Bishop Sutton: “Telling the Whole Story: Reflections on The Passion of the Christ”
Luke 13:31 “…some Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”
“I love to tell the story of unseen things above
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true,
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.
“I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
“I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Hymn by Katherine Hankey, 1868
This old hymn, known to many in evangelical Christian circles, speaks to the instinct in us to share the story of the good news of the Christian message to all the world. We want to “tell the story of Jesus and his love” because that story has meant so much to us individually and as a faith community, and because the world is hungering and thirsting to hear good stories of the triumph of good over evil, of love, peace and goodwill to all people. What we believe about Jesus Christ really is good news to the world, and we love to hear the various ways that that story can be told.
That is why I greeted with anticipation the arrival of the new movie by the Academy-award winning actor and filmmaker, Mel Gibson, entitled The Passion of the Christ. Here is a Christian, one of the heavy-hitters in secular Hollywood, who wants to commit his art, his energies and his considerable resources to the telling of the Christian story to the masses of moviegoers. I have a lot of respect for that effort, especially given the pitfalls of putting out one’s religious vision for a skeptical public’s scrutiny. To do so requires more courage and conviction than most people of faith are willing to commit to themselves. It has become so easy for comfortable American Christians to sit back and criticize others’ efforts in sharing their faith, without ever taking the risks of witnessing to the gospel in any meaningful way themselves, despite the costs paid in blood by the saints and martyrs throughout the ages even to our own day for doing so. Therefore, a tip of the hat should go toward our brother in faith for this massive effort to put forward in the public’s consciousness the story of the passion, or “suffering”, of our Lord in the final moments of his earthly ministry.
But what is that story? Having promised some weeks ago to speak to the issues raised by the film in a sermon, I viewed it last week with several members of our staff. I share the following reflections with you in the hopes that it may help you to decide if you should see the film, and if you do, to provide some guidelines to frame what you are seeing within a gospel context.
First, we need to keep in mind that The Passion of the Christ is at once an artistic event, a historical event, and a theological event all rolled into one. It is important when one reflects on what is being viewed on the screen to know which of these three “events” he or she is responding to.
As an artistic event, let me say at the outset that I am not a movie critic. I am constantly amazed at how my carefully considered assessments of which movies are “good” and which are “bad” are not able to carry the day in, say, my own family. Judging art is a very tricky—and personal—thing, in most cases saying more about the person experiencing the art than the artists themselves. I found The Passion to be a very powerful movie, an artistic tour de force. But, as a Christian, what was it about that two-hour theatrical experience did I find powerful: the movie itself, or the meaning I give to the historical event that the movie purports to portray? The distinction is crucial, for we all have experienced the power of art as propaganda to distort history and manipulate emotions toward the artist’s own ends, be they for good or for ill. “Distortion” is the key word here, for it is the very nature of art to distort, to alter our perceptions of previously received data so that we can see an alternative reality. Good art changes us; bad art makes no difference at all, it simply does not matter. This movie matters, and it will change you, but will you be moved toward the art, or toward the historical event to which the art points?
How you answer that question will depend largely upon how you answer this question for Gibson’s film: what is your tolerance level for depictions of violence on screen? And I don’t mean here scenes of violence shown with a measure of artistic restraint. No, I mean an unremittingly graphic, gruesome, raw, flesh-ripping, blood-drenching execution relentlessly displayed with little relief. The Passion of the Christ, a 126-minute movie, has at least 100 of those minutes depicting the arrest, torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is probably the most violent movie you will ever see. To say anything less than that would be dishonest to those contemplating viewing it. Let the buyer beware: if you cannot sit through seeing a man beaten, caned, whipped, spat upon, crowned with thorns, led through a violent mob, then finally nailed to a piece of wood and having it flipped over so that his body will dangle from it attached only by nails—then you should pass on this movie. The whipping scene alone has been reported to be the single, most sustained sequence of violence ever captured on film.
