Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

The Passion of the Christ – Pt 2

The Passion of the Christ, Lent 2004 – Pt. 2

Mel Gibson has made a good movie… and as I suggested in part one of this review, this fact is part of the problem. As I observed the audiences in each of the showings that I attended, I could not help but notice the preponderance of youth groups. Motion pictures are such a powerful medium with which to form our imagination and I fear that this movie will be programming the images of our youth in the church for years to come. With Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, our youth are being taught a particular story and that story will define their understanding of the core of Christianity.

So for example, who killed Jesus? Atlanta Journal Constitution Faith & Values columnist Lorraine V. Murray argues that “some critics seem so intent on deciding who bears responsibility for killing Jesus that they have turned the story into a major whodunit.” She continues, “The truth is, though, Christ’s death is not a mystery to be unraveled, but a love story to be embraced.” [see Why the Passion Matters in Atlanta Journal Constitution (March 1, 2004)]

While I appreciate Lorraine’s sentiment, the prior question does not go away and Gibson’s answer is not difficult to discern. Because this movie flirts with a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, the answer to this sort of question about who killed Jesus is always ambiguous. God killed Jesus – or at least commanded it. It was God’s plan, right? Or, Jesus killed himself – it was a glorious death freely given. Or again, we all killed Jesus – but how this might be true is never discussed in the movie. Gibson has indicated that in the crucifixion scene it is his own hand holding the nail driven through Jesus’ palm. But all these responses are theological overlays. The actual movie plot gives a very specific answer to the question. The responsibility for Jesus’ murder rests clearly and unambiguously on the heads of the temple leadership and the elders of the Jewish nation.

We have a compelling story. If the names and places were changed to “protect the innocent,” then it would be a great yarn. We have a charismatic young hero who is falsely accused by his own people. A weak, conflicted governor of the occupying forces is manipulated into unwillingly sentencing our hero to an inglorious death in spite of the political consequences and the pressure of his wife’s conscience. Our hero is tortured and lynched. But in the end, he triumphs forgiving those have done him so much wrong.

The problem is that we do know the names and places – we know them all too well. Gibson unrepentantly retells the story apparently ignoring the fact that this version as a whole and many of its particular elements have been used for centuries to persecute kill and disenfranchise Jews. Gibson and his supporters protest that he is no anti-Semite. I can take his word for it, but his version of the story is profoundly anti-Jewish. And in a world where the daily encounter with world religions is such a normal part of our lives and experience, to retell this story shunning any serious scrutiny by coyly proclaiming himself a victim of “liberal secularists” is simply outrageous.

Unfortunately, current public discussion in our nation and local communities is very difficult. We have declared cultural war on each other and so our common discourse is less defined as conversation and more as a process of rhetorical jab and parry.   I find it especially disturbing that some of the best and brightest leadership in the academy, voices like Dr. Paula Fredricksen, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, and Father John Pawlikowski have been quickly dismissed as those who would seek to inappropriately rewrite the Bible. This is a cynical attempt to evade authentic questions that these scholars and religious leaders have raised by defining them as questions not worth examining.

Since the Holocaust, Christians have become increasingly clear about our own culpability in the persecution, killing and disenfranchisement of Jews over the last nineteen centuries. One cannot fail to notice that Gibson has consistently rejected the findings and new directions that emerged out of the deliberations of the Vatican II Council. Gibson’s passion film is unrepentantly medieval. One vocal critic of Professor Levine cynically pointed out that she styles herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist – with a commitment to exposing and expunging anti-Jewish, sexist and heterosexist theologies.” The critic fails to notice however that the Catholic Church itself has made many of those same commitments!

Several books outline in detail this appalling history. James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2001) is quite readable and appropriate for the layperson. Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism. (New York: Seabury, 1974) remains the classic and a must read for any discussion. .

