Reflections on The Passion of the Christ

There have been so many discussions, public and private, about this movie that I wanted to find out what was so special about it. The main points that were made by commentators included the following: First, many Christians felt that it was for them a most moving experience to see how much suffering Christ had truly undergone to save humankind from all its sins. Then there were discussions on the authenticity of the presented episodes, though by and large they followed the Biblical texts. Some expressed the fear that the movie would unleash or revive intense anti-Semitic feelings, which would be quite dangerous, especially in the current international political scene. Another criticism was that the movie was too gory in its details, and underplayed, not to say ignored, the message of Christ which is far more relevant and significant that his crucifixion.
As a result of such comments, I had little inclination to go see the movie. Yet I went and saw it because I wanted to understand, appreciate, and participate in discussions on it. I also wanted to see it because the topic is of perennial interest: after all, the crucifixion of Christ has given an everlasting symbol to Christianity. I re-read chapters from John, Matthew, Mark and Luke, before I went to see the movie, and was surprised to see things in common and also differences in the narratives.
I was not disappointed by the movie, because I did not expect much from it, having heard and read more negative than positive accounts of it. I was not surprised because the reviewers and discussants had already described much of what I was to see. I was not entertained, because I witnessed far too much pain, and no touch of humor in the entire film. I was not impressed because, though the acting was good and the photography excellent, there was nothing extraordinary in all of that. I was not educated because I did not learn anything new from the movie. I was not enlightened because I found no new insight in it, either about Christ or about humanity.

With all that, I don’t regret having seen the movie because never before, in all of history, literature, art or narration, has the passion of Christ been so effectively, movingly, or graphically presented as in this film. And it was fun listening to Aramaic.  Therefore, the movie will remain a classic for generations to come; perhaps it will be repeatedly shown on TV every Easter season.
The general impression one might get from watching this movie is that the Jews who treated Christ in such a deplorable manner were somehow unique in this respect. But the fact of the matter is that since the most ancient times human beings have been pretty crude and cruel in their treatment of those they regard as offenders. In practically every ancient culture and civilization, punishments meted out to convicted individuals were gross, inhuman, and torturous, way beyond our current capacity to imagine: these included burning, stoning to death, drowning, mutilating, and the like. According to historians, crucifixion with all its inhumanity had been in vogue in ancient Egypt, Persia, Greece, and of course in Rome too. The Jews had also adopted it. Centuries later, it was meted out to some Christian missionaries in Japan. It is difficult to visualize the abominable inhumanity of this punishment, and Mel Gibson has done an excellent job of reminding us in shocking detail what it was all about.

