Gibson’s Passion: Two dissenting views

Having unwisely allowed myself to be drawn into Mel Gibson’s brilliant publicity campaign for The Texas Chainsaw Passion, and having relayed uncritically, without having seen the flick myself, the opinions of others that it is anti-Semitic, I owe it to you to pass along the contrary opinions of two people who have seen it and whose acuity I greatly respect, especially since the film provoked each of them into some additional reflections well worth your attention.

Steve Teles is a political scientist at Brandeis who has described himself politically as a Whig. Steve Harvester is a United Methodist pastor in Western Massachusetts who is about as far to my left as Teles is to my right.

Steve Teles makes his reasons for rejecting the charge of anti-Semitism clear in his note. Steve Harvester’s sermon focuses on deeper issues, but in an email exchange and phone conversation he was able to offer several details about the film not mentioned by those who have called it anti-Semitic in tendency and inconsistent with that interpretation. (It’s not true, he says, that the “bad” Jews in the film are systematically the most “Jewish” looking, and the film makes it clear, by including details not found in the Gospels, that the execution is the work of a small faction, not of “the Jews” generically.)

I hope we can look forward to more guest-blogging from both Steves them in the future.

From Steve Teles:

I went to see “The Passion” this afternoon. I’ve got somewhat conflicting opinions of it.

On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a fabulous movie, just in purely cinematic/aesthetic terms. The actor who plays Jesus lacked the power to project character through the blood—although it may be that he just wasn’t given that much to work with. His job was secondary, in a real sense, to the whips. His job was to bleed. Many of the other actors were fine, but none really leapt out at me. The directing, in a technical sense, was ok, but again, no great shakes.

I do think the violence was way over the top, but in general I’m willing to accept any level of violence in movies, if it’s justified by its role in pushing forward the story. In this case it had the opposite effect. By the time Jesus gets to the point where he has to carry the cross, he’s already a bloody pulp, no longer even recognizable or capable of significant emotion, other than just barely staying alive. This is unfortunate, because the carrying of and suffering on the cross is where all the significant theological action is. The flogging is not typically understood as all that theologically central. So there must be another reason for it to be there.

Theory one is that it’s just a lot more violent and horrible to witness than the crucifixion—imagine anything being worse than being crucified, but by the time you see Jesus on the cross in the movie, you think, “well, at least he’s not still being flogged!” This is theologically problematic, since it detracts from, rather than heightening, the drama on the cross. But it does create a more stomach-churning effect. I think here Gibson’s visceral attraction to violence just overwhelmed his judgment. He’s drawn like a moth to the flame to the most awful ways to tear a body apart.

I think that’s the least important reason for the lingering on the flogging. The second, and more disturbing, is related to the anti-Semitism thing. In general, I’m frankly bored by accusations of anti-Semitism. I take the Philip Roth position—at least in the US (and there’s a broader world question, which I’m not going to deal with) Jews are more in danger of being killed by kindness than anything else, and so it is simply wearying to hear Jews complain endlessly about stereotypical representations in the media. So the question I’ve got here is simply diagnostic. The flogging is related to the anti-Semitism thing in the following way. Jesus is taken before the crowd the first time, and Pilate says he sees no crime in him, and that he wants to let him go. The crowd cries out to crucify him. Pilate says no, but I’ll have him flogged instead. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t say anything more about what happened at the flogging. In Gibson’s telling, Jesus comes back from the flogging and then the crowd demands he be crucified. And Pilate gives in. In Matthew and Mark Pilate goes through the argument with the crowd and loses, and then the flogging and crucifixion happen without any return to the crowd. Luke is a little muddier, and John is the account that fits in best with Gibson’s story. In the movie, the flogging goes on forever, in unspeakably awful ways. By the time Jesus comes back before the crowd, by all rights he should already be dead—the flesh is ripped off of almost his entire body. The effect of presenting it this way is to make the Jewish crowd seem sub-human. Presented with this man virtually dismembered, they still bay for his blood. This sequence is only possible if you prefer the account in John, which is a choice, since it reads to me that the sequence is different if you judge by Matthew and Mark. I actually think the lingering over the flogging was the most anti-Semitic choice in the movie, even though I haven’t seen anyone else comment on it, except in the context of it being violently over the top. It’s not over the top if the purpose of the violence was to anger the viewer at the crowd that sends Jesus to his death.

