Passion and Violence
Why was this film made?
The Passion of the Christ is a very well-made film. With all the potential to be over the top or overbearing, it is acted with restraint and shot without cliche. The violence is brutal, but rarely gratuitous. And while the imagery, cinematography, and music owe a bit too much to The Lord of the Rings - as does the rendering of Aramaic as something quite similar to elvish - it is, after all, a Hollywood film. As with other Hollywood epics, you either buy into the conventions or you don't. And as with other great ones, if you do buy in, it's an emotional, visceral ride.
In part because of these cinematic virtues, and in large part because of how the narrative was shaped, The Passion of the Christ filled me with rage. Let's put it this way: at the end of the film, I wanted to kill Jews. Either that, or move to Israel and work on its nuclear program.
To debate whether or not this film is antisemitic, as many Jewish critics are doing, seems to me beside the point. The question is why, why in God's name specifically, anyone would want to distort the Biblical story of the Passion so as to emphasize its brutality, the villainy of its antagonists, and the overall horror of the sacrifice of the Christ?
This is not a rhetorical question, and I mean to answer it, seriously and religiously. First, though, it is important to understand that the answer is not "this is what the Bible says." Having spent two years studying the gospels in graduate school, and now having at last seen the film, I can confirm that it is indeed a vast distortion of the gospels. There are three primary changes: the violence, the Jews, and the magic.
First, Gibson has added large swaths of extra violence to the Biblical narrative. The film's long scourging of Jesus - in which we watch his skin being torn off by flaying (the Talmud relates the grisly scourging of Rabbi Akiva, which I remember being terrified by as a child) - is not mentioned, though it did happen before some crucifixions. The gospels do not relate that the Romans turned Jesus face-down on the cross before it was raised, or that he was thrown off a wall prior to his interrogation by the Sanhedrin. Nor, it may surprise you to learn, is there any mention of Jesus being nailed to the cross in the gospels themselves - this tradition came afterwards. But the film includes all of this and more, with a Hollywood emphasis on gore. Whereas the gospels spend hardly any time on the violence of the Passion (and a great deal of time on Christ's submission to it), we are shocked throughout the film by whips tearing into skin, nails being driven into hands and feet, scourges tearing off hunks of flesh, beatings, chainings, sadism, ravens poking out eyes, and throughout it all the merciless stare of Caiaphas the high priest, who is responsible for this innocent man being brutalized.
Second, The Passion of the Christ makes it unambiguous who is responsible for the death of Christ: the Jewish leadership. Although the gospels repeat, over and over, that Jesus is giving himself up to fulfill a prophecy and his mission of salvation, the film spends at least equal time blaming the agents of that mission: i.e., the Jews. Pilate, a notorious murderer according to contemporary sources, is depicted as the tragic conscience of the film, coerced into spilling innocent blood by Caiaphas and his fear of a Jewish rebellion. (Gibson also chose to include John's account, absent in the other gospels, of Pilate engaging in a philosophical conversation with Christ himself.) Nowhere in the gospels is Caiaphas or any other Jew mentioned as being present during Jesus' torture, and nowhere is Caiaphas - who was installed and paid by Rome - regarded as anything like the man with power over the entire situation, as he is throughout The Passion. Indeed, when Pilate wanted to quell a rebellion, he knew perfectly well how to do so: by killing and/or crucifying hundreds of Jews at a time. Nowhere do the gospels relate the Jewish leaders making up additional scurrilous and false charges against Jesus, e.g., that he was telling Judeans not to pay their tribute to Rome, when the substantive charge of blasphemy failed to stick. In short, whatever anti-Judaism is in the gospels, and there is plenty, Gibson vastly augmented it in his film. What's more, the priests and Pharisees all look like Jews - you know, the beard, the nose, the sidelong glances, the funny clothing - whereas the everyday Jews, Jesus himself, and most of his disciples look like Protestants.
Finally, The Passion of the Christ chooses to emphasize and invent supernatural aspects to the passion story that are not in the gospels. At the moment of Christ's death, a large earthquake shakes Jerusalem, causing chambers in the Temple to be destroyed. Judas is driven by demons, whom we see, to kill himself (the gospels just relate that he hanged himself, presumably out of guilt). Jesus miraculously heals the ear of a soldier whom one of his disciples attacks, an anecdote present only in the gospel of Luke, but included in the film. And throughout, Satan -- not present in the gospels' accounts of the passion -- lurks at every turn, a pale, androgynous figure whom only Jesus is able to see. The gospels' overriding message seems to be one of acceptance of Divine destiny. Jesus refuses to defend himself, telling us his death must take place in this way in order to fulfill his Divine mission. In the film, the overriding message is the supernatural Christ and the blindness of those who don't get it. This is the mythic, Catholic Jesus, not the rabbi, Protestant Jesus: Jesus the son of God, who died on the cross for our sins, not Jesus the teacher of wisdom. Jesus dies as an act of love, and he loves his enemies even on the cross, but it is the cosmic significance of the passion that is emphasized. Yes, Jesus is shown convincing some disciples through his words, but most of them he gets just with a look; Roman guards, Simon carrying the cross, Mary Magdalene - all are converted just by gazing into Jesus's eyes. They see. The Jews are blind.
