Given the superficial character of so much contemporary film and media, it is no wonder that Mel Gibson’s new film “The Passion of the Christ” has attracted great interest and large audiences. We have a spiritual hunger that our commercialized media culture cannot fill.
Roman Catholics are among those who have flocked to the theatres to see Gibson’s movie, and some have found “The Passion” to be a moving spiritual experience. Yet even as we must be respectful of those who find the film to be a good experience, we should also be aware of the various ways in which the film can be theologically misleading or even harmful.
First, the film focuses on the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life with special attention to the brutality of His arrest, scourging and crucifixion. The few verses in the Gospels that explicitly describe Jesus’ suffering have been developed into entire scenes in which His flaying and scourging are portrayed in graphic detail.
Christians should indeed be aware of the cruelty the Roman Empire inflicted on Jesus and other Jews. If one leaves the theater, however, with the impression that Jesus’ suffering on account of sin is a sufficient summary of the Christian story, one will not know the full meaning of the Gospels. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes, it is the entire life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is a revelation from God and a mystery of redemption.
Jesus the Christ is redemptive as the incarnation of God’s love, as the one who inaugurates God’s Kingdom by healing the sick, reconciling the divided, breaking the cycle of retributive violence, welcoming the excluded and ostracized, proclaiming an era of liberty and justice for the oppressed, and breaking the bonds of sin and death through His resurrection. Yet Gibson gives very little attention to Jesus’ life, teaching and resurrection.
At best, his emphasis on Jesus’ bruised, bloodied and torn flesh offers only a truncated version of the Gospel. At worst, the film may suggest a sadistic theology of a punitive God who is appeased by the unspeakable torments of His Son. This is not merely an abbreviation of the gospel story; it is a serious distortion of the good news of Jesus the Christ.
Second, the film’s portrayal of the Jewish crowds and high priests, who bear primary responsibility for Jesus’ death in Gibson’s rendition, is deeply troubling. Catholic viewers should be aware that the church has been engaged in a process of reforming the anti-Jewish dimensions of our tradition, which, we now recognize, contributed to the hatred that made the Holocaust possible. Since the second century, Christians wrongfully accused the Jewish people of the murder of Jesus, and European Passion Plays sometimes resulted in retributive mob violence against Jews. The collective charge against the Jews of deicide was finally repudiated by the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate. In Gibson’s film, however, Caiaphas demands Jesus’ death, proclaiming in Aramaic, “His blood be upon us and our children!” Even though this line is not translated in the film’s English subtitles, the charge of collective blood guilt is evident in Gibson’s portrayal of the hateful crowds and high priests. Moreover, it is not clear that this line won’t appear in the subtitles when the movie is shown in Europe and elsewhere, where there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
In 1988, the United States Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion” to assure that such dramatizations do not foster antipathy to Jews or Judaism. Gibson’s film is flagrantly inconsistent with these guidelines.
The guidelines, for example, require that one take account of historical scholarship that has found Pontius Pilate to be a ruthless tyrant who crucified hundreds of Jews without trial and who charged Jesus with sedition. In Gibson’s film, Pilate is portrayed as a sensitive ruler who is forced, against his wishes, to hand Jesus over to death, while the Jewish high priests are presented as onlookers who approve each stage of Jesus’ torture. The bishop’s guidelines also require that dramatizations convey that “Jesus was and always remained a Jew,” but this is not evident in Gibson’s film. In fact, Gibson not only continues to employ anti-Jewish motifs repudiated by the Catholic Church, he also adds harmful new layers to the tradition. Gibson incorporates into his film material from the starkly anti-Jewish visions of the German Augustinian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich.
Gibson identifies himself as a “traditionalist Catholic,” part of a group that separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms and theology it rejected. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nostra Aetate, and the bishops’ “Guidelines for Dramatizations of the Passion” do not concern Gibson. Yet Catholics who are concerned about authentic portrayals of the Gospel and the future of Christian-Jewish relations have good reason to be troubled by Gibson’s movie.
There is indeed a dire need for film that treats Christianity in a serious and meaningful way. There are other movies one may turn to for spiritual inspiration. The films “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story” tell the stories of Catholics living out their discipleship to Christ amidst oppression, war and poverty. “Weapons of the Spirit” is a documentary about a Protestant community in France that rescued Jews from the Holocaust, convinced that it was their Christian responsibility even at the risk of their own lives. In these films, we may find food for the soul and testimony to the redemptive love of the God of Jesus Christ.
(This review originally appeared in The Catholic Telegraph. It reflects the consensus of some members of the department of theology.)