By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Yes, I have seen the movie. I think my reaction is best summed by the cartoon in which a couple are just leaving the theater after having seen Mel Gibson’s Passion. The man turns to his wife and says, “I think I liked the book better.”
Seldom has a movie created greater controversy, diatribes from all sides by critics who didn’t know what they were talking about, having never seen it. By now, of course, many have, but the arguments began already last August.
Roger Ebert gives it thumbs up, four stars, remembering the Stations of the Cross from his days as altar boy in the Catholic Church.
Not surprisingly, Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League opposes the movie. “It is per se, not anti-Semitic, but the film can fuel, trigger, stimulate, induce, rationalize, legitimize anti-Semitism.
Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is one of Gibson’s most vigorous backers. “Mel is not obligated to tailor his interpretation of the Bible according to someone else’s politically correct straightjacket.”
A conservative pundit and film critic who has long referred to Hollywood as “Hollyweird,” Michael Medved has emerged as a leading Jewish voice to support the film, found a great deal in it to like.
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Frank Rich, columnist for The New York Times, wrote, “What can be said without qualification is that the marketing of this film remains a masterpiece of ugliness typical of our cultural moment, when hucksters wield holier-than-thou piety as a club for their own profit.”
Alan Nierob, Gibson’s publicist – who, conveniently, happens to be Jewish as defended The Passion against charges of anti-Semitism in part by noting that he himself is a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
Paula Fredriksen, Catholic professor of Scripture at Boston University writes of “computer-generated flying flesh, Hollywood make-up artistry- in which Gibson has pulled off a cross-marketing coup. He has taken this now somewhat old-fashioned, quintessentially Roman Catholic fixation on blood and pain, and sold it to Sun Belt Protestants. It seems likely that at no prior point in U.S. history have so many Baptists know the date of Ash Wednesday.”
Peggy Noonan, speech writer for President Reagan and New York Times columnist, says the Pope’s alleged declaration that the movie “is as it was” settles the matter.
So I guess you can pretty much take your pick, if you have not seen it decide for yourself whether you want to. I am certain that the responses to the film will be as varied as the people who do see it, depending upon their background in scripture, on what is going on in their lives at the moment, on how well they handle a lot of blood and gore. I have heard of those who have found it life changing. I confess I was disturbed by the way I felt nothing for this poor soul being literally shredded in a splatter of blood by blood thirsty Roman soldiers. The film never let me know him and why he underwent such horror. I came away numb.
So I suppose I want to begin by saying that it is a movie, that is a piece of art, not a photograph of reality. We are not seeing the events of long ago, as real as the screen seems. We are seeing actors portray Mel Gibson’s vision of the last hours of the life of Jesus, and clearly this vision has much more in common with medieval Catholicism’s meditation of the sufferings of Jesus than it does with the emphasis and restraint of the New Testament. Graphic meditation on Christ’s suffering doesn’t appear before the late medieval period, roughly the 14th Century, the time of the great plagues that wiped out half the population of Europe.
On the other hand the Biblical narratives mostly record the swirl of events around Jesus in his last days, what people said and did. The description of his physical sufferings is as minimal as the writers can make it. “Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified,” Matthew, Mark and Luke agree, except that Luke excludes the scourging. “When the came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” Little more than a dozen verses later he is dead. That’s it.
Is there nothing to be said for the movie? I think there is. If nothing else it may provide a teachable moment in our culture. I fear that millions who have never picked up a Bible will see it and go away convinced that they understand the last day of Jesus’ life.
Certainly it has sent a lot of movie critics scurrying to locate the story. But surely for many it may provide occasion to ask about this man, what he means whatever this movie may suggest, or better fail to suggest.
