I interviewed Illinois state senator Jacqueline Collins yesterday and she reminded me of an essential truth about journalists. We are here to give voice to the voiceless, and to point the light on stories that otherwise get lost. Collins, who worked as a television news editor for 20 years, then went to Harvard Divinity School before running for office in 2002.

While we religion journalists are getting all worked up about the Passion, there's a possible humanitarian catastrophe about to unfold in Haiti. It's already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and does not need another coup and even more social disaster. We may see a new wave of boat people , most of whom will never make it to the US, and if they do, won't be allowed to stay.

So take a break from the Passion, and pray for Haiti. It's something even religion journalists can do.


Beautiful and Brutal: A Review of the Passion

Okay, this is a long (too long for a blog) review of the Passion. There's no links either. But it's late and I want to get this up.

And if you've got time, leave a comment or two. Thanks much.

There’s a heart-wrenching scene about two-thirds of the way through Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Mary (played by Maia Morgenstern) has been trying to get close to her son since he was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane.

Now she’s waiting on the way to Calvary, hoping to see her son. Suddenly, she turns her head, unable to bear his suffering. John beckons her, but she can’t bear to look.

Then there’s a crash - Jesus (played by James Cavazel) has fallen. The cross is too heavy, and Jesus too beaten down to carry it.

The film flashes back to when Jesus was 4 or 5 years old, and falls down while playing. The young boy Jesus cries out. Mary picks him up and comforts him. “I’m here,” she says, “I’m here.”

Suddenly, we cut back to Mary in Jerusalem. She rushes to Jesus’ side. “I’m here, I’m here,” she says, touching his face as the Roman soldier haul Jesus up and take him away.

The Passion is filled with scenes of remarkable emotion like that.
Jesus heals one of the Jewish Temple guards in the garden, after Peter has slashed off the man’s ear.

A young woman named Veronica offers Jesus a cloth to wipe his face and a cup of cold water as he struggles to get back up after falling again

A crucified thief pleads with Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

An African Jew is forced to carry the cross with Jesus. He links arms with Jesus and bears the burden with him. When Jesus falls for the last time, Simon carries both the cross and Jesus for a few steps. “Almost there,” he tells Jesus.

Jesus cries out, “Father forgive them,” as the soldiers nail him to the cross. And just before he is raised in the air on the cross, there’s a flashback to Jesus with his disciples. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he tells them.

There’s even a tender domestic scene with Jesus and Mary at home. He’s outside making what looks like to be a modern dining room table. His mother calls him into dinner, but he’s too caught up in his work. She comes out, with a curious look on her face.

“It’s too tall,” she says. No, he says. People will sit at chairs around it to eat. (In the ancient world, people reclined on couches to eat.)

It’ll never catch on, she says. Jesus puts on his best all-knowing prophet face, “Oh, I think it will,” he says. Mary pokes him in the ribs, tells him to cut it out and – in true motherly fashion - to wash his hands before coming to dinner. Jesus proceeds to splash her with water as they make their way into the house.

It’s a warm, human moment, showing Jesus and his mother as an ordinary family. These scenes made me long for a film about the life of Jesus with these actors. It would have been beautiful.

And Gibson’s decision to have Jesus and his contemporaries speak Aramaic (and the Romans to speak Latin) is brilliant. It makes them come alive in a way I’d never experience before. Combined stunning sets and a meticulously designed costumes and the Passion seems to transport you to the first century, only with subtitles.

But instead of film Christ’s life, Gibson chose to film his suffering and death of Christ, in all its brutal glory. And it is brutal. For two hours, Jesus is tortured and beaten to death - the only relief coming when Gibson flashes back to brief scenes of Jesus’ life
and ministry. The beatings are so shocking that even Pilate and his officers turn away in disgust when they see what their soldiers have done to Jesus. It’s this brutality that earned the film an “R” rating, one that parents should heed. No young child should see this film.

Gibson seems to revel in the bloodshed. He wants so much for the audience to see what Jesus suffered that he focuses on every blow, every drop of blood that’s spilled.

And Cavazel’s Jesus seems almost to relish the gruesome suffering. In one scene, he is beaten bloody with wooden rods till he can’t stand anymore, his body scarred and covered in welts. The soldier’s have worn themselves out with their efforts.

