The Passion of Uncomfortable Orthodoxies: Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”

Mel Gibson's movie _The Passion of Christ_ is a challenge for many modern Quakers. Most of the rich metaphors of co-mingled joy and suffering of the early Friends have been dumbed-down to feel-good cliches. Can the debate on this movie help us return to that uncomfortable place where we can acknowledge the complexities of being fervently religious in a world haunted by past sins and still in need of conviction and comfort?


I keep reading inflammatory pieces about Mel Gibson's movie _The Passion of Christ._ The basic gist is that anyone who focuses on the suffering of Jesus's last days is inherently anti-Semitic. Because medieval passion plays stirred up anti-Semitism, all good Christians should stay away from the story and should stay away from Gibson's movie.
I haven't seen the movie (update: yes I have, see below), but I find it hard to imagine that there's any anti-Semitism in it that matches the anti-Catholicism of Gibson's detractors. To focus on Christ's sufferings is to explain one of the most important metaphors of Christianity, especially of Roman Catholicism. I went to a Catholic college where every room had a crucifix--Jesus nailed to the cross. It was very different from the empty crosses I had always seen growing up as a pseudo-Protestant, but this difference is an important difference of focus between Catholics and Protestants. Is the most iconic act of Jesus his suffering for our sins (his time on the cross) or his resurrection (his disappearance from the cross)? As a good Catholic, Gibson is going to focus on the torture, on the pain, on the cruelty and on the suffering and to imply that he's doing so just to shock is to miss the whole point. It is the very gruesomeness that makes the sacrifice so meaningful and it is the horror that makes the resurrection even more of miracle.
While we need to be aware of anti-Semitism we also need to be aware of this country's history of anti-Catholicism. My alma mater is situated twelve miles outside Philadelphia because its first home was burned to the ground by anti-Catholic rioters (of course the Irish Catholics killed, looted and burned out African Americans in New York City a generation later). My Italian wife is related to Aunt Jemima (I kid you not) because in the 1920s Italians were considered half-black (and presumably because white audiences preferred a half-black performer to an all-black one). Lots of the anti-prohibition societies and reform societies of the early 20th century were fueled in part by an abhorrence of the garlic-eating immigrant mobs with their too-colorful clothing and their religious obsession with suffering and iconic excess. Much of this WASPy distaste and aloofness lingers in the anti-Gibson pieces.
It's all a shame. This is just a movie folks. But because it's become so polarized we can't talk about it without taking sides. And the sides have nothing to do with the movie itself or its merits or detractions, but are instead positions in a proxy cultural war about religion. A recent piece by one prominent religious essayist argued that good Christians don't focus on Christ's suffering. For the last fifty years liberal Christians have focused on the positives, on that empty cross, and Gibson's movie is a challenge to that. It's a challenge that reminds liberals that suffering is also a central part of the story. For those who would demote Jesus to a merely human teacher, on the scale of Abraham Lincoln, _The Passion of Christ_ is a reminder that for many Christians the suffering and miracles of his life is quite beyond anything else in that has ever happened in human history.
This movie is a challenge for many modern Quakers. Most of the rich metaphors of co-mingled joy and suffering of the early Friends have been dumbed-down over the centuries to become little more than feel-good cliches. Today we talk of "The Light" as if it's some sort of ultraviolet grow lamp helping us to become nice big plants. That's a nice image and George Fox might have appreciated it. But Fox's "Light of Christ" was also the harsh light of the interrogation room, a light that banished shadows to expose our sins and human failings. It was only after the light had "convicted" us (and that was the terminology) and only after we had given up our human follies to walk only in its power that we would find Christ's comfort. And that comfort would often be in the midst of our suffering in imitation of Christ, in our persecution by those who would call themselves Christian.
Friends burst onto the scene in seventeenth century England with a radical message: that Christianity had been stolen to serve the power of the state and that only by restoring primitive Christianity could we truly follow God. Today that's a challenge to both left and right: to those who will use Gibson's movie as a banner to reinforce their cultural bigotries. On the right, some will surely use _The Passion_ to justify their anti-Semitism. On the left, I see many op-ed writers using it to justify their distaste for anyone who takes their Christian faith too seriously. Mel Gibson is making a movie about his belief. He claims that it's not anti-Semitic and I'm inclined to believe him, that any bigotry we will see there is conditioned by our gruesome history and not by a deliberate act on Gibson's part. Why can't we just accept a believer believing? And why can't we just watch the movie before arguing about it?
The heart of this debate is this: is Christianity so defiled by centuries of those wrongly tortured in its name that any honest expression of it is bigoted? There are many who will answer on both sides of that question. But Friends are a people born in a time of much wrongful persecution and so for us the answer is actually kind of easy: Christianity has been stolen time and again but we must constantly try to recover it. We do that by telling stories and reaffirming the truths we have no matter who's critiquing us. We need to engage with our history and with each other. We are often put into a �uncomfortable middle� when we affirm the truths arising out of our peace testimony (opposing a war while still denouncing a dictator) and it seems to me we should have a similar attitude towards Christianity's past.
Does Mel Gibson cross the line into bigotry? I haven�t seen the movie but I doubt it. All the op-eds against him have argued guilt-by-association and some of the charges against the "cult" or "sect" of traditionalist Catholics are so laughable that it's pathetic to see them repeated on respected news programs. Gibson is a talented storyteller, one who will choose drama over sensitivity. He�s not averse to pandering to stereotypes to rouse an audience. He�s not a Quaker, that�s for sure. But he is a sincere believer telling a story about his faith. We need more of those. Let�s not picket and boycott someone simply for telling a story that doesn�t fit with the pieties of the modern liberal orthodoxy. Let�s return to that uncomfortable place where we can acknowledge the complexities of being fervently religious in a world haunted by past sins and still in need of conviction and comfort.


