Forum: Gibson’s atonement

Much of the criticism of ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ says Philip Jenkins, is staggering in its ignorance of the Christian tradition

Central to the recent controversy over Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” has been the issue of religious prejudice and bigotry, and whether the film is anti-Jewish. Yet I believe we have missed another form of prejudice that has surfaced repeatedly in the debate over the film, namely an aggressive and widespread assault on Christian beliefs. Perhaps for the first time in modern America, a whole religious system is under assault not for any specific misdeeds of its members or leaders, but for its most fundamental doctrines. And that system is Christianity.

The charge that “The Passion” is anti-Semitic is hard to justify. The main argument in favor of this idea is that the Temple’s priestly elite emerges as the driving force behind the death of Jesus, though the actual crucifixion is clearly the work of the Romans. This is of course the interpretation offered by the very earliest historical sources we possess, namely the four gospels. Perhaps the Gospel writers did underplay Roman imperial involvement in Jesus’ death, but that is a very modern historical view, and we can scarcely criticize Gibson for following the scriptural texts. He never implies that the misdeeds of the clerical elite could possibly be extrapolated to blame “the Jews,” either those of the time, or their descendants. I suppose modern anti-Semites could read it that way, but there is no way of controlling the self-delusions of people who, by definition, are idiots.

The films most beloved of today’s European fascists and neo-Nazis are, in fact, the “Lord of the Rings” series. (Sauron, Orcs, Dark Lords: don’t you see who these figures are meant to represent? They’re Jews, of course!) These none-too-bright militants won’t deign to watch “The Passion of the Christ” because it preaches the Christianity they loathe.

But the charge of anti-Semitism is only one of the grounds for savaging Mel Gibson’s work. Time and again, the movie has been denounced for its violence and bloodshed, for what William Safire describes as its “wallowing in gore.” Critics — some Jewish, but mostly secular — accuse Gibson of pandering to a sick obsession with violent death. On Slate.com, David Edelstein describes the film as “a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie — ‘The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre’ — that thinks it’s an act of faith.” Christopher Hitchens dismisses it as “an appeal to the gay Christian sadomasochistic niche market” and claims to identify the film’s “massively repressed homoerotic fantasies.”

Such critics further complain that all this violence ignores or contradicts the true message of Jesus. Edelstein asks, “What does this protracted exercise in sadomasochism have to do with Christian faith?” In my own town (State College), one protester against the film urged, “It is a story of Jesus. Why not deal with a story of the good Jesus did in the world?” In the Boston Globe, liberal Catholic James Carroll has written that “any rendition of the death of Jesus that attributes sacred meaning to suffering or cruelty to ‘God’s will’ … is a betrayal of the real passions of Christ — which were for truth, for love, and for life.”

The protests are staggering in their ignorance of the Christian tradition. For the vast majority of Christians through two millennia, the most basic component of faith has been the doctrine of the Atonement, the idea that Jesus died to redeem fallen humanity. For Christians, that act of redemption through suffering was precisely “the good Jesus did.” Nor — as “Passion”-protesters like Carroll have claimed — is an intense focus on the sacrificial death an innovation of the Middle Ages. The very earliest documents in the New Testament are the letters of St. Paul, which concentrate totally on the death of Christ, rather than His preaching or miracles. Certainly the words of Jesus counted — Paul quotes or paraphrases Jesus several times — but the key doctrines were those of redemption and Atonement.

A quick search produces no less than 94 uses of the word “blood” throughout the New Testament. The earliest followers of Jesus — who were overwhelmingly Jewish — were deeply influenced by traditional Jewish teachings about sacrifice and ritual blood-shed, though they transferred these ideas to Jesus himself, rather than to the worship in the Temple. The Eucharist or Mass, the centerpiece of Christian worship worldwide, is fundamentally concerned with the breaking of Jesus’ body and the shedding of his blood.

So central, in fact, is the Atonement to Christianity that we should properly object to any film on the life of Jesus that does not place this theme in the foreground, or which fails to emphasize the blood and violence. If Christians are shocked by this bloodshed, and many are, perhaps they have failed to understand the extraordinary brutality of the process of crucifixion.

“The Passion of the Christ” is certainly not beyond criticism. Some of the violence is overdone, notably in the scourging scene. But it is alarming to see how many of the attacks on the film target not just Gibson’s interpretation, but the whole underlying religious framework. The protesters’ message seems to be that Christianity of its nature is sadistic, bigoted and repressive, and therefore its ideas should not be presented to a mass audience. And that critique is, of its nature, deeply intolerant.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University.

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