Easter is upon us, which means that it is time for my annual viewing of Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster, “The Passion of the Christ.” It is not exactly the sort of film one “enjoys,” and so this marks only the third time I have seen it since its release in 2004. Now, after two years, after all the controversy and media attention has died down and the film can be considered on its own merits, one thing becomes brutally clear: “The Passion of the Christ” is a deeply offensive movie.
“The Passion of the Christ” isn’t offensive because it is anti-Semitic – it is a movie in which a Jewish man with Jewish followers is portrayed as the savior of the world. A quick perusal of interviews and news reports reveals that most of those who charged the movie with anti-Semitism had never even seen it.
Nor is the movie offensive because of the violence and brutality it depicts. While its R-rating is well deserved, it pales in comparison to the gratuitous violence of such celluloid excesses as “Kill Bill” or “Saw.”
No, “The Passion” is offensive because of what it implies about us, and about our relationship – or lack thereof – with God. It is offensive because it paints a picture of Jesus quite different from the safe, tolerant, politically correct one many of us are used to.
We are used to thinking of Jesus – if we think of him at all – as a nice guy, a good person and a great moral teacher. He loves everybody. Maybe he’s an iconoclast, or a rebel, something like Jack Kerouac meets Mother Teresa. He’s happy and he wants us to be happy. He’s a wise man, a great teacher and an excellent philosopher – though no one seems to take his teachings very seriously. And all of these are at least somewhat true to varying degrees even though the person presented in the Four Gospels is much more dynamic, complex and powerful than the picture most of us have been given.
But “The Passion” shows us a completely different picture of Jesus. We see him suffering in a manner that would elicit compassion from even a hardened criminal. A Newsweek cover story, appearing on March 27, 2000, entitled, “The Other Jesus,” contrasted this with the way most other religions view Jesus, and perceptively concluded, “Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every ‘other Jesus.’ … There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence. …” Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh adds, “The figure of the crucified Christ is a very painful image to me.”
And indeed it is. But this is the image on which “The Passion of the Christ” focuses.
It is not a pleasant movie to watch. People normally go to movies to escape life, to be entertained, to be cured of boredom or simply to relax. Yet “The Passion” has exactly the opposite effect. It forces the viewer to confront himself or herself in the most stark and uncomfortable way.
What many people did not realize is that Mel Gibson actually placed himself in the film. As Jesus is being held down on the cross, we see a hand enter the screen holding a large spike. We then see another hand bringing a hammer down on the spike, shattering skin and tendons as Jesus screams in pain. Again and again, blood spatters as the hammer pounds with a cold mechanical efficiency. The hands are those of Mel Gibson, and the message to the viewer could not be more clear: Gibson feels that he is personally responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and he wants you to feel this way, too.
It has always been the teaching of Christianity that the death of Jesus Christ was the payment – the only fair payment, in fact – for the atrocious sins of mankind. Not just mankind in general, but me and you and your professors and your next-door neighbors. Simple reflection on this has led many to conclude that we are then responsible for his death, for if we hadn’t gotten ourselves into this mess, he wouldn’t have had to die to get us out of it.
That, ultimately, is what the Apostle Paul meant when he referred to “the offense of the Cross.” The message of “The Passion” is that, yes, we are really that bad – that what has gone wrong with us, both individually and collectively, is so serious that it took the gruesome death of the innocent Son of God to set it right again.
For those who have already come to that conclusion, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the greatest news in the world. But for those trusting in their own innate goodness and their ability to save themselves, it is the worst news in the world. That is why “The Passion of the Christ” is still offensive. That is why, when properly understood, the message of Jesus will always be offensive.
Scott Roney is a graduate student in the Chemical Engineering Department.