But that’s the most theologically problematic decision that Gibson makes. By heightening the offense that the crowd calls for by having them condemn a half-dead man, Gibson also distances us from the crowd, makes us stand outside them and feel above them. That’s theologically wrong-headed. I saw my friend and (this year) boss Robby George just an hour or so talk about how he sees the role of the passion in Christian theology, and he argues that the essential point of the crucifixion is that it is all of our sins that send Christ to the cross. That is why Catholic Good Friday services call for the congregation to say the words of the crowd, “Crucify him.” In essence, we, all of us, ARE the crowd. We’re the ones whose sins made the crucifixion necessary to make man’s salvation possible. I think this is, I think, the most meaningful way to interpret how the crowd is supposed to be seen. The only way to do this is for Gibson to put us in the crowd, to make us the crowd. This he doesn’t do. We see the crowd from Pilate’s point of view, high above them—judging them. So, in essence, by first elongating the flogging scene and then failing to put us in the crowd, he makes us feel angry about Jesus’ suffering, rather than guilty. If we’re guilty, we think about our own sin. If we’re angry, we think mainly about those who actually physically caused Jesus to be condemned to the cross. And that’s the Jews.

On other, more obvious dimensions, I think the anti-Semitism issue is more complicated. On the one hand, it is a passion play, and it is almost impossible to represent it completely without feeling animus at the Jews. In most ways, I don’t think Gibson did anything with the high priests that wasn’t justifiable if you accept the gospel accounts. If the high priests rejected Jesus’ claim to be the son of God, then of course they’d be really, really angry at him. Of course they’d spit on him. From their position, he’s a blasphemer, and so calling for his death was, by the standards of the time, not out of hand. Presenting them as being more ambivalent wouldn’t make sense.

Pilate is another question. There is a question about whether he’s too sympathetic, but I didn’t find him any more so than David Bowie’s Pilate in Last Temptation of Christ, which no one seemed to think was anti-Semitic. And theologically, it’s pretty important that the blame not be heaped on Pilate, for if it is, then the blame is pulled off of those whose sin caused Jesus to have to go to the cross in the first place. As a political scientist, I also found Pilate’s reticence plausible. Pilate was doing plenty of crucifying in Judea, to be sure, but to put down the constant attacks on Roman authority. Jesus was not, at least directly, challenging this authority (except to the degree that he attacked all earthly authorities). The high priests were trying to get him to use crucifixion to punish an enemy of theirs, someone whose attack on the authority of the Temple was much clearer than his attack on the Roman authorities. Pilate probably wanted to stay out of using his forces for internecine Jewish conflicts. In the end he relented when he realized that not crucifying Jesus would lead to even greater attacks on his authority. My sense is that both Gibson and Scorcese made the same judgment, and just as a matter of making sense of the scriptures, I think it’s a reasonable one.

Finally, Gibson does, I think, make quite a big deal out of Simon of Cyrene, the Jew who helps Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. In fact, probably a bit too much. Because Gibson has already beaten Jesus to a pulp before he’s even put the cross on his back, he’s in the situation where it is hard to believe that Jesus can stand, much less carry a heavy cross. So Simon of Cyrene, in fact, does most of the work of helping Jesus carry the cross most of the way, picking him up and in some places dragging him along. This goes even further than the text would dictate, since it merely says that he was “compelled to bear his cross.” Gibson makes a point of having a Roman soldier spit out at him, “Jew!” when he commands Simon to help Jesus. Obviously Gibson went out of his way here. But Simon, the only really sympathetic Jew in the whole story other than the disciplines and the two Marys, is sympathetic only because he helps Jesus to carry the most symbolic object in all of Christianity, the Cross. So I don’t know how much to make of this.

