What role would I have played in The Passion? Not the movie, but the real-life drama. That’s what I thought about as I watched Mel Gibson’s spectacular, moving account of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life on Earth.
Would I have cheered as Christ was sentenced to death? Would I have laughed as he was tormented toward the cross? It’s scary to contemplate.
Gibson answered the question for himself. His only on-screen performance was of his arm and hand hammering the nail through Christ’s hand. In one small dramatic act, Gibson exposed Abraham Foxman’s and the Anti-Defamation League’s efforts to defame the biblical account of Christ’s death as anti-Semitic.
Gibson was saying, loud and clear, that he helped crucify his Lord and Savior. It was his actions, his sins. Christ was crucified by everyone’s sins. This story, quite obviously isn’t about Jews per se. It’s a story featuring Jews in lead roles, but it’s about every human being. That’s why when my teen-age daughter and I watched the movie Sunday night, there was a chorus of sniffling and crying all around us.
People understand that, even if the ethnic hate-mongers at the Anti-Defamation League don’t. Some columnists are trying to suggest, outrageously, that Gibson is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier. They are sounding increasingly bitter, increasingly desperate given the success of the movie and their own irrelevance.
Liberal critics of the movie were aghast at the violence portrayed in it. Well, we finally find a movie that is too violent for these critics. Not Kill Bill," which liberals celebrated as a hip and edgy film, but The Passion. Violence is too much for them if it is in service to a religious message they simply cannot stand.
The beauty of the film, beyond the magnificent imagery, fine acting and stunning photography, was the portrayal of the key action of our faith as a real event. This, I suppose, is a close portrayal of how the crucifixion and the hours leading up to it took place. As such, I watched and wondered. What would I have done?
That’s a central question. Would I have been among the throngs of religious people yelling, "Crucify him!"? Would I have been a Roman guard tormenting the Christ as he labored up the hill with the crucifix on his back? Or would I have simply been an onlooker, doing nothing, saying nothing, misunderstanding the significance of the event?
Would I have denied Christ to save my skin?
It was quite powerful to ponder such questions. Even more powerful to think about the likely answers.
Gibson’s portrayal of Mary was magnificent. She was real woman, laughing and interacting with her child in flashbacks. Can any parent imagine what it would be like to watch our child tortured in such a way? The pain would be unbearable. Mary’s suffering was immense.
I was pleased that evangelical Protestants have so freely embraced a movie that is not shy about its Marian intentions. It’s time all Christians treat the Mother of God with the honor she deserves. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a Jewish convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.)
Many nonbelievers no doubt couldn’t care less about the movie, one way or another. But the guardians of our secular culture reacted in such a hostile way that it reminded Christians of the relevance of the crucifixion and resurrection. In this culture, one can probably find elite defenders of anything short of a snuff film. But a serious, biblically accurate account of Jesus Christ’s last hours on Earth is beyond the pale.
I can’t recall any similar effort to shut down a movie, to destroy the reputation of a producer or to associate a project with the vilest half-truths and innuendoes.
Because the Gospel story still matters. It still offends. It still causes haters of the message to want to crucify, albeit figuratively, the messenger. Officialdom doesn’t care about unsophisticated TV evangelists. Mostly, such evangelists convince the world that Christianity is a joke. But Mel Gibson has clout, and he is using a medium well respected throughout American society. I think the ADL and its allies fear mass conversations, not outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
The film certainly is separating the wheat from the chaff. The first attempt to silence the film came after a stolen copy of an early script was sent to someone associated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He formed a committee of scholars, and a nun on the committee denounced the movie as anti-Semitic on national TV. The bishops formally apologized, but the scholars’ criticism sent Gibson and company reeling.
A friend of mine, a Benedictine nun, explains the trouble she had getting into early screenings. It was assumed, with good reason, that most nuns in America today would be hostile to the movie. That sounds counterintuitive, but it isn’t. In my writings about the left-wing direction of the modern church in America, I have heard from nuns who invariably are far to the left theologically and politically. (I wasn’t allowed into a screening because I am a journalist. I fully understand. I wouldn’t have let journalists in to a screening either.)
The Catholic church is now dominated in this country by "progressives." Our local diocese is hostile to expressions of the traditional Catholic faith. I have a photograph of the Bishop of Orange Tod Brown pulling a middle-aged woman up by the arm who was trying to bow before communion. He refused to give her communion unless she was standing.
The bishop and the diocese have been strangely tolerant of sexual deviants in their midst, but they absolutely cannot tolerate traditionalist expressions of the Catholic faith. So it was no surprise to me, although it was a surprise to many Catholics in Orange County, that the diocese spokesman attacked The Passion in the newspaper on the first day it was released.
"I saw a very tedious, slow-moving, graphic, violent motion picture," Fr. Joseph Fenton said in the Orange County Register. "If you are of the bent that feels that graphic suffering makes you feel the terrible sinner that you are and Jesus is saving you, then this is going to be a very big plus in your favor when you see the movie."
How snide and revealing. Actually, I would have been shocked had the diocese been supportive of Gibson’s act of faith.
In The Passion, the religious leaders were the ones who insisted that Christ be crucified. The average folks could be led one way or another. But religious leaders had created God in their own image. And they couldn’t stand to see the real God in their midst.
I don’t count the ADL among today’s religious leaders. The organization is an ethnic/religious interest group with its own misguided agenda. But many leaders in the Catholic church and other churches seem eerily similar to the Pharisees depicted in the movie. I don’t mean to cast stones, but it certainly seems that they have created a New Jesus to go along with their New Church.
This phony Jesus is always tolerant, always kind, never uttering a harsh word and never making any demands on his followers. In this phony church, everyone is OK just as they are. There is no sin, so there is no need for Christ to have suffered in such a way. That’s my theory why so many so-called Christian leaders are uncomfortable with the Christ portrayed accurately in Gibson’s movie.
To these New Church leaders, the big issues are temporal ones: gay rights, ending celibacy in the priesthood, liberal politics, social justice, etc. The Holy Church offends them. They cannot take the sight of the stations of the cross. They must move the tabernacle with the Eucharist to broom closets away from the altar lest anyone be unduly reminded of Christ’s real presence.
Yet despite the efforts to humiliate Gibson and his movie, the public is drawn to it. Money is only money, but the movie is wildly successful from a financial perspective. More important, it is having an unseen influence on those who see it.
On a side note, many Christians that I know lament the lack of Christian thinking in Hollywood. Gibson showed how to break the chokehold. It wasn’t easy. He was attacked and ridiculed. He financed the movie himself. He risked his career. One must be willing to suffer if one wants to effect genuine societal change.
His efforts were worth it. The movie is powerful, and the debate reminds us of Christ’s enduring relevance.
Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.