Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
The "traditional" piety of a multimillionaire
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


Even before Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ had been released an air of legend had gathered - or been manufactured - around it. Philip Saville's The Gospel of St. John began appearing in American cinemas in the latter part of 2003, with relatively little fanfare. Close to a year later few people have even heard of it. The same can hardly be said of The Passion, which started to generate global levels of publicity from the earliest stages of production.
Gibson himself had ensured this by his willingness to trumpet the experiences of spiritual drift and crisis which he claims led him to recover his Catholic faith - or a schismatic right-wing variant of it - and helped him conceive the idea of directing a film about Christ's passion.
From the beginning, therefore, part of the mystique which Gibson sought to attach to the film was that it was prompted by intense personal motives: atonement for past sins and gratitude for redemption. In similar vein, James Caviezel, who took the role of Jesus in the film, has frequently described his return to the Catholicism of his childhood after a spell of prodigal living as a leading Hollywood actor.
Among the obstacles supposedly faced by Gibson, and retailed endlessly by the film's champions, were: mockery by the Hollywood establishment; gleeful predictions of failure; difficulties finding a distributor. To these unwelcome commercial pressures were added physical and cosmic trials. During filming, according to The Passion's website, Caviezel endured not only painful make-up procedures which brought his skin out in blisters, but also fell victim to freezing weather and the misfortune, at one point, of being struck by lightning.
There is of course a type of religious mentality which happily interprets all obstacles as proof of righteousness, and Gibson clearly derives some kind of emotional satisfaction from identifying himself with the despised, misunderstood Christ-figure. Objectively, however, one wonders if the idea of a new film about Jesus really met with as much hostility as has been claimed. Is such talk not rather the stuff of Hollywood cliché: "one-man's-triumph-over-adversity" etc?
If there were indeed difficulties they appear to have evaporated by the time the film opened in the U.S. on Ash Wednesday this year. A distributor had been found after all and appreciable box office takings were accompanied by widespread critical approval, at least within certain circles.
Church representatives of all denominations spoke emotionally of the great impact the film had made on them, and with the help of a largely favourable media reception, an atmosphere was quickly worked up in which The Passion was recognised as a great artistic achievement which only a few disgruntled liberals had failed to appreciate. In terms of Gibson's career, too, the light of resurrection quickly followed the darkness of death, though not perhaps in a strictly theological sense. He is now one of the richest men in the film industry, and topped this year's Forbes Celebrity 100 list.
When The Passion arrived in Britain, events followed a similar pattern. The Catholic bishops here - unlike their counterparts in France, for example - were on the whole favourably impressed. Bishop Joseph Devine went as far as attending the U.K. premiere in London, after which he wrote that it was "without question the most powerful film I have ever seen" and "the most authentic depiction of the Passion ever committed to film" - needless overstatements which only remind us that bishops are not necessarily the most intelligent or cultured members of the Catholic community and therefore not necessarily the best qualified to offer perceptive artistic judgements.[1]
My own emotions are not as volatile as those of the Bishop of Motherwell. Having attended the film hoping to find - after all the hype - some original insights into the passion narratives of the gospels I left the cinema feeling distinctly unmoved. For all that this is a lavish and painstaking production it adds nothing to existing interpretations of Jesus' suffering and death. Nor does it contain any reflections which might help contemporary Christians as they endeavour to “take up their cross every day” in the circumstances of modern life.
The reverse is true. The Passion is only too recognisable as a revival of an individualistic and masochistic spirituality in which the "virtues" of docility, submission and meekness are justified with reference to Jesus' own alleged example. Below, I intend to summarise my reflections on the form of piety promoted by Gibson's film, and on other aspects which have already been widely discussed.
The accusation of anti-Semitism
In America Gibson's negative portrayal of the Jewish religious leaders was one of the principal sources of criticism. The French Catholic bishops also warned that the film could be interpreted as an apology for anti-Semitic thought. There was concern that a mediaeval Christian prejudice, construing Jews as "Christ-killers", was being resuscitated.