h3. Update 3/1: Having Seen the Movie
I've seen the movie now. It wasn't as terrifying as I had feared. As a director, Gibson provides cues as to when the squeamish should look away. About half a dozen times I anticipated a particularly gruesome image and was able to avert my eyes in time. He didn't need to do this--he knows how to shock audiences and he does have a few moments where he springs us from our seats, but he does play nice and keeps the shocks and goryness separate.
Because the movie tells a familiar story and tries to portray it in realistic terms, it acts as a sort of blank slate ripe for the projection of individual audience members. How you see this movie depends in large part about what you bring to it. What you bring to it of course often depends on your feelings about Jesus Christ. More than any movie I can remember, you will see what you want to see in the film.
Take the famous scourging scene. My wife Julie winced at every bloody lash, but she did so because she understood the Catholic teaching that each strike represented her own sins.
I didn't take it that way. As an anarchist and Christian pacifist I was struck anew with the impossibility of supporting empire in the name of this man. Our temples have been rent asunder and reborn in the Spirit. We are the lamb's warriors. If even Jesus didn't save himself from this torture how can we? For me, the Roman warlords were clearly the American generals in Iraq and Pontius Pilate's sacrificing of a Jewish prophet to keep civil order too reminiscent of "US occupying forces giving jobs to ex-Saddam security forces":http://www.nonviolence.org/articles/000206.php to do the same thing. To be honest, the high Jewish priests all looked like Catholic bishops to me--I kept seeing Boston's former Cardinal Bernard F. Law, a man who cared more about keeping his church out of scandal then he did the innocent children being molested by abusive priests. The message for me was that leaders will always be tempted to sacrifice the truth to protect the vanity of their institutional power. As Fox said:
bq. "When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, '�There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.'"
Now, I can pretty sure that Mel Gibson doesn't share my anarcho-pacifist politics or George Fox's theologies (update: or can I be? See below for a link to an interview with the Jewish Romainan actress who plays Mary and explains the film in fairly political terms). And that's the most interesting thing about this movie. I'm sure an anti-Semite will find reasons to be anti-Semitic. Someone angry at Christianity will find reasons to be angry. It seems as if just about ever movie reviewer I read must have seen a different movie, and I think there's a kernel of truth in that. I wonder if this is a result of it being such a loaded story worn rigid by two thousand years of retelling for such different agendas or whether it's a result of Gibson's relatively radical filming decisions? I kept wondering what it would have been like if Gibson had followed through on his original concept and omitted even the subtitles?
A few friends of mine have been emailing back and forth, noting that they would be scared of anyone converted to Christianity by this movie. I barely see how that's possible. Without the context of belief, this is just a story about some guy being tortured to death. (There were only two miracles, touched at briefly: a reattachment of a Roman solider's ear and a brief, dream-like scene of the Resurrection. The latter reminded me most of ending in "Being There":http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078841/ where the lucky simpleton played by Peter Sellers unexpected starts walking on water, tantalizing us that maybe he wasn't quite so simple.) There are plenty of secular movies that have more miracles or more overt "Christ figures" than this one.
