The Passion of The Christ - and of Historical Christianity: A Message for Easter

Submitted by on 27 April, 2004 - 12:00 Author: Sean Matgamna

It is a mark of the integrity of Mel Gibson, the Tridentine, traditionalist Catholic whose film this is, that it is spoken in two dead languages - Aramaic, the language of Judea two thousand years ago, and Latin, the language of their Roman overlords.

Subtitles are not 'commercial', but that has not damaged the money-making prospects of The Passion of the Christ. It took $300 million in its first week on release in America.

In fact the dominant language in the film is not Aramaic or Latin, or the language of the subtitles. It is the language of violence. From the beginning, almost to the very end, the soundtrack is dominated by the sound of blows, grunts, groans. We hear a whip tearing the skin off a man's back; Christ, who knows what is in front of him, shivering in terror just before he is taken prisoner; nails being hammered through flesh; the baying mob howling for Jesus Christ's blood; his despairing cries to his Father in Heaven (that is, for believing Christians, to himself).

It is sickening, wearying, and, on the cinema soundtrack, overwhelming. It adds an engulfing intensity to what you see on the screen - a man being scourged and beaten until he can barely walk, and then nailed on a cross and hung up to die.

The continuous hammering makes more plausible one of the implausibilities in the Bible story - that Christ died after three hours on the cross. (Crucifixion killed by slow suffocation, caused by the effects on the victim's lungs of hanging by his hands. It would take three days, not three hours).

A crucifixion could not be realistically depicted gently and with only token violence. But this film wallows in it. Its true 'language' is that of of the modern cinema of sado-masochistic violence.

I found it very oppressive. Watching it turned into an endurance test. But that too is an element of the film's integrity and fidelity to the content of Christianity.

Of course, there are a number of different Christianities in history. The Catholicism of Europe's peasants in the Middle Ages was not quite that of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century and after. But this film is faithful to the true spirit of the Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, of the last five hundred years.

Despite what happy, clappy clerics, in the aftermath of the semi-collapse of Christianity over much of Europe in the second half of the 20th century, would now say about Christianity as a religion of love, that is not what it has been over the centuries. It has been a religion of ferocious beliefs and practices.

Its priests told its adherents that they lived in a world presided over by a savage God who would condemn them to burn in the fires of hell unless they lived their lives strictly in accord with the rules and regulations that he, through his earthly representatives, the priests themselves, laid down.

God's rules often flew in the face of the human nature that he, perversely, had given them. On sexuality, for example. 'Salvation' lay only through denying and stifling that human nature.

The result was a religion of self-denial, self-torture, and self-hatred. It sided with the rich in society and told those exploited by the rich - including the priests - to suffer in patience here on earth so that they would live in eternal bliss after they died. As the Industrial Workers of the World's balladeer Joe Hill put it in a mocking song: "Work all day, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die (that's a lie!)".

When they felt strong enough, the Christian churches used the state power to persecute dissenters. Christians burned, tortured and maimed each other - and themselves - in mind and spirit. They suppressed free thought wherever they were able to.

Not only the Catholic church, with its Spanish Inquisition, and, in England, the 'fires of Smithfield', in which non-Catholics were burned in the 16th century, did that. John Calvin, the Presbyterian rebel against the Papacy and its pretensions to rule, roasted Michael Servetus to death over a slow fire in Geneva in 1553.

The English Cromwellians, who were genuinely tolerant of Protestant diversity, and even of the 'Christ-killing' Jews when they invited them back into England (they had been banished 400 years earlier), used anti-Catholic bigotry to license greed for Irish land, and cold-bloodedly decided to drive the whole Catholic population out of most of Ireland. (They found it impossible in practice.)

That is the true spirit of the basic Christian doctrine and of post-Renaissance Christianity. Gibson, who belongs to a Catholic sect which rejects the 'modernisation' of the Catholic church undertaken by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and 70s, is, in this film, true to that Christianity.

The relentless savagery of the film mirrors the inner beliefs of an old-fashioned Catholic who believes that he or those he loves may spend eternity in the fires of hell if he offends the savage God who rules the universe.

The Passion of the Christ deals with the capture of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane on 'Holy Thursday' night and his trial, scourging, and crucifixion the next day, 'Good Friday' - 'Good Friday' because the agony endured by Christ, in his capacity of man, to placate himself in his capacity of God, opened up the possibility that human beings might be saved from hell and go to heaven when they die.

Before that, for all the previous generations of humankind, there was no such hope. Why? Adam and Eve, the first human beings, had raided God's orchard in the Garden of Eden. For that crime the 'merciful God' condemned all subsequent human beings until his son (who was also himself) suffered a horrible human death to 'redeem' humankind.

Clever modern Christian apologists tend to 'reinterpret' this story and see its elements as merely "symbols". For most of the last two thousand years, Christians took it literally. Their mental world was that depicted in all its stark and horrible brutality in Gibson's film.

Is the film anti-semitic? How could it not be, retelling the story of how 'the Jews' brought about Christ's death, the story which Christians have told each other for two thousand years?

The Passion of the Christ shows a Jewish mob, led by their priests, howling for Christ's blood. Given a choice, they free the murderer Barabbas in preference to Christ. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is sympathetic to Christ and does not want to kill him (and, in the film, Pilate's wife seems to understand that Christ is 'really' God).

Pilate sees 'no fault' in Christ. He has him scourged only in an attempt to avoid killing him. Finally, he gives in to the Jews and sends Christ to be crucified.

The anti-semitism does not depend on whether or not the Jewish priest says, as he does in one of the four gospels, in reply to Pilate's "I am innocent of the blood of this man" - "On our heads be it, and on the heads of our children". It is there in the entire story. It is here, gruesomely, on the screen.

The story used to be summed up in the question-and-answer catechism taught to Catholic children. Q: Who condemned Jesus Christ to death? A: Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, did it at the desire of the Jews.

The Catholic church has removed that from its catechism, but the idea is there in the Bible and in the minds of millions of Christians.

The great Marxist scholar (and bad revolutionary) Karl Kautsky, in his book The Foundations of Christianity, demonstrated that the Bible story could not possibly be true, because Roman courts, about whose procedures we have exact knowledge, could not behave as Pilate's court does in the Bible. The whole story was deliberately written by the early Christians so as to exonerate Pilate and blame the Jews.

It has entered into the bloodstream of what was once Christendom. It has been the licence for Christian anti-semitism through the ages. The Passion of the Christ is true to the Bible story, and is therefore saturated with anti-semitism.

If you approach this film without the framework of 'supernatural' Christian beliefs - that Jesus Christ was God, etc - then what you see on the screen is a story of a mad man, some sort of paranoiac who thinks he is his own father, who talks to himself and thinks he talks to God, who is prepared to die a terrible death to appease himself, who imagines himself king of a world paralleling that which Pilate rules, and infinitely superior to it.

In its spirit, and in what it depicts on the screen and in the soundtrack, this film offers those who don't know a chance to acquaint themselves with the spirit of Christianity before it was forced onto the defensive by science. If you are one of those who does not know, grit your teeth and go to see the film. Force yourself!

Reviewer: Sean Matgamna