Finally, If we were a less happy, huggy, ecumenical country Jews would say, when faced with the “Christ-killing” accusation, what is actually theologically almost required of them, which is, “we don’t know what really happened to Jesus, but he wasn’t the Messiah, he claimed to be despite the fact that he was just a man, and thus he was blaspheming in the most despicable way possible, and the Biblical punishment for that is death. We probably didn’t do it, but if we did, what’s the big deal? Jesus was just a man like all the other false prophets in Judea at the time.” Not, “this isn’t nice—it was the Romans!” But Jews don’t do the former, because it’s bad manners—and asking for trouble!—to tell Christians that they pray to a false messiah. All in all, it’s probably good that Jews refrain from stating what is manifestly true if you don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God: that Jesus got what was coming to him. The other side of that deal is that Christians make a point of avoiding blaming Jews for Christ’s death, even avoiding things that might be theologically justifiable but easily misinterpreted by the theologically less sophisticated. In essence, Christians and Jews have made a choice to avoid drawing their theological attitudes towards the others’ faith out, in the interests of co-existence. I frankly don’t have a dog in the fight of Christians versus Jews. That is, I don’t have a view of whether Jesus was the Son of God.

(Or, rather, I’ve got both dogs—my mom was raised Southern Baptist and my dad was raised a conservative Jew, and I’ve never been able to choose one way or another. Within the Christian side I’m sympathetic to Catholicism.)

So what I say above is simply a function of drawing out the logical requirements of both views. Not drawing those views out is a cost of pluralism, and it’s worth paying, in my judgment.

So what I say above is simply a function of drawing out the logical requirements of both views. Not drawing those views out is a cost of pluralism, and it’s worth paying, in my judgment.

From Steve Harvester:


Judy and I saw two murders yesterday, neither of them real. The more humorous fake death was that of a passenger on the railroad car located in the Fellowship Hall of this building. If you haven’t got your tickets yet to see “Rage Rides the Rails,” hurry. Seats are going fast.

The first murder we saw was that of Jesus Christ, in Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion.” First let me say, I do not recommend it for children, and I do not recommend it for adults who do not know the gospel. The reviews I have read attacking the movie do so because the reviewer saw it as a glorification of violence, with just a few quick flashbacks to relieve the agony. Judy and I saw the movie in a different light, because those quick flashbacks brought back to us the entire teaching and meaning of Jesus’ ministry. I would rate this movie “RDJC”—Restricted to Disciples of Jesus Christ.

This is the question that secular movie reviewers cannot be expected to ask, but that disciples must ask: What is the meaning of it all? The movie begins with the words of the prophet Isaiah: He was wounded for our transgressions, and by his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). We call this “the doctrine of atonement.” Jesus makes atonement for what we have done wrong. That is why we call him Savior; that is why we call him Lord.

We now entered the season of Lent, and it is a dark journey to Easter. The journey is dark, because it lies in a shadow, the shadow of the cross. The people who will show up here on Easter morning are like the people who drive their cars to the top of Mount Washington. They will get the same view as those who climbed, but they won’t see with the same eyes. To take in the view on Easter morning rightly, we must climb the Lenten mountain. We must accompany Jesus on his dark journey. We must take in a deeper understanding of what it means to say, “Jesus is the atonement of our sins.”

For at least 1,500 years now, the most popular understanding of what Jesus did for us is what we call substitutionary atonement. The Divine Law has been broken, by every one of us. The penalty for breaking God’s Law is death. But God so loved the world, that he substituted his only Son, Jesus, in our place. He died the death that was due to us.

That is how most of us understand it, and it is how Mel Gibson understands it, too. In one scene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, looks into his bloody face as he carries his cross to Golgotha. His whole body streaming blood, he looks at Mary and says, “See mother, how I make all things new.” The movie echoes the common understanding that life is made new for us because Jesus is paying the penalty for our sin.

But the common understanding sidesteps some vital questions. The first is this: To whom is this penalty being paid? Who demands such a penalty? What kind of Law, what kind of Lawgiver, requires death for justice to be satisfied?

It’s interesting that one character in “The Passion,” who appears throughout the movie, is not remarked on by any of the reviews I have read. That character is Satan. He is portrayed very well, I think, and in retrospect one thing is clear: this death is not Satan’s doing. He is doing everything possible to prevent Jesus’ death. At the end of the film, he screams in defeat because, in the words of Jesus, “it is accomplished.” The film accepts the logic of substitutionary atonement: it is God’s Law that we have violated. God has fixed the penalty as death, and it is God who carries out the sentence, on his own Son.