Certainly the depiction of the Jewish leaders in the film is crude and far from complimentary. The action commences on the evening before Jesus' death and there is nothing to explain how events reached this impasse, or how the disparate religious groupings of the period came to oppose Jesus so vehemently.
Nor is there any attempt to distinguish different positions within the leadership, with some currents favourable to Christ, as in Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Gibson does not try to show how the members of the religious elite were acting rationally to defend their own interests, as the gospels themselves make clear. Instead they appear simply as embodiments of insensate anger, continually snarling and spitting at Jesus for no apparent reason.
Such a one-dimensional portrayal is regrettable, but is it specifically anti-Semitic? In my view the Jewish authorities in The Passion appear more as generic religious types, men dressed in imposing ceremonial garb and claiming divine authority, but behind their facade, shallow, self-serving, hypocritical and corrupt. All religious hierarchies have shown such tendencies at one time or another.
Moreover, it is scarcely possible to produce a film version of Christ's passion, set in the original historical context, without portraying the religious leadership in a negative light, which some viewers would be only too willing to generalise into an attack on Jews per se.
In the present atmosphere, with every kind of group and organisation shrilly demanding a positive media image and striving to suppress unfavourable representations, one would undoubtedly encounter similar problems producing a film about any significant cultural, historical, political or religious subject. Sinhala Buddhist extremists, for example, disrupted the production of Mahakanumulle Vajira’s film, An Unfinished Story; Hindu chauvinists forced the Indian-born director Deepa Mehta to abandon production of her film Water; while Cardinal Jaime Sin succeeded in pressuring the Philippine government to ban Jose Javier Reyes’ documentary Live Show, exposing the exploitation of poor Filipino men and women by night-club owners in Manila.
In The Passion the Jewish leaders do not inflict the greatest harm upon Christ - that falls to the Roman soldiers. In a work which concentrates exclusively on the violence endured by Jesus the producers cannot be said to have shown the Jewish characters as solely or even mainly responsible for Jesus’ worst suffering.
Christ's Passion as "porno-sadism"
The Passion has drawn criticism for the unrelenting brutality of Jesus' scourging and eventual crucifixion. This is a valid assessment: the portrayal of explicit violence has to be used sparingly in film if it is to have any impact, and it becomes an ineffective tool if resorted-to routinely. There are more subtle means of conveying human aggression, cruelty and destructiveness, but subtlety and artistic proportion have not appeared as Gibson's strong suit to date, either as actor or director.
Like so many other productions of current mainstream cinema, The Passion is intent on bashing its audience over the head with its message. The special effects, the frequently overloud soundtrack, the detailed representations of physical beating, whipping and scourging, are crude and familiar techniques which entrust nothing to the imagination or the intelligence of the viewers.
Indeed The Passion would have been a more powerful work if the scenes of violence had been less vivid and protracted. As it is, the viewer becomes habituated to, and almost bored by, the mounting onslaught. For all that there has been an attempt to elicit feelings of horror and sympathy by "realistically" depicting the brutal conduct of Christ's torturers - hence Caviezel's painful hours in make-up - there is nothing here that remotely resembles genuine violence towards persons.
To the extent that one tries to view the scourgings etc. realistically, one quickly concludes that Jesus would have lost control of his bowels, fallen into a coma, or died long before he gets anywhere near shouldering the cross. And this is an important point, given the great claims of historical "authenticity" that have been made for the film and the oft-repeated defence that "Jesus really did suffer, you know".
Far from being authentic, the savagery takes on a more and more unbelievable and cartoonish quality. By the time Christ reaches Calvary, where the nails are laboriously hammered into his hands and feet and the cross inexplicably turned over 180 degrees, so that Jesus is dangling above the ground in even greater agony, the violence has reached a peak of ridiculousness, not of supreme horror.
It must be said that graphic violence is hardly an original cinematic contrivance at present, when so many contemporary films, television programmes and computer games deliberately appeal to the aggressive and sadistic instincts of their audiences in order to titillate and entertain, in a way that involvement in real-life trauma certainly does not. Hence the coining of a new phrase: "porno-sadism". In this connection one might also mention the newer type of competitive game show and "reality t.v." programme, in which participants are voyeuristically manipulated, baited, humiliated and generally de-personalised in a manner which recalls the cruelty and spectacle of the ancient amphitheatre.
