'The Passion' and the Culture Wars

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I suspect that I am one of the few evangelicals left who has not seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion, and I have not decided whether or not to go. This has nothing to do with the controversies surrounding the movie, as I don’t like to watch violent movies (unless they are pure escapism, such as the stuff starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I would pay to see "Gov. Arnold Terminates the California Legislature").

At the same time, I have been following the public discussion and, not surprisingly, some of the most important messages are being ignored. The Passion really is not about anti-Semitism or even how much violence is appropriate on the movie screen. It is about the modern culture war in the United States and how people on all sides miss the bigger picture.

As I have written elsewhere on this page, the culture war here is not simply about values and morality; it ultimately is a fight for control of the various entities of government that will give one group the power to impose its collective will on others. For the most part, the cultural left has held the upper hand, but that does not mean that the Religious Right has pursued the path of liberty. Far from it; where the Religious Right has gained power, we also have seen the growth of the state. As Paul Craig Roberts has noted many times, there is a very unholy alliance between the Religious Right and the Cultural Left which has served to destroy the fundamental "Rights of Englishmen" that for so long served as the basis of U.S. law. The Drug War and the expansion of federal criminal law, not to mention the exploding U.S. prison population bears out this contention.

In a recent article in First Things, "The Enemies of Religious Freedom," James Hitchcock of St. Louis University pointed out the writings of leftists such as Stanley Fish, David A.J. Richards, John Rawls, Cass Sunstein, Ted Jelen, and James Dwyer all have forcefully advocated that the state not only should force all religious thought to the realm of one’s own mind. Furthermore, these writers have argued that government should have the power to interfere with religious education of children, even to the point of removing children from the home of parents who insist on teaching Christianity to their young ones. (In other words, they have advocated the kind of system that prevailed in the former Soviet Union and still is in existence in other communist countries.)

Nor is this kind of thinking confined to the campuses of colleges and universities. The late Justice William O. Douglas, mistakenly called "libertarian" by some, believed that about 90 percent of people were not fit to be parents, and it was the role of the state to force its own brand of civil religion upon children. In his dissent in the Yoder case of 1970 in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of Amish parents not to be forced to enroll their children in public high schools, Douglas declared that the Amish had no right to "impose" their own belief upon their children, and that the state by forcing the parents to act against their will would enable children to be able to experience "the new and amazing world of diversity which we have today." These are chilling words and there is no doubt that Douglas was not the only person with power and influence to think this way.

At one level, the culture war is about the rights of parents to bring up their children in the way they believe best, and I do not blame Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, for using the political apparatus to fight against the political and intellectual classes from snatching away these rights. Indeed, if the extent of Christian political involvement were to emulate the Apostle Paul’s appeal to Caesar for the right to freely practice our faiths, I would be part of that movement instead of being a critic.

However, the Religious Right has sought to emulate the secular left in the various attempts to gain political power. I have detailed elsewhere the various things that the Right has done which both are counterproductive and ultimately destructive of religious freedom. Thus, I do not wish to plow that ground again.

Yet, there is something else in the story of the Christian Gospels, something that people can understand whether they see The Passion or any other movie on Christ. Paul wrote that the crucifixion of Christ was a stumbling block to Greeks, Jews, and Romans, for it portrayed God as being willing to suffer the ultimate humiliation and death. People always have wanted their gods to be heroes, from Zeus to Apollo to Allah to Jehovah. Those gods are strong and never would submit to such humiliation from mortal men.

The message of The Passion is more than a message of the inhumanity of men towards each other. No mere man would suffer such pain and torture voluntarily, yet the message of the Gospels is that Christ did just that to pay for the sins of those who would not nor could not do such a thing themselves in order to gain the Kingdom of Heaven.

One thing that constantly strikes me about the life of Christ is not just his humanity, but also his humility. After all, the purpose of crucifixion was not simply to kill someone, but to utterly humiliate that person in the process. Had death been the sole purpose of such execution, then the same thing could have been accomplished by a swing of the sword. Instead, the Romans sought to make sure that the person being executed by crucifixion knew that the state had the ultimate power to work its awful will, a message not lost by others who lived under Roman domination.

What seemed like an awful defeat to those who watched Jesus die, and by those who killed him, was in reality Jesus’ victory over sin, with his resurrection three days later being his victory over death. Jesus’ very humiliation, torture, and violent death were in fact the very tools of his victory. The power of Rome in the end meant nothing.

The Christian writer Philip Yancey in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace? notes that in response to the Catholic Church’s objection to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Eastern Europe in 1945, Josef Stalin replied, "And how many divisions does the Pope have?" In the end, it was neither Stalin nor the U.S.S.R. that had the final victory in Eastern Europe, but the Church itself.

I believe there is a much more important lesson to be learned from The Passion than what is being discussed in the salons and editorial pages. If the Gospels are true — and I believe they are — then no matter what the state does to Christians or anyone else, in the end it really has no power at all, except what God chooses to give it at any appointed time.

The ultimate foolishness of conservative Christians is not belief in Christ, as the intellectuals and political classes would have us believe. No, the ultimate foolishness is the belief by too many who should know better that voting in enough "good people" or grabbing the reins of the courts and the law is the ultimate victory, one that will enable them to "win" the "Culture War." Christ rejected all of those things, yet reigns and will come again to judge the world.

Whatever humiliations and troubles the political classes and their intellectual allies can bestow against Christians, they cannot take our faith away from us, nor can they rob us of eternal life. Yes, by all means, appeal to Caesar. Yes, by all means look to make our case in the public square. Yes, by all means, resist the state when it seeks to make us do what is wrong.

However, in the end, the powers that the state holds, no matter how awesome they may seem to be at this time, ultimately are nothing before God. That is something we should never forget, and a truth that we should never give up.

March 11, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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