If there are any conversions it will be because of the activity _around_ the film.
The sad thing though, is that too many people have become divided on this film. Political correctness has settled in on both sides of political aisle. I lot of people I respect might have gone out to see this film had it been made by anyone but Mel Gibson and had it not been so denounced by the liberal media.
Because of this Martin Kelley Quaker Ranter website, I've been introduced to a much wider variety of Friends and fellow believers than I had before and it's become harder to take seriously the institutional divisions we've erected. There's a lot of sweet people among the big scary Evangelicals and a lot of deep thinking and concern deep in FUM-land. Likewise, non-Liberal Friends reading this site might realize that Liberal Quakers aren't all the cartoonish stereotype we're sometimes made out to be (fair disclosure: my wife Julie, the ex-Quaker, just read this sentence and laughed out "yes they are!"). The truth is beyond these divisions and it's only when we break the ranks of our own orthodoxies that we will are really able to greet that of Christ/God/Spirit in each other. It's fine to like or not to like _The Passion of the Christ_ but the biggest lesson the film might teach us is how to look beyond the pat answers to engage with each other and with our traditions.
h4. Other Stuff
* New Quaker Merle Harton Jr. wrote an interesting piece last year about "passion plays, anti-Semitism and the upcoming movie":http://www.newQuaker.com/2003_08_17_blogarchive.htm#106116543162349803 and he has this piece "about seeing the movie":http://newQuaker.com/2004_02_29_blogarchive.htm#107820009585274899.
* The Evangelical Friends at "Barclay Press":http://www.barclaypress.com/ have a special feature on their website with reviews and reader's comments.
* Whoa, apparently the cinematographer from the movie is Quaker!? Here's an iinterview that "mentions he's a Quaker":http://starbulletin.com/2004/02/22/features/story4.html but doesn't go into any depth. Link from Quakerinfo.com. Googling him he's also described as a "Philadelphia-born Quaker," which makes me wonder if he's "ethnically" Quaker but not practicing. If anyone knows more I'd be interested.
* Talk about interesting casting: Mary is played by Maia Morgenstern , a Jewish Romanian whose parents are Holocaust survivors, who says of the film: "Again and again -- I underline and underline this -- it's not the people who are blamed. It was some leaders. Unfortunately, we have so many examples -- even now, every minute -- of political, social, military, religious leaders who are dealing with our fears, with our hopes, who are trying to manipulate our ideas and our fears. And that film speaks about this."
* Celebrity film critic Roger Ebert has an "interesting review":http://www.suntimes.com/output/ebert1/cst-ftr-passion24.html: "For we altar boys, [the Stations of the Cross] was not necessarily a deep spiritual experience. Christ suffered, Christ died, Christ rose again, we were redeemed, and let's hope we can get home in time to watch the Illinois basketball game on TV. What Gibson has provided for me, for the first time in my life, is a visceral idea of what the Passion consisted of... This is not a sermon or a homily, but a visualization of the central event in the Christian religion. Take it or leave it."
* There is of course an official "Passion movie website":http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com/.