Gibson protests that the story he has told is simply what is found in the Bible – end of the discussion. Some of the elements woven into his screen play come from the Bible and some don’t. Whether he has created a coherent biblically accurate story by cutting and pasting from different texts is not all that clear. It is certainly not the end of the discussion. As my pastor often says, the Christian Bible did not drop out of the sky.  While, in some ways, we are a people of the book, if we shun idolatry as the book implores, our biblical texts are never beyond scrutiny, nor are our unreflective uses of those texts excused from critical discussion. The Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatization of the Passion published by the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, points out the following:

Certain of the Gospels, especially the two latest ones, Matthew and John, seem on the surface to portray Pilate as a vacillating administrator who, himself, found “no fault” with Jesus and sought, though in a weak way to free him. Other data from the gospels and secular sources contemporary with the events portray Pilate as a ruthless tyrant. We know from these later sources that Pilate crucified hundreds of Jews without proper trial, and that in the year 36 Pilate was recalled to Rome to give an account. Luke similarly mentions “the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifice” in the temple (Luke 13: 1-4). This does corroborate the contemporary secular accounts of the unusual cruelty of Pilate’s administration. John, as mentioned above, is in pain, to show that Jesus’ arrest and trial were essentially in Roman hands….There is, then, room for more than one dramatic style of portraying the character of Pilate while being faithful to the biblical record. Again, it is suggested here that the hermeneutical insight of Nostra Aetate and the use of the best available biblical scholarship cannot be ignored in the creative process and provide the most prudent and secure criterion for contemporary dramatic reconstructions. Quoted on]

As Christians, we should never have made questionable claims about inerrancy or infallibility. We did not need to! The cultural contexts behind the texts are always subject to review and the texts themselves subject to public re-interpretation. [Recent posts about this subject on 7 Villages only rehearse doctrines and points of view that the United Methodist church as a whole has regularly and repeatedly refrained from affirming. I suppose that I should thank these “pundits” for posting examples of what United Methodist church doesn’t believe and doesn’t include in its articles of faith!]

At the end of Gibson’s movie an earthquake splits the inner sanctum of the temple (or is it the palace – it is not clear) leaving a huge crack in the floor. The subtitle directs that we are seeing the “veil of the temple” torn in half. As we have no reliable separate account of such a cataclysmic event, it behooves us to ask what this text might mean. Raymond E.  Brown, the esteemed Catholic scholar who has written a definitive primer on the four passion narratives, points out that probably none of the gospel writers had actually seen Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple mid-first century Common Era.  He notes that there were several veils of which the writers of the gospel accounts draw no distinction. So what are we to make of these texts?

In the story as Gibson tells it, many of the elements (some certainly taken from one or other of the gospel narratives) beg for reinterpretation. As mentioned earlier, is it really plausible that (as history tells us) one of the most brutal and insensitive provincial governors assigned to Judea from Rome would allow himself to be manipulated by his own appointed local leadership in the “temple city” of Jerusalem. Again, is it plausible that these same religious leaders would have nothing better to do during one of the most sacred festivals of the Jewish year than to stand around watching the spectacle of Jesus’ fate? During Jesus’ lifetime, several hundred – perhaps thousands of Jews were crucified, not as a capital punishment justly imposed after due process of law with fair trails, but as terror-filled, public examples used to keep order. Is it finally plausible that any Jewish leadership, including the most self-serving would be so corrupt that it would (except under extreme duress) hand over even its most troublesome opponent to Pilate to be lynched? Gibson is so dead set on portraying Caiaphas (and not Pilate) as the instigator of Jesus’ murder, that he fails to find in the gospel texts what is perhaps the most interesting speech spoken by the high priest who asks, “Is it better that one man should die than the entire nation be destroyed?”(John 11:50)

Now let me take one moment for humble confession. Several of my friends have rightly pointed out that the producers of the recent movie, the Gospel of John, seem to have escaped this kind of radical criticism leveled at Gibson and his supporters. This is absolutely true, but of course it is also true that these producers have made no larger claim for their efforts than to make a movie that portrays the text of the gospel of John as it is received. Additionally, the producers have welcomed extensive advice from leading scholars. But the point is well taken. Recently, my younger son and I attended a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar and I am guilty of failing to lead any reflective conversation about these same questions that I have readily raised about Gibson’s project.

So in the midst of shared guilt, what are we to do? It seems to me that there are at least two implications that emerge for those of us who consider ourselves part of the progressive Christian community. I have mentioned my concern at the fact that this movie is programming our youths’ imagination in unhelpful ways. But even more so, I am deeply concerned about what passion play we perform in our congregations as we talk about scripture, in the texts that we choose, and in the logic of the worship drama that we re-enact each Sunday morning. We cannot raise questions about Gibson’s movie and at the same time neglect to pay attention to how we tell the story of the passion to our children through our own liturgical and devotional use of the Biblical texts.

