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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

The Passion of the Christ
A review by Diane Reynolds

By the time I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I had learned the film was either a transcendent, life-changing experience or a heavy-handed blood bath.

Nobody has argued that the movie, depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, isn't violent. Therefore, I posed the question: would I find the violence necessary to the story or excessive? I also asked myself whether this movie would change how I look at the world or my faith and whether it was anti-semitic.

There are many things to be said in favor of The Passion. The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful. The story itself holds immense power. I find myself running through my mind the many mesmerizing scenes Gibson consciously modeled on old master paintings.

In flashbacks, Gibson inserted key teachings of Christ: forgive your enemies, love God and people, and serve others humbly. James Caviezel performed the difficult role of Jesus with dignity, authority and grace. Maia Morgenstern did a compelling job as Jesus's mother, Mary.


And yet ... I had problems with the movie.

Throughout my life, people have spoken to me about how "disgusting" they find the cross, especially when it holds a writhing, bleeding Christ. When I was a child, I saw many of these bleeding Jesuses in museums and would also spend much time studying a history book which contained a photo of a black man who'd been lynched.

The black and white photograph showed the man's thin arms tied back with ropes that were stretched out behind him, leaving his mutilated torso vulnerable and exposed. His face was twisted in anguish.

In my mind, the two images, Christ on the cross and the lynched man, superimposed. The lynched man became Christ. I understood that, yes, both the cruxifiction and the lynching were disgusting and abhorrent. Both were instruments of terror, meant to cow others who might otherwise cross an invisible line into dissent. To run and hide from a crucifixion or a lynching out of fear or disgust, as the disciples initially did, gives the oppressor the power to intimidate. We triumph over violence when we face it and refuse to let it influence how we act.

To grasp the point of the passion story it is absolutely crucial to face the violence and suffering Jesus endured. A core message of the New Testament is that Christians triumph over brutality by having the courage to face it, no matter how bad it is. The passion story pits the power of the Roman empire against the power of Christ's message of non-violent obedience to God. Jesus modeled for us what the Quakers call "speaking truth to power," even when speaking that truth meant torture and death. Lying would have saved him when death was imminent; Jesus chose truth. Pilate is mystified that Jesus would put faith in God and obedience to God ahead of suffering, torture and death. Jesus was uncompromising in his obedience - and in his defiance of earthly authority. He submitted to God, not to Rome.

All that being said, I found the violence in The Passion excessive. I don't argue that violence is not appropriate to the subject, merely that Gibson overdid it. After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the guards beat Jesus until one of his eyes turns purple and swells shut. It is this distorted - and distracting - face that we watch while Jesus is on trial. Later, Jesus is scourged by Pilate's men. His hands are chained and he is brutally beaten by gleeful guards wielding cat-o-nine tails until his back is a bloody mess. If this alone is not horrific enough, the guards then bring heavier, spiked instruments to beat him with. Finally, they unshackle his wrists ... but no, it's not over yet! They lay him on his lacerated back and scourge his front.

Christians have rightfully argued that many movies display similar violence without raising the kind of uproar greeting The Passion; this is a reason to decry that Hollywood violence, not excuse Gibson's excess.

Discomfort with Peace

Much ink has been spilled about why Gibson's movie is so violent. I would suggest that Gibson's violence emerges from his discomfort with his hero's pacifism, as if splattering enough blood across the screen might obscure the central fact that Jesus never fights back.

Jesus's non-violence and lack of vengeance are completely contrary to almost every movie coming out of Hollywood, and contrary to the warrior culture in which we are immersed.

It's hard to imagine any other script not being rewritten to allow the hero, dead or alive, to break free and wreak vengeance on his captors. I worry that the hard, uncompromising and radically non-secular nature of Jesus' message - that you forgive your enemies no matter what and trust in God to make it right - will be lost under the blood.

Christians have also argued that we must see this graphic display of violence so that we can fully understand how much Jesus suffered. This view alarms me. Do we suffer a cultural absence of imagination? Has the violence in our culture ratcheted so high that we need this level of ultra-violence to "get" that Jesus suffered?

Throughout the movie, I found myself saying "earth to Mel: less is more." In my heart, I fear the violence that saturates this film will reinforce in the minds of non-believers the idea that Christianity is a sick, twisted religion that feeds on suffering and guilt.

I saw the film with Janet King, a Jewish woman with a deep interest in Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue. She was concerned - and I share this concern - that while the movie was faithful to the gospel account, those who are inclined to think the Jews killed Jesus will find that view reinforced by the film.

Gibson made the movie he wanted to make, but there is a bigger picture. Whether you are a believer or not, there is no question Jesus triumphed in his death. For the secular world, his triumph is that he became, inexplicably, the biggest superstar of all time. The Christian world triumphs through the resurrected Jesus. We get two minutes of this in the film, where a miraculously healed, living Jesus complacently walks from the tomb. This is part of the win, but the bigger part for those of us left on earth is that his disciples finally understood and began to live his message. A resurrected Jesus without followers would be worth little. Luckily, they grasped the new paradigm in behavior that he modeled and began to imitate it. In the book of Acts, Jesus' disciples move from fear, despair and secrecy to boldly proclaiming Jesus' message. They are arrested and told not to talk about Jesus. The next day they are out again talking about Jesus. They are beaten and told not to talk about Jesus. The next day they are out again talking about Jesus. Some of them are killed and others come up and speak the same truth.

They are killed by the thousands and more spring up. This is the legacy. This is the triumph. Without ever perpetrating violence or descending to its level, they refuse to be stopped.

Sadly, this movie did not enhance my understanding of scripture. In saying this, I hope I have missed something crucial and that my Christians brothers and sisters are not merely following a party line in referring to the movie as a transcendent experience. Sadly, I worry that this is a movie that would be, in my opinion, incomprehensible to somebody unfamilar with the Christ story.

What I have not missed is the power of the gospel to command the attention, if not the comprehension, of our culture. I hope the box-office success of this film will encourage sequels that will stir our souls.

[Diane Reynolds is an active attender at Patapsco Friends Meeting in Ellicott City, MD, and Co-Coordinator of Friends in Christ ministry. Professionally, she is a reporter for the Laurel Leader. She lives with her husband and three children in Columbia, Maryland.]

For Bill Samuel's ( Webservant) review of the film, see his Web Journal. For more Quaker views on The Passion of the Christ, see The Passion Discussion at Barclay Press' Conversation Cafe.

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