Then, like Sylvester Stallone’s ‘Rocky,’ Jesus staggers to his feet and fixes his gaze, almost daring the soldiers to flog him again. And they do, this time with a cat of nine tails that tears off most his flesh.

Gibson, a Traditionalist Catholic, places his hope in the suffering of Jesus. The resurrection is afterthought. For most of the film, Jesus is haunted the devil (played by Rosalinda Celentano), who tries to keep him from the cross. When he dies—the devil doesn’t celebrate. She shrieks in ear-splitting terror at his death, not his resurrection.

Many Christians have been devastated and reduced to tears by this film at test screenings. And that’s what Gibson wants his audience to feel. When they see Jesus being beaten, he wants them to think of Isaiah 53:5 - “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” When they see Jesus crucified, they’ll think of 1Timothy 2:6, “He gave his life as a ransom for many.”

And when they see the Jewish leader and the crowd mock Jesus, they’ll see themselves. They’ll see the way the sin in their lives condemned Jesus, that he paid the price for their shortcomings. That Jesus laid down his life for us all. It’s obvious that Gibson believes this. He put his money ($25 million, reportedly), his reputation, and his passion to this film.

What he’s made is a cinematic version of the Catholic stations of the cross, a devotional meditation of the wounds of Christ. It’s an act of worship for him.

That’s why all the talk about the Passion being “the most important outreach event in 2000 years” as it’s been called misses the point. This is a film meant as worship, not as outreach. As devotion, not evangelism.

Still, despite Gibson’s best efforts, I left the film angry. Angry at that something so beautiful could go so wrong.

For one thing, the film gives no context, no reason why Jesus died. It starts so late in Holy Week that there’s no triumphal entry, no cleansing of the temple, no rebukes of the religious leaders. In Matthew’s account of Holy Week, Jesus acts like an Old Testament prophet, challenging those in power who subvert God for their own good. He calls Jewish religious leaders “hypocrites”; “snakes” and “a vipers’ brood”; “blind guides” and “blind fools”; and that’s just for starters. He incites the crowds against the chief priests, and so the chief priests seek to have him killed. There’s none of that in Gibson’s Passion.

Without this context, there’s no reason for Jewish leaders, especially the High Priest Caiphas (played by Mattia Sbragia) to want Jesus to die. Caiaphas comes across as a monster, a cruel, bloodthirsty man who watches smugly as Jesus is scourged and taunts Jesus from the cross. (In the gospels, the crowds taunt Jesus.) He also taunts Pilate (Hristo Shopov), who is portrayed as a sad, tortured soul, not the cruel governor he was in history.

And, inspired by Anne Catherine Emmerich’s book 'Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, Pilates wife become a heroine of sorts. After Jesus is scourged, she gives linen cloths to Mary in an act of sympathy or remorse. Most of the Romans save for the few thugs sent to crucify Jesus, come across sympathetically. Both Pilate and a centurion chastise their men for going too far in their punishment of Jesus.

But almost all the Jews come across as evil. While Jesus forgives them and makes it plain he is laying down his life willingly, the blame still seems to fall on them.

It’s here that the subtitles and the script seem to fail Gibson. His Jesus says all the right things, but Gibson’s images tell a different story. The temple guards are almost as brutal as the Romans—at one point they wrap Jesus in chains, including one around his neck, and toss him off a viaduct. Just before he hits the ground, they snap the chains. You can hear Jesus’ bones crack, and you seem him being crushed in the chains as he’s suspended in mid-air.

That’s not in Gospels, and the image undercuts Gibson’s message that Jesus gave his life willingly. In the Passion, the Jewish leaders and crowd pursue Jesus relentlessly until he is tortured, crucified, dead, and buried. And that’s the lasting image you see. Not Jesus’ forgiveness towards them, which is what Gibson wants us to remember.

In the end, Gibson’s passion for the suffering of Christ undermines his film. It distorts his vision of Jesus, who becomes someone who revel in his own suffering. It distorts the Gospel record, turning the Jewish leaders from enemies of Jesus into monsters.

And it comes close, for me, to undermining the incarnation. It’s not Jesus’ superhuman capacity for suffering and pain that saves us. It’s his humility. His willingness to give his life as a lamb to the slaughter. It’s that he casts aside his power to become small.
To become common. To become weak. Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross,” Paul writes in Philippians 2.

“Therefore,” Paul tells us, “God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

That’s the true power of the gospel and of the passion of Christ


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