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I was raised Catholic but became a Protestant in college. Earlier I had been a victim of my father's abuse, and those experiences--my background in both Catholicism and Protestantism, as well as the abuse--color my response to the film.
As a Protestant, I believe that Jesus worked for justice. I also believe that pain is a price we pay for a new life in Christ--not an end in itself.
The shocking scenes of violence in The Passion , especially Christ's carrying the cross, did not offend me. I knew that none of this was found in the Gospels I consider normative (those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but I still remembered the "Dogma" lessons I received when I was growing up Catholic, so I could view the movie as a playback of my early religious instruction.
As I watched the film, I wondered at first why Mel Gibson felt it necessary to show all that pain. I had heard him say on a newscast that The Passion was designed to be shocking to a world that has become inured to scenes of violence. I concluded that the violence of the movie is the glue that helps us focus on The Passion .
When I came to adult religious studies both as a student and as a teacher, I discovered that whenever Jesus opened his mouth, he started a riot. Seminary students catch some of this zeal to change the world. Many clergy folk come out of seminary all fired up on Jesus, almost drunk on God. But within five years, we are preaching "bromide sermons" that, over the years, lead people away from the teeth of the Gospel. The Passion has us back in that "riot place" of Jesus' reality and out of the unreality of the Church. Perhaps it is this that stirs us up at our core. Christians know at some deep level that our faith in the Christ is based on a different reality than that of the Church. Instead of rejoicing when this awareness strikes, we are shocked, hurt, and crying. And that is not a bad thing. Maybe, just maybe, this film has helped us discover that Christ is in our midst!! Painful, yes, but so is childbirth.
Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary? Yes, but I often wonder for whom? For the Roman occupiers themselves? For the Sanhedrin? Possibly. The Sanhedrin could be compared to the Vichy French during the German occupation. Perhaps, like the collaborationists, they saw Jesus as a resistance leader that had to be put down. The violence of The Passion could be compared to the Klaus Barbie torture techniques used on Jean Moulin, head of the French resistance movement. The Sanhedrin's actions also remind me of those of Pope Pius XII during World War II. This pope agreed not to protest Hitler's actions in return for the lives of priests and nuns. How many know this story? The torture tactics of the SS and the Gestapo are equal to, if not worse than, the beatings in the Passion.
Perhaps The Passion helps us to look at our capacity to do great evil. I believe that if we think we can't do any wrong because God is on our side, we, too, could become like SS guards at Auschwitz or a former Soviet gulag. The Roman soldiers were "only following orders." Where have we heard that before? Who gave those orders, and for what purpose? Were those reasons based on justice or just on "what needed to be done?" Do we believe that people "in authority" walk closer to God than ordinary folks? I would like to think not, but too often, when I was a pastor, I would walk into a barber shop while the clientele were sharing a racy story and it would get really quiet all of a sudden...
From a more personal perspective, I have faced, and continue to face, injustice because of my interfaith marriage. Em and I will have been married twenty-seven years this August. The rejection by rabbis who refuse to perform interfaith weddings hurts me deeply. Their reasons all sound racist to me. Once a co-worker told me that Emily's mother didn't raise her right, because she "married out." My response was: "If God puts love in our hearts and arranges the meeting, why do we dream up ways to thwart the will of God?" I've faced similar problems from the Christian side. When I was up for Deacon's orders in the United Methodist Church, a district superintendent placed me on hold because "if you can't convert your wife, you can't seriously be called to the pastoral ministry!" I did manage to become a Deacon, but that go-around left a scar that is very much alive.
Jesus' scars are very important to the Mel Gibson movie and to theology. All of the scars we proudly wear as we work for justice in an unjust world tell more about us than a movie like The Passion ever could. We live in an unjust world, just as Jesus did. Instead of tolerating "sacred suffering," we should be the guardians of others, ready, willing, and able to step in and help to stop unjust suffering. Apartheid met its end because of outside people who said "No!" The South African government didn't free Nelson Mandela out of the goodness of its heart, but due to pressure. As someone said,"Evil happens when good people do nothing."
Hopefully, The Passion will help Christians get back to the roots of the Passion story as found in the Gospels so we can accept and claim our own passion stories and get just a glimpse of what Jesus saw, felt, and hoped for in those last twelve hours.
God bless you all, and thanks Mel Gibson.