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I’m not a Quaker but I have been hanging out with the Quakers for the last two years. I am however a Social Worker and I have been one for over twenty years. But I don’t work for the government. I work in a faith based organization. Ours is not an agency of any one particular faith. Seven different denominations sustain our agency so we don’t evangelize. We help people. But it’s because I have almost daily contact with people of different faiths yet of deep religious conviction that I can discuss not only their reactions to the film "The Passion of Christ" but also my own reaction to it. You should be forewarned though: I am here to denounce it.
One more confession here and I will begin: I only saw half of the film. It was just way too gory and repulsive for me. It glorified in its violence and blood. The guilt it attempts to inflict on its audience is unbearable and in the end, unforgivable. I didn’t kill Christ, although I realize I have the capacity to do utterly unspeakable things. It’s that I don’t do such things and want others not to do them that keeps me human. Indeed, I also have the capacity to do things greater than what Christ did if only I had the faith the size of a mustard seed. And I am working on that. But this film gives me nothing to believe in myself. It wants me to feel responsible for Christ’s suffering and even worse, it wants me to remember that it was the Jews that bear the greater responsibility.
One of the points missed in all the criticism I have read about the film is the constant association of the Jews with the devil. They are portrayed as doing the handiwork of the devil. In the beginning, there’s Jesus praying and the devil tempting him. Jesus resists, of course, and then the Jewish guards come to arrest him. There’s Jesus being tried before some very powerful Jews. There’s the devil. There’s the powerful Jews leading the crowd in the chant to kill Christ. There’s the devil. There’s the very powerful Jews looking smug as Jesus is flogged. There’s the devil. You can’t miss the relationship that is made. To me, a non-Jew, that is the epitome of anti-Semiticism and I think the Jewish community has every reason to be upset about this film.
However, as my colleagues in the agency have pointed out, it is true that the Bible states that it was the powerful Jews who were threatened by Jesus and wanted him out of the way. But isn’t that merely a human thing to do? Wouldn’t anyone in a position of power, no matter their religion or culture or race, be afraid of losing their power? A truly religious person would recognize the fear and not let it make them do something foolish or harmful. Obviously, the people in power in Jesus’ time were not inclined to introspection and restraint. (Although in the film some of the Romans seem to be capable of reflection and self-awareness, it doesn’t seem to give them the courage to do what is right.) The people who condemned Jesus were of deep religious conviction but had no morals. Just like many of us today – especially the current occupant of the White House. But I digress. It is because the film misses the humanity behind the story that it can be so two dimensional.
And speaking of race, if this was a film that was trying to be realistic, as many of my colleagues have argued, wouldn’t Jesus be black?
And speaking of being realistic, what is with that scene of Jesus making a kitchen table? What is Mel Gibson trying to say? What if Jesus was making a toy boat, would Gibson be saying the same thing? Let’s see: table or toy boat. Humm. A table means that he’s forward looking, a seer. He has ideas that will later be incorporated into every home in the Western world. Not bad. But if it was a toy boat? Jesus may love children but he also likes to play. He might even be a bit simple himself. He certainly is no deep thinker. Not a leader at all. Nope. A toy boat wouldn’t have the same impact as the table he makes in the film.
Then there’s the violence of the film which is why I had to get up and leave. It’s utterly gorgeous to look at. Computer enhanced. Great make-up. And the sound. Rarely have I attended a film with such wonderful sound. Each punch sounds like a bomb going off. It puts those kung-fu movies to shame. Each slap and each kick, each stroke of the whip on the skin sounds like it’s happening somewhere closer than close, somewhere after the inner ear. What is the point of this? And all that beautiful red runny ketchup. Why? Is it because Mel Gibson wants us to wake up and notice what is being done? Why would he think we were asleep in the first place? Are we so insensitive and unaware that it has to be pounded into us, that we have to be flayed? Or is he trying to make us feel guilty for the way Jesus suffered for our sins? Now, isn’t that a Catholic kind of thing to do?
I once went to a lecture by Robert Fisk and during it, he showed a short film of Saddam’s thugs torturing a group of men. These were real men. Their suffering was real. And there were no special effects. No computer wizardry. Just people acting brutally towards other people. That film moved me like nothing else I have ever seen. But I didn’t feel guilty. I felt angry that such things are allowed to happen. Gibson’s film gave me a bad headache, like being on an amusement park ride for way too long. Where there is something to be said, nothing needs to be done to emphasize it. It is only when a films theme is weak and mostly false that you need to dress it up. Make it pretty. For people to be taken in by it.
Right before Gibson’s film was released, another film was released about the life of Christ. I believe it was called, "The Gospel According to St. John." Only one person in my office saw it. Why was that? What is it about Gibson’s film about the same subject that has attracted so many more people and made so much money? Is it merely the "star power" or is it the hype or the controversy or is there something that makes us feel good about the violence in this film that was lacking in the other film?
To some at our agency, there is violence that is good and acceptable and violence that isn’t acknowledged or if it is acknowledged at all then it is justified and therefore not worth troubling oneself about. The killing of Afghanistan and Iraqi citizens is hardly acknowledged at all but when it is, these deaths are justified and therefore acceptable. The poisoning of future generations with the depleted uranium weapons; the killing of innocents with cluster bombs; the potential destruction of entire nations with nuclear weapons, is sometimes discussed but often with a sense of resignation and a shrug of the shoulders. Some in our agency actually believe such horrors are necessary. It is my belief that it is the erroneous and sometimes malicious interpretations of the story of Jesus that have been given to us by various religions that have made such things possible. The Gibson film – in spite of Jesus’ warning right at the beginning that those who live by the sword die by the sword (and I am told in the second half of the film he repeatedly states that we are to love our enemy) – with all of its relentless violence, makes it clear that there are forces of evil in the world and when they are unleashed, this is what happens. Who among us cannot help but become defensive and start thinking of ways to hurt and destroy others before we too are made to suffer?
All I can say to them is: Who would Jesus nuke?
There are so many good films about the spiritual life that have gone unrecognized by the general public that I want to use this last paragraph just to mention a few. "Andre Rublev" by Tarkovsky has to be one of the best films ever made about a person undergoing a spiritual crisis and successfully resolving it. Any film by the great Japanese director Ozu cuts directly to the heart. The French film maker Robert Bresson knew intimately the workings of the spirit in us. And finally, for a film that captures the essence of Jesus’ teachings, try "The Gospel According to St Matthew" made by that heretic, lunatic, fascist Pasolini.
There are more depths in each one of us than there are in the visible universe.
CRAIG WAGGONER can be reached at: Scraigwaggoner@aol.com