Why these three distortions -adding violence, vilifying the Jewish villains, and emphasizing the supernatural? In part, it is because The Passion of the Christ is an extremely Catholic film - it is puzzling that so many Protestants are rushing to see it, since the Jesus portrayed in the film is the supernatural Christ, not the ethical one; the one of saints, hell, and apocalypse, not of common sense readers of the Bible. This is the Christ who says "No one can reach the father through me," not "Turn the other cheek"; we hear the full Last Supper/communion speech ("this is my body...") but nothing like "it is easier for a camel to pass through the head of a pin than for a rich man to enter heaven."
But the particular emphasis on the violence and the perfidy of the Jews, the addition of detail - this film is too odd to simply say "it is as it was," since it isn't how the gospels say it was. Nor, unlike some of my colleagues, do I believe the answer lies in either antisemitism or cynicism. Gibson is too religious for that. So, I return to my question, with a new emphasis: why was this film made?
Let's let Gibson answer first. He said on NBC's "Today Show" that the point of the film's violence was to show "the enormity of the sacrifice":
We are meant to be moved because Christ willingly gave up his life to bring salvation to others. Each crack of the whip, coupled with Christ's acceptance and equanimity, is more inspiration. In fact, the movie often had this effect on me - Jim Caviezel has the mystic's eye down pat, and as a religious person myself, I was inspired. It would be a mistake to think that the film is "about" the violence, or the Jews; to think so is to manifest precisely the blindness that the gospels, film, and centuries of Christian tradition ascribe the priests and Pharisees. No - it's about God.
In this Light, we must understand that - Passion plays and their ascriptions of blame notwithstanding - this was Christ's own decision, God's own decision. It had to be this way. As Jesus says himself when he is arrested,
A month before The Passion of the Christ was released, the Israeli government decided to place on its foreign affairs website graphic videos of the aftermath of suicide bombings. The videos, available at www.mfa.gov.il are intensely disturbing, and we have captured only the milder images here. The purpose of the move was twofold. Specifically, it was designed as a PR campaign launched in connection with the Palestinian effort to convince the International Court of Justice in the Hague to declare the Israeli "security fence" a violation of International law - an effort that most legal observers believe will easily succeed, particularly since Israel has refused to participate in the tribunal. (Israel claims this is because it does not want to recognize the court's authority, but it's more likely that they knew they would lose.) More generally, the videos are meant to counter a years-long campaign by the Arab world of airing shocking, graphic imagery of maimed human corpses and mutilated bodies in connection with - choose your political flavor - reporting on the Intifada or stoking the flames of hatred against Israel.
I have seen these images, and they gave me nightmares. In searching for images to accompany an earlier Zeek article, I found my way into the vast network of anti-Israel sites on the Internet, and couldn't help but look at the pictures. Part of me didn't want to see Daniel Pearl decapitated, but part of me obviously did - and the curious part won. I thought I would resist clicking the thumbnail of a decapitated boy, but I didn't, and that picture has stayed with me for months. Likewise the image of a soldier with a huge hole in his head, caused by last month's suicide bombing in Jerusalem. See how your mind reacts. If you want to see that picture, all you have to do is [click here].
Did you click? Did you notice your blood race as you did or didn't do it? If you saw the image, were you filled with rage? Disgust? If you weren't, do you wonder why you weren't?
Al-Jazeera and other Arab television stations broadcast pictures far more disturbing than that one virtually every night. On the U.S. news, we hear "three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces..." On Al-Jazeera, we see their dead bodies, as the camera lingers over the wounds.
What is the result of this broadcast violence? What is its objective?
Statistical studies are not conclusive, partly because they haven't been done with real violence - only the TV and video-game kind that most viewers know is fake. I can tell you from my personal reaction that I want to kill Arabs every time I see pictures of Israeli victims, and I want to kill Sharon when I see pictures of Palestinian ones. At such moments, I don't hope and pray for a peaceful solution to the conflict. I want to kill. My testosterone starts flowing, I want to break things, I hate the lies the Palestinians routinely tell, or the racist blindness on the part of Right-wing Jews. I want to kick every Arab out of Greater Israel, or stop soiling my religion with the putrid stink of occupation. Whatever, whichever, as long as there is violence. In short, I am inflamed with passion.
