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I left the theater, having witnessed The Passion of the Christ with my fourteen year old son, feeling disappointingly unmoved. I enjoy historical dramas, especially those set in the Roman Empire, and thought that due to that interest alone I’d find The Passion rewarding. Spartacus, about the heroic slave rebel who lived decades before Christ, is one of my favorite films; the scene at the end where Kirk Douglas/Spartacus hangs on the cross, punished for rebellion by Roman authority, is especially memorable. (Actually Spartacus was, according to Plutarch, killed in battle, not crucified. But 6000 of his followers were crucified along the Appian Way, and I’ve often thought: Why not, in some of our public spaces, display the image of the rebel-slave crucified, the image of the anonymous hero whose cruel passion resulted, not in a new religion, but merely in an inspiring symbol of the human will to struggle against oppression? Might that be an even more powerful image?) I like the Christian-themed The Robe, and (despite Charlton Heston), Ben Hur. I’m happy that computer technology has facilitated a rebirth of the Hollywood spectacular, featuring casts of animated thousands; this, I’m told, allowed production of Gladiator, which I enjoyed despite the utter implausibility of the story line.
That’s often my problem with “historical” films—their historical inaccuracies. I don’t demand “socialist realism” in art, but egregious errors and anachronisms sometimes ruin a work for me. The Passion’s script , entirely in ancient languages, gives the impression of realism (probably inclining many viewers to think, “This is how it really happened”) even though the Romans ought to be speaking Greek rather than Latin. This is not the only instance in which superficial realism conceals underlying lack of realism. But that wasn’t my main problem with The Passion.
My main problem with the film is that, contrary to the statements of its publicists, it wasn’t simply a faithful depiction of the gospel narrative. This is, for me, the key issue. Pre-release criticism came principally from groups suggesting that the film would promote anti-Semitism. The Gibson people replied that the film simply conveyed the New Testament story. Some critics responded, in effect, that the story itself is the problem. That is perfectly arguable, but as I’ve argued before, it’s one thing to protest a film and another to protest a religion. One thing to reject a depiction of the gospels, imputing “dangers” to it; another to advocate, as a political objective, rejection of those gospels in whole or part.
If you expect a Christian who believes the gospels literally to agree that they are anti-Semitic, you expect that person to either eschew his or her faith (perhaps in favor of a Christianity so “de-mythologized” as to seem something else entirely) so as to not be anti-Semitic; or to continue in the faith aware (perhaps, having been convinced by critics) that the gospels (hence, God who inspired their composition) are indeed anti-Semitic. So this is a problem that needs to be carefully handled. If the film merely depicts the arrest, interrogation, beating, cross-bearing, and crucifixion as described in the composite gospel tale, attributing the roles that it does to the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, Pilate, Judas, etc., then one ought to accept it to the same extent as one accepts the existence of the Christian faith. That’s been my reasoning, anyway.
Theology of Sadism
I found, however, that the film does not merely stick to the gospel script. Among other things, it includes a flashback in which the young carpenter Jesus is constructing a table, taller than those generally used at the time and quite modern-looking. “It’ll never catch on,” Mother Mary remarks. Kind of tacky, I thought. This was a minor departure from the canonical gospels, but a signal that Gibson’s not just conveying the biblical action and dialogue sans interpretation and interpolation. He’s actually interpreting big-time, and his main contribution to the story is to insert a huge degree of sadism into it. The temple guards, having arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, haul him off to Caiaphas, abusing him all the way, suspending him from a bridge at one point. No gospel basis for that incident, and no logical reason for it. (Of course you could argue that cops in general are sadistic brutes, but still, why would these guards hold up their mission by such sick sport?) Before Caiaphas, Jesus is further mocked and abused, while the high priests smirk with great delight.
The gospels differ in their description of Jesus’ treatment by the Temple guards and those around Caiaphas; cumulatively, they indeed have him spit upon, blindfolded, insulted, hit with fists, slapped in the face during the hours before he is handed over to Pontius Pilate. (John, which because of its repeated references to “the Jews” as agents of Jesus’death is often regarded as that most apt to encourage anti-Semitism, actually contains least reference to abuse at this stage; there is just one slap by a temple guard who accuses Jesus of disrespectfully addressing Caiaphas.) The reasons the gospels suggest that they did these things is that Jesus has repeatedly denounced the religious leadership, in very harsh terms; he’d caused a ruckus in the Temple while Jerusalem was filled with Passover pilgrims; and his ministry threatened to produce disorder that would complicate relations between the Romans and local Jewish authorities. They had reasons to want to get rid of him, and maybe even to take gratuitous pleasure in his humiliation, since by his words he had humiliated them. But the degree of pleasure seemed unrealistic, even as historical fiction.
