Thursday, April 08, 2004

Another Look at Gibson's Film "The Passion of the Christ" by a Lutheran Pastor

This is from Thursday Theology#304 and will eventually be available at The Crossings Community web page.

Finding Common Ground as God-fearers:
Reflections on "The Passion of the Christ"
By Steven Kuhl

A Presentation given at Congregation Shalom, Fox Point, WI as part of a
Jewish-Christian Dialogue panel discussion on the Gibson Movie, "The Passion of the

Dear friends,

I'm inclined to call you "Theophilos," "God-lover," as St. Luke addressed the
audience of his famous gospel, because that is precisely what I assume we
gathered here are: God-Lovers. Whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, clergy
or lay, young or old, black or white, we are all God-lovers--and nothing can
take that away. But just because we love God doesn't mean we understand God --
at least, not in the same way. Indeed, it's obvious we don't -- and that, on
first glance, would seem to be the problem. But while that is a problem, I
suggest to you that that is not the biggest problem. (I remember a reference to
a time, whether historical or imaginative, I'm not sure, when there was
unanimous, world-wide human consensus about God, and God declared them wrong. The
story of the Tower of Babel, remember?) The biggest problem that faces us,
then, is not whether we all understand God the same way, but whether we
understand God the way God wants to be understood. Do we love God for who God is or
do we love God for who we want God to be? To ask the question that way unites
us, I believe, but it unites us not as God-lovers but as God-fearers, indeed,
as potential blasphemers: for nothing is more dangerous -- and worthy of true
fear -- than to feign the love of God. But isn't that, namely, the "fear of
God," precisely the beginning of wisdom, as both the Jewish and the Christian
traditions tell us, in both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures? Indeed, I
propose that the only place for us to find common ground is in the "fear of God"
lived out as repentance, because true wisdom and love is borne only out of

In light of that, what has been most puzzling to me about the public reaction
to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the lack of wisdom borne out
of repentance. Rather, the reaction has been triumphalistic and defensive,
especially on the part of many Christians, but not only Christians, though it is
to my fellow Christians that I wish to speak. Why is that? My own impression
is that the film has become such a powerful symbol of the "culture wars"
between (what I will call for lack of better terminology) "secular liberalism" and
"Christian conservatism" that all sides read into the film what they want,
see in it what they want, and ignore in it what they want. Defenders of the
film do not see its success at the box office as simply another (though perhaps
surprising) commercial success, but as a sign of a hunger for traditional
"Christian" values in the culture. Defenders of the film don't just see Jesus
getting beaten, but their values agenda for the nation being beaten; they don't
just see Pilate capitulating to Jews but our government capitulating to
liberalism; they don't just see Judaism plotting against Jesus, but liberalism
plotting against them. By the same token, critics of the film also react with the
same allegorical interpretation, as though the villains on the screen are really
meant to represent them. Now maybe my mind has been clouded by watching too
many of those cable TV news programs to really understand the phenomenon of
the movie. (You know, the ones that pit Conservative Protestants and Catholics
against Hollywood critics and Jewish and Catholic liberals.) Nevertheless, so
it seems to me, there is much of the "culture wars" at work here and that, I
think, interferes with approaching the film and its subject matter in the
"fear of God" borne out as repentance.

What I'm going to ask you to try to do now is bracket out the "culture wars"
symbolism that the film has taken on and look at it critically, objectively,
as simply a film about the Passion. What might we see if we look at it from
the perspective of the "fear of God" borne out as repentance? Since my
assignment is to share something of the Lutheran perspective on the topic, to do this
I'm going to draw on the documents which the Consultative Panel on
Lutheran-Jewish Relations has put out in recent years: not only the document called
"Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations," but especially the document called
"'The Passion of Christ': Concerns and Recommendations in Anticipation of the
Forthcoming Film," which was issued in January of this year while the movie was
still in production. The document reads, and I here synthesize the text:

The portrayal of the Passion of Jesus is one of the most difficult
subjects in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Whenever and however it is
told, the Passion sets the Jew Jesus, his Jewish disciples, other Jewish
leaders, a large Jewish community of considerable diversity, a Roman governor, Roman
soldiers, and God in a complex web of relationships.