Nor is it solely a matter of the entertainment industry's increasingly degenerate output. Susan Sontag noted, in the aftermath of the revelations of U.S. military torture in Abu Ghraib prison, that the "acceptance of brutality" is everywhere evident, her primary focus being American society and culture:
"From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools...to the rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation to be found in working-class bar culture, and institutionalised in our colleges and universities as hazing - America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are, increasingly, seen as good entertainment, fun".[2]
Gibson's film belongs to the cultural wasteland created by today's mass entertainment industry far more than it challenges it. He is mistaken if he believes that his extreme violence is somehow different because it is used to convey the "enormity" of Christ's sacrifice. Such protestations resemble the pleadings of dramatists who argue that explicit sex-scenes are somehow integral to the development of their plot and not simply an appeal to the baser instincts of their audiences. The French episcopate was nearer the mark when it stated that The Passion revealed less of the authentic face of Christ and more about our "contemporary obsessions: anxiety about evil, a fascination about violence, a search for the guilty". (my emphasis).[3]
The "theology" of The Passion
In the New Testament and in Christian tradition there are various attempts to come to grips with the fiasco of Jesus' passion and death. Ultimately we remain within the realm of revelation, mystery and faith, and answers to questions such as "why the cross?" and "what did Jesus' death achieve?" are always partial, never exhaustive.
Having said that, not all efforts to convey the meaning of the cross are equally valuable. Some theological explanations are more enlightening than others.
Soon after Jesus' resurrection his followers recognised that his passion and death were an essential part of the new revelation of God which had taken place in his person and mission. Christ's self-sacrificing love and his forgiving, non-violent response to hatred constituted his final and unsurpassable proclamation of God's Kingdom.
It is mistaken therefore to believe that the redemptive power of Jesus' sacrifice somehow lay in the level of violence inflicted upon him, or in the particular form that it took. Had Jesus been stoned to death by his own people - as he may have anticipated - his mission as Messiah would have been fulfilled just the same. The same is surely true had the Incarnation taken place in another period, with Jesus confronting death by hanging, firing squad, electrocution or lethal injection. We might also speculate as to whether, in different circumstances, Jesus would have been silenced by his enemies in a less drastic but equally effective way.
It is as well to remember, too, that Jesus is not the only innocent victim of violence in the annals of human history. Many others have endured suffering at least equal to that inflicted upon Jesus, not least the countless thousands who were crucified in the time of the Roman Empire. (And let us note in passing that the Romans did not subject Jesus to the disgusting sexual humiliation which the agents of American empire have meted out to their Iraqi victims.)
What is crucial about Jesus' death is not the level of violence he endured but rather his uncompromising faithfulness and obedience to the cause of God's Kingdom, which led him to his passion in the first place. Nor was this solely a matter of personal loyalty to the Father. The Kingdom of God had a specific content, and it was this which caused the "elders, chief priests and scribes" to plot Jesus' death.
The Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has written that during his ministry "Jesus denounces the scribes, the Pharisees, the rich, the priests, the rulers, in the plural and not just as individuals. The factor common to all of them is that they represent and exercise some kind of power that structures society as a whole".[4] Christ was fully aware how far these social layers might be prepared to go to defend their position - he had chosen to launch his own ministry precisely at the point when John the Baptist was arrested, having antagonised Herod Antipas (Mt 4:12; Mk 1:14). He accepted the threat of annihilation as the price of proclaiming openly the cause of the Kingdom.
Unlike the theology of liberation The Passion of the Christ is relatively uninterested in Jesus' ministry or the content of his preaching. His arrest, trial, scourging and death are severed from his earlier proclamation of the Kingdom. Yet without this essential prehistory the figure of the scourged and crucified Jesus becomes abstract and a-historical. He emerges as a cipher, the archetypical victim perhaps, submitting to a wave of fierce but unexplained hatred. Whereas historically, the opposition towards his ministry, far from being inexplicable, was a wholly predictable reaction to his words and actions, and the principal cause of his death.
