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Mel Gibson’s Passion for Christ Michael Pakaluk

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Mel Gibson’s Passion for Christ

Michael Pakaluk

My friends who have seen the rough cut version of Mel Gibson’s new film, The Passion, (due to be released next Lent) say that it is the scene where Christ is scourged that affected them most deeply.

We tend to pass over the scourging as almost an incidental detail, as one of many outrages that Jesus suffered en route to being crucified. The gospel writers seem even to suggest that Pilate commanded that Jesus be scourged as a kind of minor, alternative punishment: Pilate wanted to release Jesus, whom he judged to be innocent, so he thought that a scourging would perhaps be enough to placate the crowd.

But now picture this. Take a sharp bit of lead, the size of a large pea, and fix it to the end of a leather shoe string. Take six or seven such pieces of leather and metal, and bind them together, to make a scourge. Find two angry and mean men, about the size of NFL linebackers, and give a scourge to each of them. Tell them to take turns getting a running start, winding up, and throwing all of their force into sending that scourge against the bare back of a man. Have them do this, not a couple of times, not 10 times, but 40 times.

The man’s back, shoulders, legs, and buttocks will be turned into a mess of torn flesh and blood, right down to the bone. Now throw a cloak on the man and taunt him for a while—long enough for the blood to clot and cohere to the cloak. Now rip the cloak off, tearing open the wounds once again.

If we could have seen such a thing being done to Christ, we would have wept. The power of Gibson’s film is that it makes it as if we are there, seeing the torture while it is happening. That is why the action takes place with the characters speaking, not in English, but in the Aramaic and Latin in which they would have originally spoken. (Gibson is contemplating adding English subtitles.) That is why Gibson consulted with New Testament scholars and archeologists to insure the fidelity of the screenplay to the scriptural account. The movie aims to use the best Hollywood technology to make the viewer a kind of eyewitness of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. And people who watch it weep.

“You won’t be able to look coldly at a crucifix again,” said a friend of mine who saw the rough cut version.

Christ appears, unmistakably, Jewish—Jim Caviezel appears extremely Semitic in the role, and he speaks the Jewish language of the time. His crucifixion looks like the result of an internal fight among religious Jews, some wanting to follow this new Messiah figure, and some wanting him destroyed.

In the movie, as in the gospel, the catastrophe of the crucifixion occurs only because almost everyone fails to do what he should. One of Christ’s own disciples betrays him. The religious leaders act from envy, to keep in control, and not out of devotion or a concern with the truth. The secular Roman authorities, fearing their Caesar, fail to uphold justice and allow a man they judge innocent to be wrongly put to death.

One might wonder, then, why the movie has been criticized so fiercely, in the pages of the New York Times, and by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League—even before it has been released. Critics charge that, because the movie portrays Jewish leaders and the mob as clamoring for Christ’s death, it will incite violence by Christians against Jewish people today, whom Christians will blame for Christ’s death. These critics want Gibson to change the plot line, to make the Romans solely responsible; and they aim to suppress the movie if these changes are not made.

We can predict that their criticisms will be self-defeating. “All publicity is good publicity”, as the saying goes. Any advance controversy over the Passion will therefore make it more of a success. And attempts to suppress the movie will inevitably fail because of the large amounts of money to be made: nearly everyone will want to see it.

But these critics are also being immensely hypocritical. They will be among the first, in other contexts, to stand up stridently in defense of ‘freedom of speech’. Remember when Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ was released and we heard endless commentators in the media give lectures on how it was wrong to criticize a movie without first seeing it?

The criticisms are furthermore completely misguided. In The Passion Christ says from the Cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” He meekly accepts his Cross and charges his disciples to do likewise. It is clear that his scourging—that horrible, bloody mess--was caused by the sins of each of us: “By his stripes we are healed.” Each of us, then, is the true ‘cause’ of the Crucifixion.

Note that the objections of these critics apply equally to the New Testament, Crucifixes, and the Holy Week liturgy. One senses, sadly, that they really object to Christianity, not a movie about Christianity. And perhaps, too, they are afraid precisely that Gibson’s movie will be a great success. After all, what would happen if the ‘gospel is preached throughout the world’ on movie screens?--or if Hollywood begins to use its immense technical resources for good?

Michael Pakaluk is a professor of philosophy at Clark University.

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