Mel Gibson film triggers concerns, questions

Department of theology faculty challenge motives, accuracy of the movie The Passion of the Christ | April 20, 2004

An opinion piece about the film “The Passion of the Christ,” written by theology department chairman William Madges with input from members of the theology department, appeared in The Cincinnati Post on March 25. In the piece, Madges challenges some of the historical assumptions and interpretations made by filmmaker Mel Gibson and the conclusions some viewers might draw after watching the film.

“We wrote it because we felt we had a responsibility as theological educators to address some of the comments we’d heard pre-release and after the release of the movie, such things as this movie presents the history as it actually was, and a concern about how it portrayed Jesus’ relationship to his Jewish contemporaries,” Madges said.

After viewing the film together and discussing it afterward, they agreed on a set of questions people should ask themselves as they watch the film. The department's response to the film is:

As Christian theological educators, we—members of the theology department at Xavier University—write to express our concerns about Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.” We recognize many Christians have found the film to be a moving spiritual experience. We respect this, even as we encourage viewers to consider the following:

What image of God does the film convey?

The movie begins in Gethsemane, where Jesus accepts the agony that lies ahead of him as God’s will, and continues with scene after scene of the graphic torture of Jesus. Gibson focuses our attention on blood, flayed flesh and the sadism of Jesus’ tormentors.

Will some people leave the movie with the subliminal message that God desires and condones this violence? The particular version of atonement theology that Gibson employs is not the only legitimate interpretation of Christ’s passion in the Christian tradition. Moreover, atonement theology is dangerously flawed when, as in this case, it is not set within the content of Jesus’ life and teachings as a whole.

How does Gibson’s film compare to the historical record?

Publicity concerning the film has suggested that Gibson presents the facts “as they really were.” Many of the scenes in his film, however, are not found in any of the four Gospels, and the Gospels themselves were never intended as strictly historical documents. Rather, they offer a theological interpretation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Written between 66 and 100 CE (Common Era), they reflect the concerns of Christians of this period.

According to biblical scholars, for example, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate was not the reluctant executioner portrayed in the film, but a ruthless tyrant. The Gospel writers, living in the aftermath of Nero’s persecution of Christians, likely downplayed Pilate’s role in the crucifixion so as not to further incite Rome, placing the brunt of the responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jewish high priests.

What impression does the film create of Judaism and the Jewish people?

Gibson erroneously portrays the high priests not only as those who bear primary responsibility for Jesus’ death but also as approving onlookers who oversee each stage of Jesus’ torment.

Gibson has denied any anti-Jewish intention. The film, nonetheless, belongs to a tradition of Passion Plays established 1,000 years ago in Europe that functioned historically to incite mob violence against Jews and contributed to the climate of hatred that made the Holocaust possible.

The film does little to help viewers appreciate Jesus’ Jewish faith and reinforces traditional Christian anti-Jewish stereotypes, violating the commitment made by Christian churches in the aftermath of the Holocaust to reform the anti-Jewish dimension of our tradition and build new partnerships with the Jewish people.

We encourage Christian viewers to make connections with a local Jewish community and learn more about the tradition that was Jesus’ own faith.

How does the film relate to the suffering in our world today?

The horror that the film portrays did not end at Golgotha but continues to haunt human history: millions of Africans abducted or killed in the slave trade, estimated to range from 12 million to 100 million; 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust; 800,000 people massacred in the Rwandan genocide…and on and on.

The passion of Jesus Christ was a passion for the reign of God in which love triumphs over death, forgiveness triumphs over hatred, justice triumphs over poverty and oppression, and nonviolence triumphs over violence.

Why is it that after 2,000 years of Christianity, hatred, injustice and violence are still so prevalent in our society? What might we do to make more manifest the reign of love for which Jesus lived?