‘Passion’ invokes important debate

Jennifer Selvig

Jesus Christ was born to die.

That’s the real Christian story. God sent his son to Earth and allowed him to be persecuted and crucified to save the rest of the world from sin. And it just so happened that the manner in which he was killed was grisly – for most, it would be unbearably painful – and that the people largely responsible for his crucifixion were Jews and Romans.

But really, it didn’t matter who it was. It could have been, as one radio analyst said, Muppets who condemned him to death. Jesus still had to die, because that was what God wanted – what was prophesied in the Old Testament. Jesus’ sacrifice is the cornerstone of all Christian faiths, and the line in the sand dividing Christianity from Judaism.

Like a lot of other Christians, I saw Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” on Ash Wednesday and spent a significant amount of Thursday discussing it. “How was the movie?” required a 15-minute answer.

Simultaneously praised and loathed, the movie focuses on a small but important part of Jesus’ time on Earth. Talking with Christian, Jewish and agnostic friends, criticism seemed to focus on two things: overwhelming and/or unnecessary violence and gore, and perceived anti-Semitic overtones.

The violence is undeniable. It is the most violent movie I have ever seen. But that said, Gibson clearly felt compelled to tell the story through that paradigm.

The violence in “Braveheart” and “The Patriot” was gratuitous. “Passion’s” gore was more intense and more gut-wrenching, but in this scenario, it was justifiable. Gibson set out to make a movie about Jesus’ suffering and the horrible way he was treated; I give Gibson the benefit of the doubt that he felt called to tell this story and did not make it only because he loves to make violent movies.

From a purely artistic standpoint, Gibson achieved his goal. I left the theater feeling drained and angry at the cruelty with which Jesus was treated. And that’s where Gibson’s spirituality was conveyed: He wanted to elicit those feelings so people would understand what a truly amazing man Jesus was, and what an unmatchable sacrifice God was offering for his people.

Despite the agony of Christ’s torture, I was uplifted. The dialogue Gibson chose to give Jesus focused on three concepts: love for your enemy, forgiveness and the most important Christian concept, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), given in the movie in a flashback to the Last Supper. While more flashbacks might have made for a more watchable film, Gibson’s goal was not to retell Jesus’ life story.

Try as I might, and I was looking, I did not see anti-Semitism. Yes, the Jewish priest Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin were despicable characters, but so were the Romans who helped beat Jesus to a bloody pulp. According to Gibson’s main source, the Bible, the Jews called for Jesus’ death. If one wants to argue that the Bible is not historically accurate, that is a different gripe – but Gibson’s movie is rooted in faith, after all. I argue the film is a spiritually motivated, adapted screenplay.

So is this any different than blaming all whites for slavery? Whites were to blame, for sure. No one’s arguing about that. But I can’t help what my ancestors did, just as Jews can’t help what their ancestors did 2,000 years ago. And while Passion plays have historically led to anti-Semitic violence, I do not think that will be the case today.

Gibson set out to tell a story. He interpreted the Gospels, combined their accounts as he saw fit to best tell his story and made a movie. Artistically, I won’t fault him for that. Many others would have preferred to have him tell it differently, but that doesn’t change that I give Gibson kudos for making such a powerful, gutsy film. The combination of the beautiful ancient languages, haunting cinematography and emotionally charged message made it an experience I will never regret or forget.

For Christians, soul-searchers and film buffs curious about the hype, I recommend this film – but be prepared for the blood, and bring tissues. I won’t try to recommend it to Jews any more than my Jewish friends would ask me to observe Passover; my own faith and resulting bias make that inappropriate. But I won’t discourage them, either, and it won’t stop me from having interesting discussions with them.

For me, “The Passion of the Christ” was an intensely personal experience – but also one I wanted to share. Movies always make for good conversation, especially when they provoke volatile questions, just as when Jesus asked his disciple Peter (Luke 9:20): “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Jennifer Selvig welcomes comments at [email protected]