Word is going around fashionable circles that Mel Gibson’s “Passion” blames the Jews, or some Jews, for Christ’s passion and death on the Cross.
Many of Gibson’s defenders, even some of his collaborators, have gone out of their way to insist that they only want to tell the story of Christ’s final hours on earth. In fact, they have even tried to “adjust” the content of the film to accommodate the views of their attackers.
They’re wasting their time.
The plain truth, of the Gospels and of the controversy that has surrounded Christianity ever since Christ’s death and resurrection, is simple. If a person does not believe the Gospel to be the word of God, the only alternative is to find it offensive. Very offensive. Fundamentally offensive. And for good reason.
It is offensive.
Here’s the rub: if you don’t accept the truth of Scripture, you might read it as literature, or as cultural history, or poetry, or something. If you do, you’re likely to read the Passion account in any of the four Gospels and conclude that many Jews of Jesus’s time were tired of having him blast them as selfish, prideful hypocrites.
His attacks were certainly effective: the word “Pharisee” remains to this day in our language as proof of the staying power of Christ’s unlovely depiction. So the unbelieving reader might logically conclude that these reactionary, vindictive Pharisees did Jesus in, with the timely help of a Roman procurator, an angry mob, and some sadistic soldiers.
Modernists nowadays view Jesus as a genial figure, a loving guy, better probably than the rest of us, really a bearer of “truth against power,” kinda like Anita Hill. Well, the Gospels pretty well spell it out: the powers that were didn’t enjoy Christ’s messing around with their little deal, not at all. Too many average folks were swarming to proclaim him King, even Messiah — which a lot of Jews really didn’t believe in all that much anyway.
Of course a lot of half-hearted “Christians” — of all denominations — don’t really buy into it either.
Put yourself in their shoes. Here’s what you’ve got to believe if you take the Gospel seriously:
- There is a God. He created you. You, and your parents, all the way back to your first parents, Adam and Eve, offended Him, and sinned against him, succumbing to selfish pride. Sin lost us paradise and brought on death.
- You are a sinner, and you are headed to Hell — an eternity of suffering the pain of the loss of God, for whose company you were created (and for no other end) — unless you accept the spiritual truth of the Gospel and embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer.
- Yes, the historical account of the Gospel has the Jews and the Romans conspiring to kill Christ, and being glad of it: “That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this they had been enemies.”
- But the spiritual dimension of the Gospel teaches us that God sent His only begotten Son to save us from sin, and to open the doors to salvation for everyone on earth, Jew and Greek, even barbarians, to the ends of the earth.
- Furthermore, Christ wasn’t “killed by the Jews,” or by anyone else. He laid down His life of His own will. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own free will.” No one “killed” Christ. Not the Jews, not Pilate, not the Roman soldiers, whatever language they conversed in.
- The forgiveness of sin was the purpose of Christ’s redemptive mission, and every sinner bears the blame for the Crucifixion. Christ would have died for you, if you were the only sinner in history.
This is merely arms-length analysis. You don’t have to be Christian to understand it (although you can become one if you embrace it and believe it, experience a Pauline “metanoia” and clothe yourself in the garment of Jesus Christ).
Why is this so hard to understand in the modern secular world we live in — as an intellectual exercise, putting aside faith for the moment?
Well, picture yourself a secular fellow. You know a little about the Bible, enough to know that you don’t “believe” it. Yet you also know that millions, perhaps billions, of people do believe it.
So where do you stand with those folks? Whatever they think of themselves (which is no concern of yours, you’re a very modern sort of chap, really, live and let live), these people actually believe that YOU are a sinner. That YOU are headed for Hell unless you repent. That, far from being King of the Hill, as Thomas Hobbes, Larry Flynt, and countless others would have it, you are, well, sinful slime, nothing, without God. Why, you can’t even say something true unless the “Holy Spirit” guides you to say it!
There you are, they’re calling you pond scum, and you’re seething, mad as Hell (oops!) at these presumptuous, parading holier-than-thou types who are telling YOU how sinful YOU are — and they don’t even know you!
If there weren’t an Anti-Defamation League out there already, by golly, you’d sure want to go out and start one. And with good reason. Why, some of these people might convince your friends, perhaps even members of your own family, that you are a “sinner,” and turn them against you. Your whole little world, which you had spent a lifetime constructing far away from any aroma of religion (unless it happened to be pagan), might come tumbling down. It isn’t “live and let live” any more. It’s do or die. As Hobbes said, “kill or be killed.”