Tragically, portrayals of the Passion over many generations have led to
the virulent condemnation of Jewish communities, with Christians lashing out
to punish those they had learned to call "Christ-killers." This doleful
history demands a special vigilance from any who portray the Passion today. The
Passion has the power of the gospel, God's power to bring life from death. We
must not allow the libels of former ages to compromise it in our time.

"[T]he New Testament must not be used as justification for hostility
towards present-day Jews," and "blame for the death of Jesus should not be
attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people."

Recognizing [Mel Gibson's] stature and influence as a film producer and
celebrity, we can expect that Mr. Gibson's project will share and reshape
understandings of this central Christian story for millions of viewers. It is i
mperative that such influence be exercised with due regard for the powerful
heritage of the Passion as gospel truth for Christians and as human tragedy for
many Jews.

We urge members of the [ELCA] to renew their familiarity with the Passion
story by reading and studying the gospel portrayals [and] to become informed
about the issues that surround the challenging task of portraying the Passion
in dramatic or cinematic form.

We urge Mr. Gibson to give due regard . . . to its historical accuracy
and to its portrayal of Jewish characters [which] requires that he give credence
to the critique of historical scholars and [which] neither stirs antisemitism
nor lends itself to antisemitic exploitation.

How well does "The Passion of the Christ" do relative to these Passion Play
guidelines for depicting Jews and bringing understanding to the complex web of
relationships that formed first-century Palestine? In general, I'd say not
well. In Gibson's redaction of the story (where he draws on the canonical Gosp
els, his own imagination, as well as other extra-biblical and speculative
material) the Jews and the Romans both are presented very one-dimensionally. His
account reflects nothing of the complexity that is variously reflected in each
of the four gospels, let alone the way modern scholarship has been able to
illuminate the cultural context.

For example, Gibson uses his imagination to create an extra-biblical scene
between Pilate and his wife (extrapolated and redacted from parts of Matthew and
John, as well as Anne Catherine Emmerich) to give us a picture of a Pilate,
not as the ruthless ruler known to scholarship, but as a man who languishes
under the weight of imperial responsibility. How is he to rule in "truth" this
manipulating Jewish populace? Indeed, the Roman authorities cannot even
control their own soldiers, who beat Jesus beyond the symbolic scourging the rulers
intended him to get. Why couldn't Gibson have done something similar for
Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders by drawing, for example, on the fears of the
Jewish leaders as expressed in John 11? There, in response to Jesus' raising of
Lazarus from the dead, the leaders fear that Jesus' increased popularity will
create the perception of insurrection and incite the Romans to destroy both the
"holy place and our nation." In that light, Caiaphas proclaims a central
element in the gospel, namely, that "it is better for one man to die for the
people than to have the whole nation destroyed," showing how richly ironic and
inclusive the symphony of grace is. In addition, the massive, mindless,
arbitrary, bloodthirsty tenor of the crowd looks all too much like the caricatures of
the Jews as presented in the ancient passion plays that at times led to violent
actions against Jews. [On this observation I am heavily indebted to Matthew
Meyer Boulton, "The Problem with The Passion," The Christian Century, vol.
121, No. 6 (March 23, 2004), p. 19.] This is precisely the kind of depiction of
the Jews that the Lutheran and Roman Catholic documents on Passion Plays are
saying needs to be avoided. Even more, theologically, these one- dimensional
depictions overlook the deep irony that permeates the Biblical accounts of the
passion to the point of obscuring, if not obliterating, the reason why the
Christ (as Jesus explains over and over again in his teachings) must be
rejected, suffer, die and on the third day rise. Unless we can sympathize with the
complex dilemma of all the people who are caught up in the events of that
tragic, but good Friday (as Christians want to call it), the Jews as well as the
Romans, then the account obscures the mind-boggling reason for Christ's passion:
that Christ died for all, as Christians are wont to confess it. Anti-Jewish
and anti-semitic portrayals obscure the gospel because they portray the event
as a Medieval morality play, indeed, as a classical Manichean struggle of good
guys and bad guys, we against them, and not as Christ's solemn plea and
wrestling with God that God relent of his judgment and offer mercy (for no other r
eason than for Christ's sake) to the whole, complex, sinful world.