Secondly, if we don’t like the way Gibson and others tell the story, then it behooves us to recreate an appropriate passion narrative as an alternative to the traditional images that we have lived out of and that have unconsciously programmed our assumptions about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. This is a task that will take much care and in this review I can only begin to hint at my own proposals. At the least, my first draft would reverse the implausible logic of the perspective that makes Pilate into a victim of conniving Jews.

My screen play would start in Caesarea, not Jerusalem where Pilate broods over the unpleasant task of making yet another state visit to the “temple city” for Passover. I would have Pilate note that Caesar is displeased with how he has handled the locals, but I would also have Pilate reaffirm his political philosophy that keeping the peace involves asserting the power of Roman rule by means of a series of unequivocal public demonstrations. After all Rome is hundreds of miles away, they have no clue what one is up against out here in the territories.

I prefer to use the time frame found in John’s gospel narrative affirming realistically that Jesus like any good Jew had visited the temple many times during his public ministry. In that context, I would flashback to the incident where Jesus disputes with some of the vendors exchanging money in the front part of the temple mount. I would avoid any assumption that Jesus had declared the Temple system irrelevant. But clearly, Jesus has no tolerance for corruption. I would also flashback again to Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem during the festival of tents, and notice some of the public disputes that certainly would have come to the attention of the priestly leadership.

I would have a central scene where Jesus and his disciples first arrive in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Crowds who have heard about this apocalyptic prophet create a public disturbance proclaiming Jesus as the one promised to regain the throne of David. Roman soldiers watching this incident with all its makings of civil unrest report it to their commanders and it filters up to Pilate, but as they report they misinterpret the event as centering on the actions of the holy man, Jesus of Nazareth and not the crowd. Pilate has already called Caiaphas into his court earlier in the week to remind him that his job is dependent on his keeping a lid on unrest and anticipations that always surround this particular festival of liberation. He calls Caiaphas back to his court demanding information about this Jesus – particularly where he could be found in the middle of the night. He also demands that Caiaphas arrange to seize Jesus out of the public eye and deliver him to his Roman soldiers.

What Caiaphas or his cronies have on Judas is not clear, but with payoff of 30 pieces of silver, he bribes Judas into revealing where Jesus can be found and forces him to identify the Nazarene to the lynch mob with a kiss. Jesus is probably brought to Caiaphas’ palace for holding – it is the middle of the night. He will be turned over to Pilate’s soldiers early the next morning. There is no trial before the Sanhedrin. There will be no real trial before Pilate. Jesus will be beaten and mocked by being made to wear a crown of thorns. He will be forced to carry the cross beam of the instrument of his final lynching to the garbage heap outside the city, a high place called Golgotha. Accused of claiming to be the King of the Jews, he is crucified with a sign hung around his neck deriding that declaration in three languages. Citizens waking in the early hours of the morning and pilgrims traveling to the temple city are met with a graphic and unmistakable warning, “don’t make waves.”

Caiaphas will be conflicted, not Pilate, as he reflects on the “Sophie’s Choice,” with which he must struggle – “Is it not better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.” Out of his guilt, perhaps out of fear, he persuades one of his patrons to take Jesus’ body down and bury it, perhaps giving Jesus some sort of respect but also removing the horrible display from public view. The disciples have no clue where Jesus is buried for they have all fled the city. Maybe a few women helped dress the body, but shortly they return to the Galilee. Sometime after these events, Peter, who had been one of the disciples who believed that his rabbi was an apocalyptic messiah, has a vivid vision of a resurrected Jesus. He sees Jesus resting for the moment in the heavenly realm, waiting for a time when he will return in victory as Lord and King, Son of Man. He begins to gather his fellow disciples once more in Jerusalem and they start to tell of these remarkable events and their meaning.

I am indebted here to Paula Fredriksen’s provocative discussion in her recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books: New York, 1999) for much of this background and I borrow from the book broadly.

In this version of the story, we affirm Jesus’ central proclamation that in the cosmic battle between God and Satan, the victory is already decided, even though there are a few details to be worked out! God is in charge, evil will meet its end and if you have been allied with the other side, the time has come for re-evaluating your loyalties. Echoing the ancient Jewish proclamation that the “first will be last and the last first,” a proclamation traditionally about the nation, like many prophets before him, Jesus’ re-images these sacred texts in order to proclaim a vision of new hope for the poor in light of a Compassionate God who hears their cry. We are asked to engage in acts of repentance in light of this new vision and stand in solidarity with all who are persecuted, killed or disenfranchised by our own sin. Now that might make an interesting movie!

Photo by 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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