Now, having been raised in the black church and nurtured in its spirituality, I know about the value of reflecting on the sufferings of our Lord. I love the liturgies of the church that force us to gaze upon that suffering—the Good Friday liturgy, the Stations of the Cross (which, incidentally, the film follows faithfully as Jesus walks the Via Dolorosa), and other Lenten devotions—because they serve as a needed antidote to the “sanitized, safe and suburban” faith that is too often portrayed in mainline American Christianity. In the tradition of the muscular Christianity popular in the early 20th century, baseball player and evangelist Billy Sunday preached that the Redeemer was sent to save us not only from our sins but also from “flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”
In a recent reflection, black theologian Robert Franklin notes that with millions of other suffering and oppressed peoples around the world, black Christians since the slave period “have understood and portrayed Jesus as a Suffering Savior and a grassroots leader who was the victim of state-sponsored terror. Black theology has focused on the humanity and socially marginal status of Jesus. More than that, blacks have been attracted to the Jesus who experienced unjust victimization by the authorities and the community, but found empowering comfort in the conviction that a just God would someday even the score. This spirituality and faith has generated the spirituals, gospel music, prayers, sermons and religious art that has embraced the graphic reality of political death and dying.” Notice, however, that it is only when the suffering of Christ gets connected with a suffering humanity that it makes any sense at all. Jesus, because of his redemptive suffering, is the friend of sufferers everywhere; by enduring his passion through to the ultimate triumph of his resurrection, he shows that God will not abandon us when we suffer. God will see us through to our resurrection as well—just as he did with his begotten Son.
In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, the famed African American mystic and theologian Howard Thurman said that whenever we sanitize the grotesque image of the suffering servant, we again inflict violence upon his identity and mission. Not surprisingly, Martin Luther King, Jr. always carried that book in his briefcase.
Did I enjoy seeing these grotesque images in Gibson’s film? No. But it is not the director’s intent that audiences enjoy this movie, or be entertained by it in the classic sense. Gibson is after something different; in his interviews, he said that his plan was to “shock and awe the audience.” His plan worked. He definitely wanted an emotional response to the images on the screen, and joy was not that emotion.
Did I cry? You bet. Unless one is a cold tower of emotional steel, how could one not be moved by such immense pain and suffering, particularly the silent pain so effectively portrayed by the scenes of Mary, Jesus’ mother, helplessly witnessing the torture of her son.
Was I angered? Yes, but not at the usual suspects: not at Pilate, the feckless Roman procurator; not at King Herod, dismissively portrayed as a fool and party animal; not at the fickle mob calling for his crucifixion, for mobs always check their minds at the door when they smell blood coming their way. Nor was I angry at the Jewish leaders who conspired against Jesus, for they—like those Christian ministers who regularly acquiesced in the racism of their communities and turned a blind eye to the subjugation of a whole race of people, like the Catholic bishops who regularly sacrificed innocent children’s lives to protect abusive priests, like Muslim clerics whose silence is deafening on violent terrorism against innocent civilians—simply did what religious and political leaders commonly do: sacrifice the powerless to maintain power. In this regard, the film is not essentially anti-Semitic, although if you are disposed toward scapegoating Jews for killing Christ and blaming them for all sorts of evils, then you will likely find things in the film to support your bigotry. My guess is that Mel Gibson wants his audience to come to the realization that it was not the Jews or the Romans or the mobs that were responsible for Jesus’ death, but all of us because of our enmity with God. Just as the words of the Negro spiritual Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? place you there as a participant, so it is obviously central to the director’s intent that you personally bear some responsibility for the gruesome events of that day, because it was for your sins that he died.
No, my anger at the conclusion of the film was directed at the film itself, not in the depiction per se of the crucifixion in all of its horror, nor in the professed intent of the director to use cinema as a medium for evangelistic purposes. Rather, I was left angry and disappointed because an opportunity was lost here to do the very thing Gibson wanted to do. For, simply put, The Passion of the Christ as a highly emotionally-charged and artistic portrayal of raw violence so overshadowed “The Passion” as a historical-theological event, that the latter could barely be noticed at all.