Besides the concern about latent anti-Jewish features in the film, concern
has also been raised about the level of violence portrayed. It is in this
regard, especially, that Gibson claims for himself the prize for historical
accuracy and cinematic realism. Whether or not the flaying that Jesus gets at the
hands of the sadistic, out-of-control Roman soldiers is historically accurate
(and I have my doubts), the greater question is this: Does that historical
detail and plot-line emphasis add to or diminish the meaning of the Passion of
Christ? That depends on what you think the canonical Scriptures are saying the
meaning of the Passion is. I don't think so, but Gibson does, and here is why
he does, or so it seems to me. It has to do with his theory of atonement, the
rationality of why God forgives.

It must be remembered that Gibson is avowedly not a Vatican II Catholic but a
Tridentine Catholic and, accordingly, his film, so it seems to me, serves as
an apologetic, though subtly, for that conviction. (Not only did he invest
$25 million to make this film, but he also built a $1 million church so the
Latin, Tridentine Mass could be celebrated.) Accordingly, Gibson interprets the
Passion as predominantly a cultic sacrifice, using a kind of Satisfaction or
Penal Model of the atonement (which has roots reaching back to the High Middle
Ages), a model that seeks to link systematically, if not mathematically, the
measure of Christ's suffering with the measure of our forgiveness. Moreover,
an important part of his agenda is to show an explicit connection between that
concept of the atonement and the Tridentine concept of the Sacrifice of the

Gibson's view of the atonement (how Jesus pays the price for our sins) is a
quantitative and retributive view: that is, the greater the quantity of
punishment Jesus receives, the greater the portion of sin's burden he carries. This
idea is also very closely related to the substitutionary view of the
atonement that is definitive of Fundamentalism. Therefore, it is important for
Gibson that Jesus be portrayed as an extraordinary sufferer, a heroic sufferer.
Jesus has to be able to shoulder more suffering than any ordinary man because
his very purpose is to take onto himself the punishments that belong to the
whole sinful world. Unless he is the heroic sufferer, he cannot succeed in
carrying out the atonement, and Gibson makes Jesus' heroism in suffering so profound
that even his sadistic torturers become exhausted in their efforts to
overwhelm Jesus with suffering. However, for Gibson, as badly as Jesus has suffered
in the ordeal of the Passion, the quantity of satisfaction for sin is not
accomplished once and for all on Calvary, but is continued through the celebration
of the Tridentine Sacrifice of the Mass. That celebration is understood as
the ongoing unbloody sacrifice for sin that has been established by the bloody
sacrifice of Christ.

Gibson explicitly connects this atonement theory to the notion of the
Tridentine sacrifice of the mass (an idea that would repel Fundamentalists if they
could see it in the film) through a series of flashbacks. The scenes that I
remember as making this connection are these: 1) While Jesus is before Pilate,
Gibson has a flashback to Jesus washing his hands at the last supper, then
returns to Pilate washing his hands to justify the offering of this victim -- all
an allusion to the action of the priest washing his hands at the Mass. 2)

When Jesus gets to Calvary we have a flashback, again, to Jesus at the supper,
where he rips the cloth off the basket exposing the bread for the meal, then a
return to the soldier ripping off Jesus' sackcloth robe -- all an allusion to
the priest preparing the victim for the sacrifice. 3) After Jesus is nailed
to the cross we have a flashback to Jesus at the supper lifting up the bread,
only to return to see Jesus' cross lifted up --an allusion to the priest
raising up the consecrated host, now the body of Christ, as the ongoing work of
atonement through the unbloody sacrifice of the mass. My point here is not to
disparage the Eucharist or the real presence, which I too see as central to the
Christian's relation to Christ crucified and raised, but to show why Gibson
focuses so graphically on the suffering, or more specifically the scourging, of
Christ. He suffers the punishment we deserve, thus satisfying the demands of
God's judgment on sin. It also explains why Gibson gives scant attention to
the resurrection. It plays no direct role in this view of atonement, except to
establish the ground for the ongoing offering of the sacrifice of the mass.

This, in my judgment, is clearly Gibson's theory of the atonement and his
lens for interpreting in a simple straightforward manner the complex story of the
Passion. While that concept of the atonement has roots in medieval theology,
it is not, in my judgment, the dominant paradigm for understanding the
suffering, death, and resurrection in the New Testament Gospels, nor is it the kind o
f view that figured prominently in the Patristic Age, which Gustaf Aulen
called the Christus Victor Model. While I cannot go into depth here on the New
Testament "meaning" of the Passion (maybe we can do that more in our discussion)
I'd like to close by making two points about the meaning of the "sufferings
of Christ" that, I think, dominate the New Testament perspective and that
contradict the major thrust of Gibson's presentation.

