Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ

Written by G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.

Christian or not, anyone who decides to see this movie should by now be properly forewarned. Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ is relentlessly violent, violent, violent. Sadism reigns in the form of jeering, whiplashing Roman soldiers who so brutalize the body of Jesus prior to his arrival at Golgotha as to make the crucifixion secondary. As one medical expert commented after seeing the film, "Jesus would have already been dead before they hung him on the cross." The movie is an excruciating, up-close presentation of the relentless torture of the innocent Jew, Jesus, who, as the lyrics from another persecuted group of people in history moan, "never says a mumblin' word."

Millions of viewers are flocking to this Hollywood rendering of the death of Jesus. They testify that the suffering of Jesus on the screen has made their own faith more real, somehow more believable and authentic. Some are saying that the movie will  "change their lives forever," when they just saw the movie day before yesterday. Whatever else the film has or has not accomplished, it has caused a tidal wave of public attention and response, much of it from sincere followers of Jesus who claim that the movie helps them see more deeply into the meaning of Jesus' death for themselves and the rest of the world.

On the other hand, many other faithful Christians who have been steeped in the stories of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are scratching their heads. What's the point? Many who every year during the Christian season of Lent meditate upon the last hours of Jesus life don't want to see this movie. They say "no thanks" to Mel Gibson's gory interpretation of the passion of Jesus. They keep their $7.50 in their pockets and wait for the public roar to cease. Some say they already know that the crucifixion of the God-man Jesus was a bloody horror, exposing the depth of human sin. It's in "The Book."

Others suspect that Gibson's particularly vicious rendering of the suffering of Jesus and those who respond to it are mistaking passing feelings of dread and disgust— like those generated in the darkened cinema—for authentic religious affections of awe and contrition like those sometimes experienced in Christian worship. Jesus himself states, "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

What's going on here? Questions can be tossed in both directions. Do they secretly like the violence, all those who laud this gruesome re-telling of the death of Jesus? Is their faith really built upon a vacuum of feeling waiting to be filled by mega-doses of vicarious pain? On the other hand, are those who prefer to stay away from the movie just too callous or lukewarm to really admit the depth of Jesus' suffering? Do they fear seeing and feeling just how cruel humans can be to the one who came to inaugurate the reign of peace? Perhaps Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is really one more stick of dynamite tossed into the North American culture wars.

Something is missing as far as I can tell. That something is the very thing that is absent from this latest cinematic rendering of the suffering and death of Jesus—life. That's right—life. Somewhere along the line those who take the time to truly read Christian scripture, to immerse themselves in the gospel story as recounted distinctly and for varying theological purposes by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, learn that death and life go together. There is an horrific death, to be sure, in the story of Jesus and his followers. But that death is preceded by a radically new way of life that Jesus called the Kingdom way—a way of compassion for the broken, hospitality for the outsider, blessedness for the poor. The sounds of Jesus' suffering are so loud and long in this movie that they completely drown out the equally important invitation to new life that runs straight through the Christian story.

This movie expends so much energy portraying the wounds and innocent suffering of Jesus that the real climax of the Christian story—the resurrection of Christ—all but evaporates from the screen. The movie drives so inexorably toward convincing us of the brutality of Jesus' death that nothing is left over when the resurrection comes. A deflated burial cloth, a new face, free from bloody bruises, a step out into the light. This is a gross distortion of the Christian faith. As significant as the suffering of Jesus is, Christians place final hope not in his death but upon his resurrection. Suffering yields to liberation. Death becomes the doorway to joyful new life. The fullness of life in Christ is symbolized by a cork-popping banquet, a feast at God's welcome table, not a bloody crown of thorns.

To be honest, the movie is like an extended nineteenth century revival sermon that is long on judgment and short on grace. Gibson seems infinitely fascinated by the many faces of the suffering of Jesus' but barely attracted to the newness that God creates in the resurrection of Christ. The problem is not that Gibson goes to such great lengths to represent Jesus's death. It's that he makes such little effort to represent the significance of Jesus' life before and after death.

Faith today, as always, for those who wish to know and follow Jesus Christ will not be fulfilled by sitting in a darkened cinema and staring in horror at the bloody visage of a Hollywood Jesus (despite many misguided assertions of " historical accuracy"). Faith will be fulfilled when those who take seriously the resurrection of Christ decide to leave death and suffering behind and enter into the "joy of God's Kingdom," where the poor are blessed, the hungry are filled, and the prisoner is set free.

Copyright ©2004 Dr. Lee Ramsey