The Passion and the Message

I must confess that the cultural and commercial hype surrounding Mel Gibson'

I must confess that the cultural and commercial hype surrounding Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was enough to keep me from wanting to see it. But several friends persuaded me to see and write about the film. They were convinced it could be a watershed in popular "Christology," a milestone in how people view Jesus. One pastor was particularly startled and offended by the claim of the Passion marketers who described the film as "the greatest outreach opportunity in 2,000 years."

What message is this "milestone" conveying to the world about Jesus, the gospel, and Christian faith? I decided to see the film.

At a weekday matinee, the theater was less than half full. I kept watching the reactions of the two women sitting in front of me. These were middle-aged African-American women and, I learned in talking with them afterwards, pentecostal Christians deeply committed to their faith. They were profoundly moved by the film. "I read my Bible every day," one told me, "but just to see it touched my heart." Her reaction is centuries old. The power of the famous medieval passion plays came from making Christian doctrine and history visual and visceral. Gibson has resurrected an old and very Catholic tradition and brought it to the silver screen. And he is touching many hearts.

But what is lacking in the movie is the context of the passion. The painfully brief "flashbacks" in the film are the saving graces. But they are much too brief. When the film shows a glimpse of Jesus teaching the "beatitudes" from his Sermon on the Mount—"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’"—my thirsty heart reached toward the screen. But after 15 seconds it was over. No! No! I silently screamed. Show us more. There is so much more. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the peacemakers. The movie includes a few more flashbacks to the Last Supper, where Jesus tells his disciples to "love one another, as I have loved you." But it is always quickly back to the liturgy of agony.

Where is the central message of Jesus—the coming of a new order called the kingdom of God which would turn everything about our lives and the world upside-down? Where is the way of living he brought and told us to follow in a new community that breaks down all our former barriers? Where is the personal, moral, economic, and political transformation that this new king and new kingdom usher in? And why were the religious and political rulers so afraid of it? Those questions never get answered in the movie. We witness a gruesome account of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, watch him die a hideously painful death, and then get a whiff of the resurrection. But there is not enough of the kingdom of God. We see the suffering and are moved by it but can miss the message. It is the spiritual connection between the two which is at the heart of Christ’s passion. To diminish the message for the suffering is not just artistic license; it is a mistake.

I never really heard much about the kingdom in my evangelical church growing up; everything was about the atonement. And that’s what I fear in Gibson’s film. The passion of Christ makes no sense apart from the kingdom of God. After all, why was Jesus killed? I asked that question once at an evangelical Christian college. They all were befuddled by the question. Finally, one student gave the stock answer, "To save us from our sins?" That’s fine for a theological answer, for the consequence of the cross of Christ. All Christians believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the key to our salvation. But that is not a historical answer. Do we really imagine Pontius Pilate thinking that he needed to execute Jesus to save the Christians from their sins? Jesus of Nazareth was executed as a seditious criminal by the political and religious authorities of his day who believed him to be a threat to their power. His kingdom, his teaching, his claims to truth, and his identity as the Son of God were all judged as dangerous to the powers that be. They still are.

To focus on the suffering of Christ apart from an understanding of the teaching of Jesus and his way of the kingdom not only misses the central point of the gospels, but separates personal piety from public discipleship. And that goes right to the issue of "outreach" around The Passion. The Gibson movie is causing ordinary people to ponder and discuss the issue of faith, and that is indeed a powerful and hopeful sign. Let us hope those conversations take us not just to the gory details of Jesus’ suffering but rather to the transformational power of his message.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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