A second question which arises from Gibson's representation of Jesus is: how far is this intended as a model to be imitated by present-day Christians?
Throughout Christian history there have been spiritualities of the cross designed to encourage believers in a general attitude of obedience, submissiveness, and meekness. Passivity and resignation in the face of suffering were seen as virtuous, facets of an “imitation of Christ” which would ultimately be rewarded by God. Such spiritualities underpinned the social and economic order in numerous Catholic countries: the institutional Church enjoyed a privileged status and substantial political influence so long as the faithful were taught to respect civil authority and discouraged from political protest.
Similarly, in the U.S., fundamentalist churches and the Christian political right favour a theology which legitimates capitalism, obscures the sources of class divisions and social inequality, and proposes private spiritual responses to suffering rather than collective action to address its causes. Prophetic Christian analysis, which challenges the social and economic status quo and suggests alternatives, seems to have no place in their evangelism.
It is no surprise that the ideologues of the religious right are among the loudest cheerleaders for The Passion. Gibson's film is in many ways the polar opposite of Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) which reflected certain social currents of the era by portraying Jesus as a prophetic preacher and a friend of the poor who attacks conventional religion and demands repentance. In Pasolini's work, Christ's passion and death is a muted affair compared with the preceding ministry.
Gibson, by contrast, offers us a Jesus for the era of globalisation and the "New World Order", a saviour pleasing to the rich and powerful precisely because he does not denounce, confront, challenge or resist anything, but rather "makes all things new" by assuming victimhood.
Such a portrayal does not express a deeper, more authentic theology of the cross as it might motivate and inspire contemporary Christians. It offers up a Jesus more one-sided than Pasolini's, though leaning of course in the opposite direction: the proclamation and the practice of God's Kingdom are omitted completely and we are presented instead with a narrow, fevered concentration on Christ's physical suffering instead.
The ordeal may be filmed in sumptuous and “loving” detail, as though as an act of homage on the director's part: but that, by itself, may tend as much towards mystification as towards profundity. The statement by Cardinal Ratzinger that “Jesus did not redeem the world with beautiful words but with his suffering and death” probably sums up Gibson's ideas about Christ's sacrifice, but without further elaboration such a statement is inadequate.[5] Jesus' words - and actions - "beautiful" or otherwise, are hardly irrelevant to the gospel story, its dénouement, or for that matter, the contemporary life of discipleship.
The Old Testament prophets attacked the self-serving mentality of those who prefer to offer God loud and elaborate sacrifices rather than actively committing themselves to doing his will: "Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts, then let justice surge like water and goodness like an unfailing stream." (Amos 5:23-24).
In the same way today God does not want films by multimillionaire Christians who purport to glorify him by wallowing in dewy-eyed awe at the extent of his Son's suffering. He wants commitment to the cause of his Kingdom, and human lives lived according to his priorities, renouncing the idols of wealth, comfort, status and self-aggrandisement. It is in this sense that we should understand Jesus’ instruction, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The current context of Christian faith is one in which the proliferation of western-dominated capitalism is producing wider divisions between rich and poor, increased competition for control of the world's resources, a drift towards more authoritarian government, with inevitable attempts to revoke hard-won civil liberties and democratic rights - and all this amid an ever-more vacuous, frenzied and alienating consumerism.
In such circumstances there is a certainly a need for Christian reflection on "the passion of the Christ" - and its contemporary ramifications. Mel Gibson's film however is a diversion from this task, not a summons to take it up.


Notes and References
[1] See Zenit News Agency Report, 16th March 2004 for the full text of Bishop Devine's remarks.
[2] Susan Sontag, "What Have We Done?", Guardian G2 Section, 24.05.04.
[3] http://www.religionnewsblog.com/news.php?p=6643&c=1
[4] Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, Burns and Oates 1994, p.160.
[5] "The New Evangelisation, Building the Civilisation of Love", Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers, the Jubilee of Catechists, 12 December 2000.