"Passion" - that's what the Gibson film is about, and what it is meant to evoke. It's always been a strange word for "death," since in ordinary emotional parlance it means the opposite. The word comes from the Latin passus, meaning "having suffered." But the way the Passion has been presented, historically and in the new film, makes the additional meanings in English seem quite relevant. Do we really believe that the violence of this film is just to show us the "enormity of the sacrifice," when we know full well the effects of graphic violence on ordinary humans? Why this story, which takes up 2 chapters out of 28 in Matthew, 2 out of 21 in John, instead of the story of Jesus's message of love?
Why was this film made? This film was made because of passion, and it is meant to inspire passion - the kind that gets stirred up by violent movies. Like Al Jazeera, Gibson is using violent imagery to short-circuit rationality and elicit an impassioned response. Once more, however, the desired impassioned response is not "kill the Jews" but "accept Christ as your savior." Yes, the fact that the Jews did it is important, and it is cause for grave concern -- but it is not the movie's central point. The film's underlying thesis is that passions excited by violence make a person prone to religious conversion. That faith is closely related to fury. The film was made to enrage us and convert us. And that makes it far more interesting, and far more disturbing.
The key to The Passion of the Christ came for me during Gibson's interview with Diane Sawyer, in which he talked about his sinful past. Gibson said he was ready to kill himself, and almost did once, before he was saved. It was interesting to watch a traditionalist Catholic adopt evangelical Protestant religious language, and the emotion of Gibson's tale was compelling. He seemed viscerally to hate his earlier self, before he was reborn in Christ.
And then I read an earlier quote he'd given the New Yorker: "I had to use the Passion of Christ and His wounds to heal my wounds."
Christ's dying for Gibson's sins was necessary because otherwise Gibson himself would have died. Christ is the stand-in for the sinner himself, and his tortures are those which the saved Gibson inflicts on his former self. That's not Jesus being whipped, beaten, spit at, and crucified - it's Mel Gibson himself.
This is visceral rebirth, a rebirth through trauma, and it requires the enthusiasm - hitlahavut in Hebrew, being on fire - that The Passion of the Christ is meant to evoke. We are to be shocked into repentance, or conversion, or both.
Now, this hatred of the former self is present in many redemptive traditions - but not in all of them. Within the Jewish tradition, most teachers agree that it's important not to imagine a total break from one's "former self." Just as AA requires its members to say "I'm an alcoholic," no matter how many years they have been sober, the Jewish tradition of tshuvah is one in which guilt is removed, but the deeds of the past are still 'owned' by he (or she) who committed them. You don't symbolically whip, beat, and kill your former self. Even the rebirth of Yom Kippur - the Day of Death - is one which remembers the past.
To be sure, this is an ambivalent kind of self-understanding. There are many for whom Yom Kippur, on the calendar of time or of the heart, is indeed about killing the former self and being reborn anew. But even for such people, the process of kapparah (atonement, but literally, cleansing, scouring, catharsis) is not one of symbolic self-crucifixion. To open up to the Grace of God is neither an act of Christian faith nor Gibsonian self-laceration but of bittul, nullification. The self is not whipped; the self is dropped. We introspect, and then we surrender. And as he surrenders into his True Self, the baal tshuvah does not hate that which caused him to sin. He recognizes it as a power that can be turned to good.
This is a very different imitatio dei than the one we learn from Gibson's film. On Gibson's path, we imitate Christ by turning his agonies on those parts of ourselves which we loathe. The whipping of Jesus is the projected penance of the sinner, with a Christ substituting his body for the one that truly deserves to be scourged.
How different is Gibson's psychodrama of self-immolation and rebirth into paradise from the deluded dreams of suicide bombers, who destroy themselves in order to enter paradise? That, too, is a form of Divine sacrifice, is it not? And it is one which is animated by precisely the same non-rational energies that are stirred up by propaganda, be it Al Jazeera's films of gore or Gibson's.
When the passions are stirred up, violence as well as religious fervor can result - from the Passion play pogroms to September 11 to last week on the 14 bus.
Now, I think one of the repeated failings of Jewish leaders is that they see themselves as the center of stories that they are not really the center of. This story is not primarily about us. However, critics are right to point out that it was not inspiration but violence that was provoked, often, by the Passion plays as they were produced over the centuries. Christians watched these violent displays of perfidy on the part of the Jews, and they killed Jews. I think the Jewish critics are right to condemn the film on these grounds, particularly because now, as in the past, the sins of the Jewish priests seem easy to connect with the perceived sins of contemporary Jewry. They were liars then, liars now; cruel then, cruel now; conniving then, conniving now. These statements may seem almost bland if you read them casually on your computer screen. But when they accompany grisly images of Jewish violence, you might be ready to kill too.