Let us take a brief look, then, at the Passion as history. For that, we are dependent upon the accounts of the four Gospels in the New Testament. Each of the Gospel writers gives us a larger narrative of the life of Jesus that puts his passion and death within a theological context so as to make sense of it. In the film however, Gibson takes elements out of each Gospel and molds them into one new story. He has also created some scenes not from the Gospels at all, but from his own imaginings and the from the visions of a 19th century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, that have had wide distribution among conservative Roman Catholics, including a scene showing the making of the cross on which Jesus would hang—in the Jewish Temple! In none of the Gospels does the High Priest Caiaphas stand with his priests to witness the sadistic scourging of Jesus. In the movie, they do. In the Gospel of John (18:14), Caiaphas gives us a clue as to why Jesus must die: “…it is better to have one person die for the nation.” Since this shows that the motive of the religious leaders was more altruistic than it was hatred of Jesus, the movie would have been greatly helped by its inclusion, as it would have gone a long way toward presenting the Jewish leadership in a more favorable light. Moreover, not all of the leaders were against Jesus; some were his protectors, as we see in today’s gospel lesson (Luke 13: 31) “…some Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Would that Gibson had been more faithful to the biblical text! Also, in none of the Gospels does Satan, the embodiment of evil, appear in the passion accounts. In the movie, he appears four times: twice to tempt Jesus privately, and significantly, twice moving among—you guessed it – the crowd of Jews who call for Jesus’ death.
But the most important way in which Gibson departs from the Gospel accounts is in his stretching out of the suffering itself. The Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion are as minimal as the writers can make them. “Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified,” the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) agree. “When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” Little more than a dozen verses later he is dead. The evangelists did not linger over the brutality of that day; they did not believe that a lengthy depiction of the our Lord’s suffering either added to the core beliefs of the Christian message or would cause the reader to be “moved” toward the Christ and faith in him. The question then becomes, why did Gibson? If he had plotted the movie to correspond to the way that the Gospels present the Passion, then the majority of his film would have been not on the torture of the Son of God, but on the various persons who came into contact with Jesus in his last days, how they interact with him, and most importantly what they do because of him. The emphasis in the Scriptures is on how persons come to faith, not in graphic depictions on what a depraved humanity can do to each other, to the prophets, and to God’s own Son.
It is not as though biblical writers thought that the passion was unimportant, or that they were squeamish about violence or ashamed of the crucifixion. The entire Gospel story builds toward those climactic events, and the saving work that God accomplishes through and beyond the Cross is central to the Christian story. But in telling the whole story—the story of God’s creation and redemption of the world, or God’s mercy and justice—yes, the old, old story of Jesus displaying God’s love for everyone, any modern interpreter to be faithful to the Gospel accounts must place the suffering and death of Christ within the context of the entire life, teachings and resurrection of the Christ in order to get the story straight.
Gibson presents us with a truncated story, and thus those viewers who are not familiar with the whole Christian story are ultimately left with a truncated, or partial, gospel. If Gibson is calling us to faith in Christ, then we have to wonder what that faith means. To what are we to place our belief in Christ to do, or accomplish, in us or in the world? The film offers no clue. The director devotes perhaps ten minutes of snippets of wisdom sayings of Jesus dispersed throughout the film, and then the final ten seconds or so in having us glance at the resurrection. If all that we are left with, then, is unrelenting human brutality and the superhuman ability of Jesus to withstand it, then the underlying (though unspoken) message of this film that the Christian gospel, bathed in violence and nurtured by suffering, is “about” human depravity, encountering evil and enduring this sad existence of life to its bitter end—just like Jesus did.
I, however, do not want the public to think that is the essence