And in a culture where pain avoidance and pleasure seeking are major preoccupations, where talk of sin and suffering are in bad taste, it may provide a counter to some equally pernicious and unhistorical views of Jesus. Christine Stansell, professor of history at Princeton, writes:
“Jesus is ubiquitous in American life. If the opinion polls are correct, about one hundred forty million adults – two-thirds of the total – believe that the historical Jesus was the son of God. Millions in this group claim him as a personal savior. His name streams along the highways on bumper stickers; exhortations to follow him blare from billboards. Everywhere spanking new Protestant churches dot the land, even in towns where the stores are boarded up and the paint is peeling.
The latter-day Jesus is an American optimist: good-tempered and informal, a generous Jesus sympathetic to the desires of this world. His proffer of personal salvation can mean different things depending on the believer. Mostly, eternal damnation is no longer the pressing problem that he is summoned to address, nor eternal life the urgent goal – although it is always there in a hazy celestial future – but rather the sorrows of this world: unemployment, troubled children, loneliness.
Since the heyday of “muscular Christianity” in the late nineteenth century, our American Jesus has been known as a fan of physical culture; now he can turn up as a personal trainer, lending his grace to the enterprises of dieting and buffing up. On my own college campus, a colleague’s talk on evangelicalism, wryly entitled, “Does Jesus Want You to Be Thin?” drew a big crowd of female undergraduates who really wanted to know.
Now if Professor Stansell is even half way right, we do well to ask again about the meaning of this man who was willing to accept death in fulfilling the purposes of his God, something that clearly cuts against the grain of a narcissistic culture bent more on the satisfaction of every desire and whim in those worship centers called shopping malls.
I mean why did he die? Well, first of all, there are certain explanations that are patently not there in the Gospels and Paul, remembering that in Paul we find the earliest interpretations of his death. Explanations that suggest that God did it, as one TV evangelist said the other day. Or the devil did it. Or a particular group, the Jews or the Romans did it. Or Jesus committed suicide.
Frederica Matthewes-Green suggests that a way of understanding what it was all about lies in the concept of “rescue.” Imagine a young policeman has rescued some hostages at great physical cost, including his own capture and torture. It would be unseemly, even insulting, to continually ask him, “How did it feel when they tortured you? What did it look like? Where did you bleed? The officer would understandably wish you’d focus not on his humiliation but on his victory.
And in reflection on the cross – resurrection in the early church, that is exactly what they did. They focused on the suffering, but on the victory that this event provided over sin and death in their lives together. Suffering was but for a moment. Death had no sting any longer. Their sovereign Lord was alive and present to give them the strength to face whatever might come.
Something happened, however, to cause a profound change in Europeans Christianity’s understanding of salvation. A fellow by the name of Anselm, 1 1th century Archbishop of Canterbury, published a treatise called, “Why God Became Man?” In Anselm’s formulation, our sins were like an offense against the honor of a mighty ruler. The ruler is not free to simply forgive the transgression: restitution must be made. But we cannot make restitution, pay God our ruler for our violation of his justice. So Jesus steps in for us and takes the punishment that divine justice demands, enabling us to go free.
Now what is wrong with this? Quite simply it locates the problem with respect to our relationship to God in God. He must punish. If he does, we are done for. But Jesus solves God’s problem by taking our punishment, enabling us to escape divine wrath. Now this suggests that Christians misunderstood their salvation for the first thousand years. The people Paul wrote his letters to would have no idea what this was all about, and the early church never talked this way.
Paul locates the problem not in God, but in us. “His purpose in dying was that we who live should not live any more for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised to life. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them.”
So how does Paul and the early Church understand this death. First of all as a kind of mirror held up before us, so we can truly see and know who we are. We are those trapped in a tendency to live first and foremost for ourselves. This is our predicament and problem, and that is what took the life of this good and gentle Galilean.
He walked into it, to be sure. Because to be faithful to his message of a God of love we are called to live for, he really had no other choice. He could have escaped to the desert, but that would have been a denial of his love for his people, his love and God’s. He could have taken up the sword with the zealots like Judas, but again that would have been a contradiction of his message.
