Mel Gibson’s film of Jesus’ last hours is an intense experience. One sits for two hours watching Jesus be sadistically treated by his fellow men.
Race and ethnicity are immaterial to Gibson’s purpose. The overpowering message of the film is that Christ really suffered for man’s sins. A second powerful message is man’s inhumanity to man, a message identical to that of Holocaust museums.
One gasps at the sight of Jesus brutalized by the thugs sent by the priests to seize him. As shocking as these scenes are, they leave the viewer unprepared for the extreme cruelty of the Roman soldiers.
Jesus, in the manner of Galileo or anyone who dissents from orthodox opinion, is perceived as a threat to the hegemony of those who represent religious authority. The priests want the Roman governor to condemn Jesus to death.
The governor tries to solve the problem with a compromise. He has Jesus scourged instead of crucified.
The Roman soldiers are delighted to get their hands on a person whom they can sadistically torture, and they put their utmost effort into beating Jesus to death. The whipping scene is so horrific and lengthy that the viewer cannot escape confrontation with man’s inhumanity to man.
Jesus emerges a bloody pulp. The viewer has a short respite while the governor washes his hands of the affair. Then the beatings resume every step of the way as Jesus carries the cross to the crucifixion site. It is a drawn out journey, and long before it is over many in the audience are sobbing uncontrollably.
With each act of cruelty, the Roman soldiers become more gleeful. Brutality ratchets higher with the driving in of the nails and the crucifixion. By the film’s end, the viewer is exhausted, drained.
Never has a film portrayed such suffering. Gibson confronts believers with their unworthiness. "God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son."
The film transforms the words, "Christ died for our sins," from doctrine into searing personal emotional experience.
Controversy may make Gibson’s film a "happening" and draw a general audience to the most talked about movie of our time. People who are not attuned to the film’s religious message are likely to receive a message different from that which Gibson had in mind. They may see a story of a dissenter who paid for his dissent with his life. The unjust mistreatment of Jesus will bring home the cost of nonconformity and daring to speak truth to power. Many may emerge from the film with their courage weakened and with second thoughts about the wisdom of questioning authority.
For libertarians, the film confirms what they already know about power: Those who have it will abuse it, put their own interests first, and take no risks for the sake of justice.
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.