  • Tim Kennedy

    We all need con­vic­tion first, then com­fort.
    I admit that I do not know whether I want to see this film. I know Jesus’ sac­ri­fice was bloody and vio­lent, but I do not patron­ize oth­er vio­lent, bloody films and I do not know whether this is some­thing I want to see or if it is spir­i­tu­al­ly bet­ter to con­tin­ue to see Christ’s suf­fer­ing more in the light (of my own con­cept than some­one else’s Mel Gibson’s?. A dif­fi­cult deci­sion.

  • Melyn­da Huskey

    Full dis­clo­sure: haven’t seen it. Not at all sure that I will.
    I do note, though, that the *Dolor­ous Pas­sion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,* by the con­tro­ver­sial (in her time as well as ours) vision­ary and stig­mat­ic Sis­ter Ann Cather­ine Emmerich is a pri­ma­ry source for many details in the film. Emmerich is indis­putably anti-Semitic (she had a vision of Hell which paid par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to the tor­ments of those Jews who killed Chris­tian chil­dren for blood to add to the Passover mat­zoh), and her addi­tions to the Pas­sion nar­ra­tive were tak­en up enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly by Gib­son, includ­ing the pres­ence of demons in the “large crowd” of Jews call­ing for Christ’s death and her por­tray­al of Pilate and his wife as well-meaning, gen­tle souls essen­tial­ly forced into mur­der by the Jew­ish reli­gious estab­lish­ment – in open defi­ance of the his­tor­i­cal record.
    The­o­log­i­cal­ly, I believe that the emp­ty cross is far more rev­e­la­to­ry than the inhab­it­ed one – in part because I find sub­sti­tu­tion­ary sote­ri­ol­o­gy so pro­found­ly at odds with any con­cept of either a just or a lov­ing God. Just as I reject Calvin’s obscene notion that God would express a Per­fect Holy Will by cre­at­ing a few to redeem and a mass to tor­ment, just because He can, I can’t get my own expe­ri­ence of the Holy Spir­it to square with the notion that what Gib­son seems to val­ue most about the Pas­sion, Christ’s appar­ent­ly bound­less capac­i­ty to endure phys­i­cal tor­ture, was a gen­er­ous pay­back that some­body had to make. What kind of God would want or require that?
    I’ll tell you what I’m wait­ing for: a film about the Par­a­clete. Now there’s a film-making chal­lenge.
    Melyn­da Huskey