Since all the abusers to this point have been Judeans, I think to myself, “Yep, this really does seem anti-Semitic,” although there appears something more here too. The priests turn Jesus over to Pilate, who, confronted with their insistence and that of an assembled mob (whose intense hostility to Jesus, and joy over his sufferings, isn’t explained), says he finds no fault with the man but will send him to King Herod, ruler of Galilee, since Jesus was from that region. As in the Book of Luke, the only place this episode appears, Herod treats Jesus with derision when he fails to perform any miracles for his entertainment; here there is more violence, and Gibson depicts the king and his court as decadently effeminate. I wondered what historical basis there might be for this association, other than the whimsical depiction of Herod in the 1970s musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
Herod makes no judgment on Jesus, but returns him to Pilate, who still argues that he finds no fault in Jesus but is persuaded by the mob that if he fails to order crucifixion, Rome will find him soft on subversion and his own career will be jeopardized. Pilate reluctantly turns Jesus over to the Roman troops in the Praetorium courtyard. This is the most violent part of the film, and its core. The legionnaires gleefully flog Jesus, transforming his flesh into ribbons using a variety of assembled tools, grinning ear to ear as his blood splashes into their faces. Here too, is realism (very believable effects of whips on flesh) warring against realism. Why, if we think realistically, would these multi-ethnic Roman troops, with no particular interest in the issues of Jesus’ case, and no special axe to grind against him, be so enthusiastic about punishing the man–there in the courtyard and all the way to Golgotha? Scripture itself (Mark 15:15 and John 19:1) makes terse reference to a “scourging,” providing few details. Perhaps Gibson , having made the Jewish guards appear so vicious, felt he had to make the Romans look even worse.
Of course, Roman society delighted in gladiatorial spectacles and the feeding of miscellaneous unfortunates to beasts in the coliseums; learned men who read moral philosophy took their kids to the “games,” and somehow slept well at night with the contradictions strangely reconciled in their heads. Gibson might argue that the sadism of the Roman soldiers is a realistic reflection of the times, and that such soldiers, given the opportunity to inflict torture, would do so with gusto just for the enjoyment. Maybe. But Gibson’s larger argument is that he wants to show how humankind collectively and brutally rejected God Incarnate, who nevertheless died for everyone’s sins, so that anyone believing in Him can have eternal life. For anyone accepting the basic Christian account, Gibson’s attribution of vicious inclinations to all the sadists’ depicted in the film might well resonate. “We’re all bad, and all guilty, we killed God,” is the message. “We humans killed God, or at least part of Him (God being Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: ‘God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity’), at least apparently or temporarily. But God the Father, having sent His Son to be born of a virgin and undergo terrible torture, according to His own mysterious plan requiring such torture as the vehicle for human salvation, raised His Son from the dead after three days. Since that miraculous event, God has allowed all those who believe that the Son is their Savior to not disappear, or suffer forever in hell, but after their deaths go to heaven and experience bliss forever.”
This is, in the opinion of many of us, a highly dubious view of reality. The passion and resurrection narrative is, in its basic outline, central to various ancient Middle Eastern “mystery religions” (such as the Tammuz cult and Mithraism) older than Christianity and believed by no one at all these days. The enduring Christian belief that Jesus’ sufferings somehow produce human salvation seems illogical to the non-believer (as acknowledged in Christian scripture itself; see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25), who can and should challenge all illogical beliefs. But many good decent people, including probably the majority of Americans, believe it, and they deserve respect. My point here isn’t to directly challenge their worldview, but rather to suggest that Gibson’s embrace of it and interpretation of it cause him, as filmmaker, to depict almost everybody in his film in the most negative light. (There are, however, one must acknowledge to be fair, some sympathetic Judeans and others along the Via Dolorosa.) Certain forms of Christianity stress the abject state of sinful humankind more than others; Gibson combines his fixation on human sinfulness with the preoccupation with graphic cruelty characterizing much of his cinematography. Perhaps the delight in such cruelty which Gibson’s film imputes to Caiaphas is in fact the filmmaker’s own pornographic problem.
Protesting a Film, or a Faith?
