The first piece of sacred spam hit my inbox during the runup to the opening of “The Passion of The Christ” in the United States. Forwarded by an earnest member of the Anglican-Episcopalian church I attend in central Tokyo, the e-mail asked recipients to pray for the success of the movie, to give thanks for miracles wrought at preview screenings, and, natch, to go see the film — and to tell 10 friends to do likewise.
I wasn’t impressed — as similar e-mails followed it felt as though my faith was being hijacked by marketing. Friends and I debated the movie over beer after our midweek Bible study, weighing the pros (a Christian movie tops global box offices!) against the disturbing reported cons (a holy snuff movie, and anti-Semitic to boot).
Then, last Sunday, I finally saw the film, and nothing was as I’d expected.
First, a few caveats. I believe Christ died for my sins. If you’re still reading, I can tell you I also believe that evil powers exist and work in the world — though, unlike Mel Gibson, I don’t think Satan is a female transvestite with a snake up her skirt. And I do not believe, as one flashback suggests, that Jesus invented the dining table.
I am also aware that the notion of Jewish culpability for Jesus’ death has historically been used to justify discrimination and atrocities against Jews. That a movie touted as Christian and embraced by churches across the denominational spectrum might have any truck with such ideas was, for me, a prospect far more nauseating than any scene of torture.
Gibson was reportedly pressurized to excise the so-called “blood libel” found in the Gospel of Matthew, in which the Jewish people cry “His blood be on us and on our children” — he was reluctant to cut it, apparently, because every other line of dialogue contained in the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and execution was included. (A few scholars and critics claim it is still uttered in Aramaic, but is unsubtitled.)
That pressure was required is saddening, but nonetheless in the movie as we have it the calls for Jesus’ death are clearly shown to originate with a handful of priestly leaders seeking to preserve their authority in the face of occupation. To infer from this that the film condemns the Jews is as illogical as arguing that the Western media vilifies all Muslims when it denounces the actions of the Taliban.
Whether or not it was Gibson’s intention, powerful contemporary parallels resonate throughout this film. Far from fossilizing the unfolding events, the use of now-extinct Aramaic and Latin for the dialogue allows you to free-associate: Repressive religious leaders resort to violence; an occupying military power despises the “uncivilized” Middle-Eastern society on which it imposes order (“Impossible people!” snarls one Roman, lashing out at wailing Israelites). Sounds familiar?
We could be anywhere, anywhen. The soldiers taunting Christ could be the U.S. and British troops recently shown abusing Iraqi prisoners in photos splashed across the world’s media. The beaten body of Jesus hoisted aloft for public ridicule in death could be that of one of the American contractors killed in Fallujah in March and hung from a bridge by cheering crowds.
You could be watching CNN or the BBC, if the television execs had the nerve to run footage from the front line. You could be looking at photojournalism from Palestine right now, from Afghanistan last year, from Lebanon two decades ago as you see the black-clad mother of Jesus clawing at the earth and weeping for her dead son.
What this movie offers is a long, unsparing look at our own brutality. If, like me, you’re already sold on the film’s ultimate “happy” ending, Christ’s resurrection and mankind’s salvation, there is hope and release at the end. If you’re not, there may be only revulsion at the disfigured body of Jesus, cradled in his mother’s arms.
But one inescapable lesson of this movie is for believers and nonbelievers alike: If we inflict brutality, endorse execution or repression, or simply allow them to be done in our name and say nothing, then it is ourselves and our humanity that we so hideously disfigure.