  • Free Polaz­zo

    I have not seen the Pas­sion of the Christ and do not plan to. There is no need for me to go to the movies to see “real­i­ty suf­fer­ing” movies. The night­ly news does that well enough.
    The pain and suf­fer­ing inflict­ed by peo­ple on oth­er peo­ple is well doc­u­ment­ed before this movie was shot. In fact, most of Mel Gibson’s movies are about the cru­el­ty that we inflict on each oth­er and how we need our friends and fam­i­ly to remain sane in this world.
    Why would the death of one man, 2000 year ago, need to be ele­vat­ed to God-like sta­tus for us to hear and see and feel the mes­sage that vio­lence is NOT the Answer? Many died a grue­some death at the hands of many oth­ers and still do. Why is this one man’s death so impor­tant to so many? Why do many of the same peo­ple who cry at the movies, not cry at the news of our bomb­ing of wom­en and chil­dren and men around the world?
    Could it be that by wor­ship­ing this one man, above all oth­ers, Chris­tians are taught that your neighbor’s suf­fer­ing is not quite so bad. All you need to do, if you inflict pain on anoth­er, is to con­fess your sins and don’t do it again? (Until the next time).
    I also have a prob­lem with the focus of the Christ being male! The Patri­archy gets a big plug, every time we see the man on the cross.
    The Protes­tants emp­ty cross at least allows the view­er to not “human­ize” God, if they are not led to do that. The emp­ty cross sends a mes­sage that it is not the death of Jesus that was impor­tant (after all, we all die, one way or the oth­er). It was the rebirth that mat­ters. And we all know who gives birth. (yes it’s a fig­u­ra­tive metaphor, but the choice of a male is not acci­den­tal.)
    While I haven’t seen the movie, many oth­ers who have viewed it speak of the prob­lem with Jesus and Jesus’s fol­low­ers not being por­trayed as Jews, while Jesus’s per­se­cu­tors are clear­ly Jew­ish char­ac­ters. Did you get that when you saw the movie? If this is true, then the mes­sage that this movie is Anti-Jewish is con­vinc­ing. Remem­ber that hard­ly nobody thinks that they are Anti Semi­tes, or Racists, or Mysog­y­nists.
    You MUST lis­ten to the peo­ple who are being por­trayed to under­stand the impact on them. This in not just “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness”. It is what even anthro­pol­gists have learned. Folks from out­side a cul­ture, no mat­ter who well trained, can­not ful­ly under­stand anoth­er cul­ture. That’s one rea­son I became a Quak­er. We are often bet­ter lis­ten­ers than most. Qukaer meet­ings allow more diver­si­ty than most and even Reli­gious Diver­si­ty is val­ued.
    As a Friend who is a “Birthright Jew”, I can say that Anti Semtism is still preva­lent in our com­mu­ni­ty. The Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends (FGC) has shown that they don’t real­ly care about how Jews are por­trayed. The proof is in your very FGC Book­store.
    Check out the book in the FGC Book­store titled “A Friends Hym­nal” and look up the “Lord of the Dance”. Read it and then con­tin­ue.
    .
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    .
    .
    .
    Do you see the words that blame the Jews for the death of Jesus? Jew­ish Friends did, and after almost a year of dis­cus­sion on line, this con­cern was brought to FGC. What we got a was foot­note at the end of the book. Who reads foot­notes at the end of a book while singing a hymn? Not I. The song is not even of Quak­er orig­in. We Jew­ish Friends con­tact­ed the author, who lived in Eng­land, and he wouldn’t change the words. We even came up with alter­na­tive vers­es. (I thought they were even bet­ter than the orig­i­nal).
    Thanks for giv­ing me a chance to “Rant”. I agree that we need a movie called “The Pas­sion of the Quak­ers”. May­be by attract­ing more Catholic Friends and Jew­ish Friends to Quak­erism, we can have “bet­ter” argu­ments than a room full of protes­tants from Eng­land could provide.
    🙂
    Bless­ings,
    Free

  • Just for the record: I’ve decid­ed to stop dis­cussing this movie with peo­ple who refuse to see it. I’ve noticed that the debate ends up real­ly being about people’s feel­ings about Christ and Chris­tian­i­ty (Mel Gib­son & the movie just act as the con­ver­sa­tion starter).
    Free: I’m sor­ry to hear you’ve been hurt by anti-Seminitism. I think we all have sto­ries to tell of being screwed over by Quak­ers. A line in the hym­nal? Come on, I’ve seen more clear-cut anti-Semitism than that. And racism. And ageism (what I get hit with all the time). Quak­erism is root­ed in his­to­ry, in speci­fic times and places. The Spir­it is trapped in human insti­tu­tions, it’s caked in crud, we’re all out­siders try­ing to wipe off the prover­bial pearl of great price buried in all this.
    For believ­ers, the death and res­ur­rec­tion of Christ was more impor­tant than any­thing else that has ever hap­pened in human his­to­ry. The Spir­it and the mud col­lid­ed into one life. The human insti­tu­tions failed, just as ours fail. Any­one who has felt the liv­ing pres­ence will know that our human forms will fail us but that _there is some­thing greater there we must keep seek­ing out anyway_. It’s the­se metaphors that keep me going despite the obvi­ous fail­ings of Quak­ers.