We can thank theologians who are women, or black, or South American, for helping us to understand what have been the real life consequences for accepting, however unconsciously, an understanding of the atonement that leads us to believe in a death-dealing Father, and a Son who saves others by accepting unjust, undeserved beatings and death. How many abused women, how many crying children, over the last 1,500 years, have been told to “be like Jesus?” How many enslaved and oppressed people, around the globe, were instructed by missionaries and slave masters to imitate a Jesus who saves by the “power of the Blood”? It is a historical fact that substitutionary atonement has been a weapon in the hands of the powerful and violent for 1,500 years.

And here is a second vital question: If Jesus saves us by his death, then how important, really, was his life? Does it really matter what he believed in, or what he taught? The answer to this, I think, is made clear in the earliest creeds of the church, developed soon after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Many of you know the Apostle’s Creed by heart. Do you remember what it says about Jesus? It goes like this:

[I believe in] Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again from the dead.

When the new Imperial Church decided what it wanted us to learn by heart about Jesus, they included not a single word about what he believed in, or what he taught. In substitutionary atonement, his life is unimportant. What matters, for our salvation, is his death. For 1,500 years, the important thing about being a Christian is to believe in him. Trying to follow him has by and large been considered a demanding, and unnecessary, option for the spiritual elite. We are freed by substitutionary atonement to worship Jesus, and obey the powers that be.

Well, where does that leave us? I believe it leaves us with the choice between accepting the Imperial God of the last 1,500 years, or of going back to Jesus himself. There is an older way to understand the atonement, a way that goes back to the earliest church, the church that tried to follow the teachings, and example, of Jesus Christ. We call it Christus Victor, Christ the Victor over violence, injustice, and death. This understanding is first spelled out for us in the Book of Revelation, most clearly of all in Chapter Twelve. Here, the one demanding death is not God, our loving Father. The one who wants death is the Dragon. Here is the revelation:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon.

The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to earth and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice proclaiming:

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down…

But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. (Rev. 12: 7-11)

If you only read this passage, you might think that the Dragon is a Devil like the devil in Mel Gibson’s movie, an evil person who wants to throw souls into hell. But if you read the whole book, it becomes clear that on earth, the Dragon in John’s time is the Roman Empire. It is Rome that crucified Jesus, and that murders the faithful. It is Rome that conquers by blood, starves, oppresses, and enslaves. And Jesus defeats Rome: not by his death, but by rising again in victory. His death, desired by Rome, not by God, is apparent defeat. In Mel Gibson’s movie, Satan screams when Jesus dies. In Revelation, Satan screams when Jesus rises. And, Revelation tells us, those who remain faithful to Jesus, to his teaching and example of service, compassion, and nonviolent love, will also rise. Jesus has made atonement, not by his substitutionary death, but by the vindication of Easter.

It makes all the difference in the world which view of the atonement we choose: whether we are watching a movie about Jesus, or deciding what to do about an abuse we see, be it abuse of the environment, a whole class of people, or the child next door. Substitutionary atonement says, “It’s God’s will. Be like the suffering Jesus. Accept this injustice, and you will be blessed.” Christus Victor says, “The Dragon has been cast out of heaven, but he still rages on earth. Fight this dragon, with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength. Do not fight with the dragons weapons—he will defeat you every time. But fight with the weapons of Jesus, who healed the sick, ate with outcasts, and prayed forgiveness for his enemies even on the cross. Never accept injustice. Never surrender. And Christus Victor, the Lamb who was slain and yet stands triumphant, will be victorious again in you.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

2 thoughts on “Gibson’s Passion: Two dissenting views”

  1. The Passion – My Thoughts

    I saw The Passion of The Christ on Saturday, last. The movie is not in any way anti-Semitic. The book of John can be taken as much more “anti-Semitic.” The bad guys in the movie are the high priest and

  2. The Passion

    The impact of The Passion of The Christ in the media and among my circle of humans has been akin to the anthrax incident. Nobody wants to discuss the movie but most people are compelled to say something about it.

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