First, in the New Testament, "Christ crucified" is not the Hero, not the
strongest man, but the weakest man. He is not "Braveheart" but the "broken
heart," he is not exemplary in the way he confronts suffering, but ordinary,
displaying a radical solidarity with every sufferer. [Boulton, p. 20. In addition,
classical Christology saw in the suffering of Christ -- including that he got
hungry, thirsty, scared, ached, bled, died, etc. -- the humanity of Jesus, not
his divinity. Gibson wants to use Christ's sufferings to show Christ's
distance, his divinity, how much he is not like ordinary human beings.]

Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans. Jesus was simply one among
the many, from the perspective of the camera lens at least. What is surprising
about the gospel (such that the New Testament writers cannot ignore it) is
this: how can a man with such an unremarkable end to his life (dying as a common
criminal) become the key to our relationship with God? That unremarkable
ending, that mind-boggling mystery, "scandal" and "foolishness" of the cross, as
Paul puts it, is central to the gospel. And here is essentially how the New
Testament addressed it. Jesus as the Messiah of God, in his cross, identifies
with those who are weak and lowly, obscure and forgettable -- indeed, those
defined as God-foresaken -- so that in his resurrection he can gather them and
present them to God as those who are most precious, that is, set apart for
mercy. Most people I know came away from the movie awed at the level of suffering
Jesus endured. It was superhuman, and the fact that people came away with
that reaction reveals, I believe, one of the major theological problems with
Gibson's presentation. No one I know came away from the theater identifying with
the sufferings of Christ, as the New Testament bids us to do. To the
contrary, they were so awed at the level of heroic suffering that Gibson presented on
the screen, that they were distanced from the Christ. For many, Gibson's
presentation of the sufferings of Christ simply put their small sufferings to
shame. That is not what the cross of Christ is intended to do in the New
Testament Gospels' presentation -- at least, not "simply" that, as I read those

Second, Gibson presents the Passion as though the great nemesis that Jesus
had to deal with was the devil, that spooky androgynous figure who floats
throughout the film. In this regard, Gibson frames the Passion in a classical
Manichean framework of good versus evil with the "good" and the "evil" easily
identified on the screen. Jesus and a few others in the film, especially Mary, are
easily identified as the good, while the bulk of the people, especially the
Jews (amongst whom the evil one floats) are easily identified as the evil.
While it is true that the struggle between good and evil is a common subtheme in
the New Testament (God's judgment and death sentence upon sin and evil is well
attested) the dominant theme in the Passion (and the gospels generally, as
they interpret the passion) is not a good -versus-evil struggle. Rather, it is
God's mercy versus God's judgment, the redemption of sinners, the plea
"Father, forgive them [for my sake] for they know not what they do." In the Passion,
Jesus, the Son of God, takes the side of sinners before God the judge,
pleading for mercy. One can easily see here the Abrahamic tradition being carried
forward: just as Abraham pleads mercy, not judgment, for Sodom and Gomorrah,
now Jesus pleads mercy, not judgment, for the whole world. Here is a voice
calling for the end of, not the exacerbation of, the culture wars by inviting eve
ryone to die to self through him: in a word, to repent. Of course, the
paradox and intrigue of this confrontation is mind-boggling and there is no way to
depict it with the lens of a camera. It needs commentary! Something that
Gibson doesn't do much of. As pure historical event, so it seems to me, as Jesus
breathes his last dying breath, we have no way of knowing what the outcome
will be. Has God abandoned him along with his cause? Or will the Father receive
his spirit? That is, will the spirit of Christ's mercy (marked by forgiveness
and life) trump the spirit of judgment, of retribution (marked by judgment
and death)? For the New Testament the answer to this question is the
resurrection and the proclamation of forgiveness in the name of Jesus. Moreover, the
"truth" of Jesus' Passion, the way of mercy over judgment, can be presented to
the world only as believers live humbly and repentantly in the world: not as
crusaders of the culture wars, even though they find themselves in that war, but
as cross-bearing servants, willing to be ordinary people, suffering quietly,
obscurely, unimpressively, unheroically, for the sake of their neighbors and
their world, regardless of who they are.

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