It should also be remembered, however, that other types of tortures persist to this day behind closed doors in a number of nations – all members of the U.N. The only difference is that in our own times such government-perpetrated atrocities are not displayed as a spectacle for all to see and share, much less acknowledged in public by the leaders of the lands. Abhorrence of such behavior is largely a modern phenomenon: one of the blessings of modernism.
The gruesome mangling that was wreaked on Christ’s body was all part of the ancient practice. And it was presented in the movie with intentional intensity. Most normal people would cringe at what was shown, whether the atrocities were perpetrated on Christ or even on a much lesser person. The goal of the producers was clearly to show the unimaginable suffering that Christ underwent to save humankind. One may wonder if this is where the true greatness of Christ lies. Certainly not, from the perspective of a Non-Christian. And yet, there was hardly any hint of how exactly humankind was saved by Christ being subjected to such pain. Furthermore, given that Christ did not go through the whole horrible episode voluntarily, it is fair to ask if that really was an act of sacrifice. Then again, if Christ had been expelled to distant lands, and he had not suffered the crucifixion, would his message have been any less potent or any less meaningful?
For the most part, from what one sees in the movie, Christ went through the excruciating experience as any normal person would, suffering very much like any other human victim, appealing to God for help, exclaiming why God had forsaken him: one of the earliest articulations of theodicy. “If God can do this to His own son,” I thought, “is it any wonder He lets such and worse fate fall on lesser creatures?”
What did make Christ special was his return of love and understanding to his enemies even in the face of their terrible treatment of him. Here he shines as a beacon for the rest of humanity. If anything is superhuman, his return of Love for Hate is. But even this made Christ a noble, admirable, and remarkable human being rather than divine.
Indeed, with all its alleged religious intent, there is very little in the movie that persuades one to the view that Christ was in any way divine. He was, all through the film, a sad target of hate and anger for claiming to be the Messiah, and for threatening to blow up the Jewish Temple. It is a sad commentary on human history that Christ was neither the first nor the last to have been treated with such heartless cruelty for refusing to accept the claims of other self-proclaimed prophets, and for proclaiming new visions. For that is often what blasphemy is all about.
On more than one occasion, as it says in the Gospel, Christ foretold what was to happen. This raises a profound theological question, because the implication of Christ’s prediction is that God Himself had ordained it to be so. If that were the case, can we really blame Judas or the others who betrayed and crucified Christ? Was not all that part of the Divine Plan? Indeed, if Judas had not betrayed Christ, wouldn’t that have shown Christ to have been less than a seer of things to come?
Aside from the unspeakable pain caused by the horrible process of crucifixion, the gratuitous cruelty of the mob against an already tortured Christ, and the cheerful revelry of the officiating agents, though faithful to some passages in the Bible, struck me as rather exaggerated. It is incredible that while Christ was writhing in pain, his skin peeling and bleeding from the scourging, some of the men who were goading him with his cross kept taunting and whipping him mercilessly, mocking him as the King of the Jews, and yet others were drinking, laughing, and playing with barbaric callousness. This again is a commentary on the Zeitgeist, rather than on the intrinsic depravity of any culture or people. In any case, such depiction should provoke contempt for and anger towards such individuals and the value-framework which permits, even encourages such behavior, rather than indictment of a whole people. Also, while the clamor of the enraged mob for the crucifixion of Christ is dramatically shown, the plea of the few – who were also Jews – who asked the Roman ruler to forgive Christ was underplayed in the movie.
And this is a crucial point: The sordid saga of Jewish persecution in Christendom arose from the utterly erroneous theological perspective that a whole race of people are by nature evil and deserving of discrimination and dehumanization because a handful of them in a remote age and place behaved in such an outrageous manner towards one who has been accepted as the Savior by many others. The attribution of collective negative characteristics to a group on the basis of some features in a random sample is what constitutes racism. It is an unhappy commentary of Christian societies that they have been unwittingly racist for many generations in the name of Christ. The fear that such an irrational and evil mindset would re-emerge from this movie, though understandable, also strikes me as naïve. With all its problems and pains and pathetic features, the average person in at least some societies is no longer provoked to such barbaric behavior by a movie. But who knows!
All in all, in my view, this movie has received more attention and commentary than it really deserves, and, as a consequence, has grossed more millions than it otherwise would have. We live in an age where violence and cruelty have become an intrinsic aspect of the entertainment industry, and it seems to be appealing to a great many people. Mel Gibson has taken full advantage of this, with the apparent purpose of telling the world pictorially the passion of Christ.

At a time when gruesome murder and overt sex have become the norms in movies and on TV, the graphic portrayal of the road to the Crucifixion should not be all that shocking, and perhaps contributes to the movie’s popularity. After all, one can partake of all the violence one craves for on the screen with a sense of moral indignation and religious fervor. What more can one asks for?
For many devout Christians The Passion of the Christ is probably an authentic representation of a climactic episode in the life of their Savior, but for a non-Christian who has reverence for Christ and his message, this particular episode in Christ’s life, and its movie version seem to be a case of much ado about something which should not be stressed as much as the message and meaning of the Christ symbol.
I am inclined to think that in a few months this movie would be relegated to the DVD and Video status like every other movie, great or mediocre.
March 15, 2004

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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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