So he takes his message, in word and person, right into the heart of religious authority and Roman power and it uns up against the self-interest of them all. Pilate, not the wimp of Gibson, but the brute of Caesar is prepared to wipe out any danger to his control of this rebellious land. He had crucified hundreds all ready. The Temple authorities, not the stereotypes of Gibson, are caught in the middle. On behalf of the people they have an arrangement with Pilate and Rome. Allow us to retain our traditional authority, and we will keep the peace, the street under control. A part of the crowd, hungry and humiliated, are hugely angry as the Messiah deliverer they had bet on, proved to be no savior at all. The rest disappointed just disappeared into their tents and homes, huddled down to wait until this all blew over. His friends, plain scared, stayed with until the blows begin to fall, then ran for the road north to their towns in Galilee.
You see, in a sense, we are all there. The story paints a picture of what we potentially all are. We did not kill him, as some are saying. The New Testament knows nothing of collective guilt, either for Jews or Gentiles. But our kind, very understandable human beings did, in one way or another. And that is very hard for us to face.
That under the right circumstances and the right pressures, we might very well be found in one camp or the other. When we served in the German Church we got to know well some very lovely and giving people who had been Nazis in the Hitler times. They did not talk much about those years nor did we pry. But one dear friend, for example, who managed the railroad system in the Rhineland, told me one day how that was one of the most difficult moments of his life. Either join the party or find himself with a wife and two children without work and without prospect of finding any as he would be blackballed by the party. We came to know many other such situations, and I could not help but ask the question: “What would I have done?” And I am not sure.
Peter ran for his life, and I understand.
The whole story holds up a mirror to us all and says this is how it happens. For evil to thrive, it is enough that good people do nothing, or look out for their own position and power, or scream for justice. In other words, his death saves us first of all, by undermining our naïvte, our good opinion of ourselves, our resistance to the reality of our many sided nature.
Now this would be a mirror of despair, if there were not more to this story. No wonder than many of us shrink from any talk of human failure and sin. But it is more than a mirror. It is at the same time a window into the heart of Eternity. It is a huge clue as to what God is like and where he is present to our world.
We live for ourselves, that is our problem. But not God. God is not our problem. He does not rescue us any more than he did Jesus. But he does lives for us. He does bear with us. He endures us. He hopes for us. In some strange way in Jesus he also suffers and dies for us. Now don’t get tied up in theological knots about how this could be. Son of God. Doctrine of the Trinity. These, as important as they may be, came along later and never saved a soul. Our closing hymn was written by a Unitarian. “Two wonders I confess; the wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.”
The experience of the early faith was that somehow in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, the utter failure of humans and the incredible love of God meet, God in Christ drawing us to relationship with him in spite of our waywardness and failure. “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.” And as we let that get to us, turn again and again to trust in that love against all our wanderings and wayward tendencies, we truly no longer live just for ourselves. With time and growing trust, we learn to live that bearing and enduring love like his.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived and died for that man and his cross, was a pacifist who abhorred the thought of getting his hands dirty in the struggle against Nazism, finally brings himself to the conclusion that he can not avoid joining those who sought the life of the leader, the Fuhrer. He writes from the prison cell where it brought him, “In the midst of it all I was met with mercy, not by men, no, but by God himself. And I realized that Jesus Christ also died for him, the enemy – and all at once everything became different. No Christian is harmed by suffering injustice. But perpetuating injustice does harm. Indeed, the evil one wants to accomplish only one thing with you; namely that you also become evil. But were that to happen, he would have won. Therefore, repay no one evil for evil. Dear brothers and sisters, whoever has had the experience of God forgiving him as Jesus forgave them so long ago from his cross – from such a one, all passion for judging and bearing grudges disappears; he wants only one thing more; to serve, to help, to forgive, without measure, without condition, without end.”
His purpose in dying was that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised to life.
Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.