Friday, February 27, 2004

Not the message of the Gospels

I will state from the start that I have not seen the complete "The Passion of the Christ." I have seen numerous clips, interviews with Gibson, and have historical knowledge of the time period. So I feel comfortable enough commenting on pieces of the film and with Gibson's overall message.

I find it a bit disturbing that Gibson feels that the message of the Gospel is to dwell on Jesus getting the tar beat out of him and killed, with the Resurrection as a brief coda and nothing shown of his ministry.

Yes, Jesus suffered and died for us. He bore our sins (past, present and future) and died with them so that we might be able to enter into Heaven upon our own death. This is an important part of the Christian faith. Without Jesus' death, we gain no absolution.

But his Resurrection is so much more important. After he is given over to death, in fact given over to Satan, he triumphs over that evil. That which we love most and loves us most is returned to us. And his message of "love one another as I have loved you" is made all the stronger by it. THIS is the true miracle, not that he withstood a brutal beating. It's why we celebrate Easter and mourn on Good Friday. Gibson celebrates the wrong part of the story. He celebrates that Jesus took a beating that would have killed a lesser man. I don't think that was message Jesus was trying to bring to us.

Gibson has said in interviews that he was trying to bring the love and compassion that Jesus felt for us to the screen. I assume that he is trying to show that Jesus loved us so much he was willing to endure all this pain. But how are you supposed to know that? Jesus shows no compassion towards his abusers. And the focus, quite frankly, isn't on Jesus in these scenes, some of which I have seen. The focus is on the violence itself. It's shown in so much detail and depth that the meaning behind it is almost lost. The theology fades away as the repetitive violence numbs you cold. Even when the death of Jesus is brought home with the spear in his side, the realization that the Son of God has truly died and what that means, is lost is a torrent of blood. As someone said in a review, it's the Gospel according to Dario Argento.

Gibson also says that his movie is an accurate representation of the Gospels. No, it isn't. It just simply is not. He picks and chooses from the four books as he pleases, then throws in visions from an 18th century stigmatic to boot. If it was an "accurate representation" (and I don't know if that is even possible) then the only possible way to do so would be to use only material that shows in all our gospels. He doesn't do so. This partially leads to the next charge against this film, and its most serious:

Is the film anti-Semitic? I don't believe for a moment that Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite. I just don't. He has never given any inclination towards that kind of bigotry in all his years in the public eye. I think the problem is that what he has chosen to portray, combined with his literalism and, frankly, ignorant view can easily lead to those charges. This happens because he seems to primarily rely on the Book of Matthew, which contains the following two events:

The blood debt: In Matthew 27, v. 24-25:

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.

Gibson originally had this line in the movie, then removed it from the final cut (although interestingly it remains in the actual Aramaic being spoken in the scene). It appears only in Matthew and nowhere else. It makes a dramatic point, but its lack of support in the other gospels, and obvious prejudicial slant, warrant it being removed. Then there is this point:

Pilate is warned by his wife: Again, in Matthew 27, v. 19

When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.

Again, nowhere else in the other Books is Pilate's wife even mentioned, let alone given a line like this. Yet Gibson uses it to make Pilate seem conflicted and sympathetic towards Jesus. This thematic decision forces the blame for the initiation of Jesus' suffering and death by default onto the Pharisees and Caiaphas. All this happens, I believe, because of one important point:

Gibson is ignorant of the history of the period.

To ignore the historical context in which the Bible was written is to do it an injustice. And this is critical when understanding why Gibson erred in his "literal translation." In drawing on Matthew, he draws on the one Gospel that can be truly labeled "anti-Semitic." Although it comes first in the New Testament, it was actually written second, after Mark. It was written at a time when the Christian community had been barred from the Synagogues, and was now directly competing with the Jewish faith for followers. Years before a Jewish revolution had brought down the Roman legions upon Jerusalem, resulting in the destruction of the Temple. As these new Christians were also Jewish (in fact you had to be Jewish to become a Christian early in the faith's history), they would be angered by both of these events. It should not be surprising that Matthew paints the Jews in a less-than-flattering light. The new Christians have been cast out of the synagogues and are also trying to distance themselves from the rebellious Jewish people in the eyes of the Romans. If at the same time you can gather new followers by showing the other sect in a bad light...

But Gibson takes this all literally, as if that is how it happened exactly. That the crowd that only weeks before had hailed Jesus' arrival now would accept his shed blood upon their children. That Pilate, a man who was so cruel in reality that he was called to Rome to answer for a particularly brutal suppression of rebels, would waver about crucifying one man, not out of political calculation (a reasonable thing to do), but because he was worried that Jesus was innocent. Gibson casts any critical thought aside in favor of using the pieces that will make his movie the most emotional one possible. Intentionally anti-Semitic? No. But mistakenly so? That charge is more difficult to dismiss.

But worst of all is that there is no mention of Jesus' ministry. Of his message of love and compassion and faith. Without that anchor, showing him being beaten and crucified is robbed of all meaning. He casts out demons and raises the dead. He is hailed as a King but rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. His disciples know he is the Son of God but he washes their feet. This love and humility is so central to the faith he taught us, and is so utterly lacking from the film. Its found nowhere.

This movie is a disservice to Christianity. Suffering stoically and rising from the dead to the strains of a martial theme. Jesus is brought back not as Redeemer, but as Conqueror. He is not the humble man who rode on the back of an ass, but a Crusader on a steed ready to convert the heathens. That is not the Jesus of the Gospels, and Gibson should know better.

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