Not to get down too much on Gibson. I truly enjoyed Braveheart, although I had issues with it. Anyway that film says “It’s right to rebel,” and even to endure torture for the cause of liberation. (That’s also the message of Stanley Kubrik’s Spartacus, ending with the rebel there on his cross.) But by the end of The Passion, having been looking at my watch for awhile, I just felt cold. The Jesus significant to me, the man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount and drove the money-changers out of the temple, hadn’t really been there. What was there was Mad Max brutality, Mithraic sacrifice, Prometheus before the vultures, getting his liver chomped on for all eternity. I was oddly reminded of Kill Bill, and the way that weird satire on Japanese popular culture inures the audience to blood-squirting early on, so that it ceases to shock. Most of all I saw a depiction of humanity demeaning to we humans collectively, a portrait rooted in an illogical worldview that invites refutation, at the right time and place.
But should those holding that refutable worldview, and other movie-goers, be confronted at the theater door with leaflets denouncing the film as anti-Semitic, as some recommend? I think the anti-Semitism charge obscures the broader issue of the film’s misanthropy, its general depiction of human beings as cruelly sinful, which is difficult to disconnect with the gospel narrative and Christian theology themselves. So one either protests specific depictions in the film such as I’ve listed above, arguing that they’re objectionable because they tendentiously expand upon or depart from the gospel account, misrepresenting Jews and everybody else in the process; or one protests the gospels and Christianity themselves, and proceeds from a political campaign against defamation to a campaign against religious ideas. I don’t think The Passion of the Christ requires either sort of reaction, or that undertaking either will reduce the problem of anti-Semitism occasioning most concern about the film.
A Gibson “Agenda”?
“The criticism of religion,” as (that excellent Jew) Karl Marx put it, “is the premise of all criticism,” and critical reasoning is always a good thing. But how and when should one criticize? I received a flyer in front of the theater after purchasing my ticket, a statement from the New York branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party. “Everybody’s talking about the passion of Jesus,” it began, “But what about the sufferings and executions and ‘passion’ of untold millions and tens of millions over the past 20 centuries carried out in the name of Jesus?” It accused Gibson of attempting “to blame all Jews all through history for the execution of Jesus,” but its focus wasn’t on anti-Semitism. Rather, the leaflet made the Bible (“what can charitably be described as a hodge-podge of remarkably violent legends, tall tales and tribal history, interspersed with a little lyric poetry, a lot of revenge-filled fantastical rants and some origin myths”) itself the issue, along with “plunder and slaughterin some cases directly caused by Christianity [my italics],” and “Mel Gibson’s agenda” including his effort to make “people’s emotions overwhelm their reason” so that “they are prepared to kill and die in the name of Jesus.”
I respectfully disagree with my Maoist friends on this one. Written before its authors had viewed the film, the critique wasn’t born out by the film, which might confirm the anti-Semite in his or her anti-Semitism, but doesn’t really promote what I understand that term to mean. The film might confirm the Christian in his or her faith (which might be wholly pacifistic, or might be thoroughly compatible with or even inspire progressive political action). It might attract or repel the random viewer as might any other very violent film. But it doesn’t cause the viewer to want to plunder or kill in Jesus’ name, or support the Bush administration, or endorse Ashcroft’s agenda, or back the war on Iraq. It isn’t the dangerous work some advertised, and doesn’t deserve all the controversy, which has in fact been less about its content than what some imagined would be its content and its uses. As for the critique of Christianity or religion generally, if one wants to mount it on the steps of theaters showing the Gibson film, why not also picket Christian worship services, or productions of Bach’s St. Mark’s Passion? Would this produce, in this period of history, an enlightenment of open-minded religious people, or a backlash of the sincerely religious, indignant that their core beliefs are being publicly attacked as “hate-promoting”?
My son’s reaction to the film? The independent-minded teen, product in part of a Quaker-school education that’s encouraged him to truly think, and hasn’t imposed any theism upon him; veteran of antiwar marches and generally opposed to violence; a youth throughout his childhood nonchalantly exposed to Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, and who has attended half a dozen classmates’ bar and bat mitzvahs over the last year, opined before we rose from our seats, and before I’d expressed a reaction: “I actually thought it was pretty good.” Just his viewpoint. It was an R-rated flick, but I figure it did him small harm, instilled no hatred, nor inculcated any penchant for plunder or slaughter.
* * *
“Seek and ye shall find.” Or maybe not, and if you don’t, you lose faith in what, it turns out, just isn’t out there. According to IrelandOn-Line, Mel Gibson’s starting to doubt the war effort. “It’s all to do with these weapons [of mass destruction] that we can’t seem to find,” says Mel. “And why did we go over there?”
It’s good that he’s asking.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org