The Great Wheel of the Church Yearhas turned to Lent ? and for the first time in my lifetime there is a loud, public conflict about Good Friday. The argument is about the movie, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson?s cinematic version of the Stations of the Cross, which are more properly called the Passion.
First, if you don?t already know, the word passion comes from a Greek word, pathos, that means suffering. So the passion of Christ refers to the final twelve hours of his life, after the Last Supper, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane and ending at the Cross.
And second, Jewish people have a right to be very anxious about how this story is told, because, for centuries, right up into the 20th century, in Eastern Europe Good Friday was a day when gangs of Christian men would get drunk, catch Jews, beat them, rape them, or kill them, taking vengeance ? and blood sport ? in the name of Jesus. This behavior was, and is, completely despicable. It is a serious misunderstanding of the gospel to blame Christ?s death on the Jews. The death of Jesus is an occasion wherein we may find our way to Easter with Jesus, it is not an occasion for blame, vengeance or anger. If we choose hatred and anger, we miss the point. And we end up like the unrepentant thief beside him for whom Jesus could do nothing, rather than the one to whom he promised paradise that day.
Mel Gibson, a conservative Catholic, venerates the tradition of the Stations of the Cross, and also venerates the use of ancient languages (his group still has Mass in Latin). So the film is a bit remote from the ear in that it is subtitled in English but spoken in Aramaic and Latin. But visually it is so intimate, and so overwhelming in its portrayal of suffering, that many are crying Unfair!, while others are crying Praise God!
I went to the film with a mix of emotions. I lament the public battle, because I wish there were more films about Jesus, and for that matter, Moses, Elijah, Buddha, Mohammed, and this kind of battling discourages people from trying to tell those stories. The arts have always been a pulpit for the laity, telling versions of the faith that theologians decry. My sympathies are with the laity -- may they keep on creating.
But the Stations of the Cross are not part of my tradition, several of them are not part of the biblical account (the three falls of Jesus, and Veronica wiping his face with her veil), so I thought I might not like the film.
And I don?t like violent films. But I have liked some other Mel Gibson films despite their violence (Braveheart and Signs). And our culture is awash in violence, in movies (all of Schwartzenegger?s; and Monster, an Oscar nominee this year; and Hannibal Lector, remember him?). We are a violent nation, in school killings, on the streets of our cities, in the brutality endured by many women, children, and poor people, and in the chronic warfare in which we all participate through the daily news. So I felt that Mel Gibson?s movie was being unfairly singled out for violent content. The gospels do not glorify violence. But Christ does endure violence.
I haven?t finished thinking about what I saw yet. The film is very bloody, and not for children. But Mel Gibson made me look at what it means to flay someone, a deatail I too easily skip over when I read it. As I watched, I thought of James Byrd, the black man in Jasper, Texas, who was offered a ride home in July 1998 by three white men who then tied him to the bumper of their truck and dragged him for miles till parts of his body littered the highway. And I thought of Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student, lured into a truck by two men who then tortured, beat and pistol-whipped him, and tied him to a split rail fence along a highway and left him to die in October 1998. And I thought of the brutality of war. And it came to me that this savage inhumanity happens all the time, all over the world. What Jesus offers in his passion is his enduring love -- not even this can separate him from us, and us from the love of God that is in him. And the love that is in him is stronger than this, stronger than death.
The film correctly portrays the Roman soldiers as brutal monsters. Pilate is clearly in charge of these brutes, they work for him, he knows what they do. At one point Pilate says to Jesus, who has already been whipped, "If it were up to me I wouldn?t crucify you." Meaning he wants Jesus to blame the Jews. And Jesus won?t have it. He looks him right in the eye and says "You have no power over me other than what was given to you by the one who is above you. And that?s the one who has the major blame for what is happening to me." Well, the one who was over Pilate was Caesar. It?s a small acknowledgement of the horrible politics of the Roman Empire in which the Jewish leaders and Jesus and the people were all caught.
Throughout the film the Tempter, an androgynous figure who begins as a woman and later is unmasked as a man, glides like a shadow around everyone. Jesus, after his baptism, struggled with the Tempter and won. That story ends with the words, "and the Tempter left him until a more opportune time." Good Friday is the opportune time. I thought this part of the film worked well.
There is a lot more to Jesus than the story of the Passion. Why Gibson made a film just about the Stations of the Cross, I don?t know. But I learned the deep spirituality of the Stations, which I had not known. It isn?t my spirituality. In a nation that pursues happiness as an inalienable right, the value of suffering is hard to accept. The contemplation of it is harder still. Yet that value remains one of the claims of Christian tradition.
Rev. James Forbes, Pastor of Riverside Church (UCC) in New York City, says about the film: This movie is a mirror. At the end, it will show each of us what is inside us. It can bring out the best that is in us and the worst. Don?t take the children. Do take someone you can talk it over with afterwards. Watch yourself. And come to your own conclusion.
Rev. Nancy Rockwell
Tabernacle Congregational Church UCC