Magazine article The Christian Century

The Problem with the Passion

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Problem with the Passion

Article excerpt

THE BUDDHA once remarked that understanding his instruction is like "trying to catch a poisonous snake in the wild": it's all too easy to get bitten. Among Christian teachings, none are more treacherous than those about Jesus' Passion (from the Latin passio, "suffering"). Theological ideas have teeth. In The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson ventures out into the wild and gets bitten.

Buoyed by controversy, the film will become the most watched Passion play in history, and so its strengths and flaws--The Passion has plenty of both--will have a breathtakingly broad audience. The critics are deeply divided: some have hailed it as a masterpiece comparable to the works of Dante (First Things), while others have labeled it "obscene" (Boston Globe), "almost sadistic" (Los Angeles Times) and "a sickening death trip" (New Yorker).

Worries about the film's anti-Judaism arose first, as many recalled the sordid history of Christian pogroms against Jews, and the ways Christian Passion plays have often provoked and helped justify violence against so-called Christ-killers. Hitler himself, after attending the renowned Passion play in Oberammergau, Germany, declared the production a "convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry" and a "precious tool" for his war on Judaism.

But concerns about the film's graphic and gory depictions of torture soon arose as well. Most moviegoers will never see a more violent movie than this one (that it is rated "R" and not "NC-17" is indefensible), with its sadistic soldiers and pools of blood.

To explore these two concerns--anti-Judaism and excessive violence--I want to zero in on two of the film's key aspects: the portrait of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and the sequence in which Jesus is flogged and flayed. Like miniatures, these features point to the film's larger problems, which are finally theological.

Gibson has both the will and the ingenuity to imagine an extrabiblical scene in which Pilate and his wife, Claudia, privately confer. The troubled procurator laments how imperial life, with its endless cycle of repression and rebellion, pulls him into shadows where "truth" is obscure. The scene invites us to understand Pilate as a man caught up in the larger, rougher forces of his time.

All this raises the question: couldn't Gibson have done the same for Caiaphas? There, are good biblical and historical grounds for doing so. The biblical grounds are found in John 11. There, immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, "the chief priests and the Pharisees" call a meeting of the Sanhedrin and ask, "What are we to do? ... If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."

Pilate has his troubled tale to tell, but so do the members of the Sanhedrin, and their fears about the Roman threat to their temple and their people--which they are, after all, charged to protect--form the basis of Caiaphas's proposal: "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."

Gibson fails to include this episode in his film, and he also fails to imagine a scene that elaborates on it, as he does in the case of Pilate. So Caiaphas's circumstances, fears and motives remain obscure; in him, we can only see the blank face of evil.

The same is true of the bloodthirsty Jewish crowds in Pilate's courtyard and along the way to Golgotha (scenes which both Catholic and Protestant guidelines for Passion plays strongly discourage). Without more insight, these clamoring figures can only be caricatures--and when it comes to Passion plays, Christian caricatures of Jews are only too chillingly familiar.

The first snakebite, then, is that Jesus' Jewish opponents in the film are villains, pure and simple. The purely villainous Jew has been a cliche in Christian anti-Jewish art for centuries. Gibson's portrait of Caiaphas, and of the Jews who follow his lead, is amnesiac and irresponsible filmmaking. …

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