A ‘Passion’ for controversy

Darren Poley

Even if you don’t say “it is as it was” like John Paul II did in a rather philosophical way after viewing an early version of the movie, and even if you don’t see it as a story about redemptive suffering and God’s love in a theological sense, “The Passion of the Christ” is a cinematic depiction of man’s inhumanity towards man, an artistic tribute to the historic facts about an innocent Jew being persecuted at the hands of an angry mob for his ideas.

Why are people so quick to say a fictitious novel like “The Da Vinci Code” is true when books like the Gospels, albeit written by men of faith, are subject to suspicion even though they are grounded in the facts of history? And what do we have to fear from stories, even a very powerful one like Jesus’? Are people really afraid it might whip up mass hysteria, an anti-Semitic backlash? Or is it that all human beings are capable of unspeakable cruelty, and that denying every human person is made in the image of God can allow us to be our own master and that of others. “The Passion” is a story about suffering and hope, one where the protagonist submits freely to horrible maltreatment and death for proclaiming a message of inner-beauty and love. If there is one lesson to be learned from history it is that true justice and peace are dashed when humans create God in their own image and want to deny the humanity of the other.

“The Passion of the Christ” says something very important and very different than victory is to be found in prestige, control, and condemnation. In fact it is quite the opposite. Some say Gibson has made a “war” movie where a steely-eyed Jesus is resurrected to seek revenge. I have not yet seen the movie, so I can not assess this sense conjured in the mind of a critic who has, but no one objected to “Star Wars.”

That quintessential neo-pagan tale for my generation of the battle between good and evil, where Obi Wan says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can imagine” and then becomes the guiding influence for Luke to be able to blow-up the Death Star. But that’s fantasy. What about “Schindler’s List” a lauded film and a powerful tale which took license to lionize Oskar Schindler and demonize the other Germans without fear of stirring an anti-German sentiment. But that’s history, right? Also how about “Dead Man Walking,” where although we are graphically made to understand the terrible crimes of the condemned man we feel sorry for him when he is “put to death” by a sterile process, insensitive to his repentance. Each is a powerful story created to stir thought beyond entertainment. They make us feel good because we’re not as bad as “them,” and they leave us thinking about the deeper meaning of life and what it is that we believe. This movie about the arrest, trial, torture, execution, and after life of Jesus the Christ arguably does so as well. What’s disturbing is, are we so sure we would be one of the good guys? Catholic theology would argue that our inhumane treatment of others and embracement of a future are contrary to why we were made in the first place, is on trial; it’s our sins that nail Jesus to the cross.

I think the biggest real fear a critic can claim is that history can be misinterpreted, or elicit a dangerous emotional response based on how it is told. The early motion picture “Birth of a Nation” is the classic example of this. What that means in an open pluralistic society is what we need to engage in a conversation that uses both faith and reason to examine and discuss what we can know and what we believe. The fact that Jesus was a humble Palestinian Jew who was mocked, brutalized, and then a victim of first-century capital punishment by the religious and ruling authorities for speaking truth to power, which whether one believes in the divinity of Jesus and the deeper meaning of the Crucifixion or not, makes for an important and compelling story to tell in the violent, inhumane and self-centered culture of death in which we now find ourselves.