The film made me afraid. It was so easy - the elision from Godly charisma to holy wrath. Religion stirs up the emotions, because it involves the whole self - body, heart, mind, and spirit - and excites the self. It lights a fire within us, and that fire can very quickly rage. And when that intense energy is married to myth - in this case, a story of the Jews as eternally other, always blind, always petty, shortsighted, cruel, deceitful, conniving, damned, violent - it has been, is, and will continue to be explosive.
But obviously, we Jews have our myths too, and we use our myths to oppress others, deny their humanity, fence them in behind concrete walls. (If you disagree, notice how strongly you disagree, how quickly you can become angry.) So does that mean that all religious passion is inherently suspect? Some would say so - I remember a lecture by David Hartman, the noted philosopher, in which he essentially argued that only rationalism would save us; passion, such as he found in the Jewish poet Judah Halevi, inexorably leads to violence.
Let's look closer.
Diane Sawyer asked Gibson to explain what he meant when he said that the Holy Ghost helped him write the Passion screenplay. Gibson replied much as a neo-Hasidic pantheist would: "Diane, God ordains everything. God helped me make my bed this morning."
Clearly, Gibson has a mystical, personal relationship with God. He may even be "too" religious - addicted to God much as he was once addicted to alcohol or fame. But this is the critical point: that the personal relationship, the passion is not all he has. Gibson also has a myth - a story, a narrative that ties his personal, mystical enthusiasm to a fixed creed and worldview. And so he has chosen to express his relationship with the Divine by retelling the myth, further choosing to emphasize not Christ's love or teachings, but his death. And then he has chosen to emphasize the violence and gore of that death, rather than the submission which it represented.
Each of these steps is fraught with peril. It is problematic when religious fervor, which is personal, becomes attached to myth, which is often communal. The enthusiasm of personal piety quickly turns into the fascism of public religion, whether practiced by Islamists or fundamentalist Christians or Jews. And it is even more problematic when the aspects of the myth that are accentuated are those with violent themes. Then the fascism of public religion turns into the terrorism of Bin Laden, the genocidal particularism of Kahane, the Crusades, the Inquisition.
Myth is generally seen by contemplatives as a necessarily skillful means to convey incommunicable truth. We tell stories, because that is how we communicate. We embellish the stories with miracles, because that is how many people will be drawn in - hopefully, into a life in which real, natural miracles can be perceived. The problem comes when the myths are reified - when they are turned into the essence of the truth, rather than the vessel which contains it. Myth without enthusiasm leads to a dessicated, dry religion. Enthusiasm without myth leads to a mysticism of the elite. But myth combined with enthusiasm can lead to violence.
John Locke said, three centuries ago, that there are different kinds of decisions we make in our lives, and different criteria we should apply to each. If believing that you are the Messiah is purely an internal matter, and has no impact on others, then Locke says, you are entitled to act on that belief without much skepticism, if you like. However, if you are going to act in a way that affects others, you should only act publicly regarding that of which you are certain, and which can be externally proven.
This accords with the contemplative path as well. Our personal religious enthusiasm, our mysticism - we may be certain of these, but what do they mandate of us other than love? It is when religion becomes attached to myth - whose details we can only be certain of through an leap of personal faith, i.e., not verifiable, not externally provable - that other mandates are created. Those are precisely the mandates which, says Locke, must be strictly examined and made to conform with reason. No one died as a result of mysticism. People die when mysticism is married to myth, religion, and power, without ample compassion, wisdom and skill to counterbalance them.
We may feel most certain when we are angry, inflamed by violent imagery. But that is precisely the worst time to act. In fact, it is precisely the time to question. Therefore, it is neither skillful, nor wise, nor compassionate to invite people into a movie theater and broil up their passions in the context of a myth with living enemies. If anything, it is irresponsible. Let go of doubt when you are dancing, praying, or painting. Invite it back in when you are thinking of harming another - or inflaming his passions with a heartfelt but deeply disturbed vision of Divine sacrifice.
I feel the power of Christ myself, although I do not generally express it in those mythical terms. I feel the presence of forgiveness in my own life, and understand how it is possible for a perfectly enlightened being to be the Son of God. It is, in a way, a beautiful myth, and I was inspired by its rendition in The Passion. But because that power of Christ, the power of the One, is married to a myth of violence, and a myth with venal enemies of whom I myself am one, I fear the film much more than I love it. It is as if a great inspiration and also a great evil has been simultaneously unleashed on the world.
Gibson's often brilliant film illustrates much of what is beautiful about religion, and much of what is terrible about it. The radiance, healing, and love that are born of mysticism, and also the violence and the hatred that spring from it, nourished by it, when that energy becomes attached to a fixed and fundamentalist myth. And most of all, the power, the strength, the source of the ecstasy and of the evil: passion.
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