Now the Christian might quickly respond, “Wait a minute, I’m the greatest of sinners. I need salvation too, and I am only so powerfully grateful to Jesus because my sins are so great. I am no better than you. I am worse, a craven sinner who deserves only an eternity in the deepest pit of Hell. God loves you just as He loves me. Repent. Love Him back.”
To the ears of our properly secular fellow, all these words would be no more comforting than Christ’s words were to Pontius Pilate. Like him, you’d probably want to wash your hands of the whole thing, after sending him off to his just reward.
The Christian notion of Christ’s very existence as the spotless Lamb of God offered in sacrifice for our sins — His very existence, you see — is an insult, an affront, even an attack, on the unbeliever, and the little world the non-believer has constructed to protect himself from it all.
After all, why should you celebrate “forgiveness” if you’ve got nothing to forgive? If you’ve done nothing wrong? If you have committed no sins? Or if you believe that someone else, not Christ, is the source of any forgiveness you might need?
This is the insult, the in-your-metaphysical-realty-face challenge that Christianity poses to every man, woman, and child in history. Either the Lord of History offers you salvation, and you celebrate, eternally and gratefully. Or some guy who might or might not have existed has some religiously-crazed followers who just drive you up the wall, and you wish they’d shut up.
“The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” — if you’re the original builders, under contract (“covenant”), you’re going to be offended by this — especially when you read that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Well, Mr. Foxman was named Abraham, not María Jesús, and you don’t have to be Jewish to understand why such a portrayal of orthodox Christian teaching might cause him a modicum of discontent. Even the apostles said, “This is a hard teaching.” More than once they wanted to abandon Christ. Even Peter denied Him. Three times. During the Passion.
Christians just have to re-learn, in every age, that, sooner or later, their faith is going to offend somebody. Why else would Christ have forewarned his followers, “Blessed are ye, when they revile you and persecute you, and speak every evil thing against you, falsely, on my account”?
And so it is. Christians who believe that God is so loving that His only Son came to die of His own free will so He could redeem all mankind — such believers are called unloving; Christians who believe the Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” are called untruthful. Christians who believe that no sinner is beyond forgiveness are not forgiven, but reviled, with names that vary with the age and the epoch, but always mean the same thing: “You don’t love, you hate. You don’t tell the truth, you lie. You aren’t humble, you’re proud. Your God doesn’t forgive, he punishes.”
After all, as Augustine’s City of God so clearly explains, Christians have to spend their entire lives among people who believe that, whoever killed Christ, they did the rest of the world a favor.
So are Christians to be silenced any time the truth might offend somebody?
Quite the contrary. Tell the world the whole truthful story, so at least the objectors will know what they’re rejecting.
All this teaches us a very simple truth, and both believers and non-believers must recognize it. Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, either happened or they didn’t. Believers cannot change the story, water it down, tell it selectively, or shrug off certain more “offensive” facets in order to please nonbelievers.
There are two reasons for this.
First of all, Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Nobody, believers or not, “owns the rights” to His story, and the right to amend it at will, or upon the demand of someone who might find it offensive. The truth is the truth, and that “hard teaching,” that metaphysical fact, cannot be changed by the whim of some contemporary fellow, however well-intentioned.
Second, and certainly less important but certainly pertinent: some non-believers will never be satisfied, no matter what changes are made in the details of the story or the manner of its telling. For it is not a painting, or a book, or a movie, but Christ Himself, the Alpha and the Omega, Redeemer of mankind, who is the problem. Not an iota can be changed. He is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever.”
Believers will nod their heads, non-believers will shake theirs. Fine. That’s the way of the world. But no human effort can shake the faith of the believer, and no fancy editing job will change the skeptic’s doubts.
When Martin Scorsese announced that he wanted to make a film of “The Last Temptation of Christ,” with several sexual episodes that departed from Kazantzakis’s original novel (and, of course, from Scripture), Mother Teresa wrote him a letter. “You are making this movie to make money,” she said. “Tell me how much money you want to make, and I will pay it to you. But do not make this movie.” As she told this story (in Callao, Peru, in August 1989), she made it clear that she deplored the falsehood being injected into the life of Christ by the whim of an “artist.”
In contrast, those who are most stridently attacking Gibson appear to object to the elements of his film which correspond faithfully to the account in Sacred Scripture.
Gibson has reached out constantly and openly to his detractors, to no avail. In contrast, Scorsese never even bothered to answer Mother Teresa.
Make your movie, Mel, and we will come.