for me. “See how much I love you, Jody.” 

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
                               Romans 5:6-8
 

While I was still a sinner, Jesus died for me. And He did it not because of any accusations by the Jews of His day or because of the power of the Roman Empire. Jesus died because I was a sinner and only He could be a sacrifice big enough and perfect enough for my sins. 

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 
                               2 Corinthians 5:16-20
 

And from me . . .

For me the incarnation has always been the deepest and most important doctrine of Christianity. Jesus represents God transcending the gap between infinite and finite, stepping down to let us know who God is and to show us that God cares enough to cross that infinite gap. 

But we can’t really understand that passage. In addition, Jesus accepts the lowest position and even dies the lowest form of death, thus crossing the largest gap we have within our human realm. In spite of any technical flaws I may have noticed, despite any flaws in author, director, actors or script, that was my primary impression on watching this movie. “Infinite God stooped to this!” 

If we can comprehend even a small part of that gap crossing event at the core of our faith, perhaps we can learn that any distance that separates us from our brothers and sisters, from other human beings of any persuasion, is just a tiny step compared to what God undertook to bridge in the incarnation. It should send us out with a new determination to seek understanding and reconciliation. 

If we come out with a new understanding of the love of God that will reach out across any barrier and destroy any wall that divides us, then we will have heard the message of the Christ’s passion. 

1Harmonizing refers to taking the four gospel accounts and combining their events as best as one is able. Current historical Jesus research would tend to pick and choose amongst these events in forming a most probable historical story.