Graduate Theological Union
Comments on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ
Margaret Miles, GTU Emerita Dean and Professor of Historical Theology
I would like to begin by setting our discussion this evening in context. Let us remind ourselves of the obvious: The Passion of the Christ is a movie. It is not a window on, nor a mirror of, reality. We, watching it, are spectators. As spectators, we do not see a movie as if for the first time. We are trained by our many viewing experiences to expect and respond to several film conventions. A number of learned responses are activated as soon as the theater darkens. The first of these is detachment. You are NOT there; you are in the comfortable anonymity of a darkened theater, perhaps eating popcorn. In other words, movies are entertainment, and entertainment places the viewer in a position of passivity. Religious engagement, on the other hand, is active. Historical people who used images of the crucifixion for devotional purposes urged the use of informed imagination. Viewers of devotional images were instructed to place themselves imaginatively within the body and emotions of one of the spectators of Christ’s passion. There is a contradiction between entertainment (passivity) and religious engagement (activity).
Movies that are hugely successful at the box office employ Hollywood conventions. A week after The Passion opened it had grossed 117.5 million. The primary convention used was violence, in the context of an American public so habituated to screen violence that we are unwilling to take measures that would prevent street violence. It would take too long to describe the multiple film conventions employed, but I do want to mention gender roles and expectations. The devil is a woman (played by a female actor). There was the familiar bad woman / good woman dichotomy. While the bad woman acts, the good women weep helplessly. There is a contradiction between box office aspirations and religious inspiration.
Second, a movie must be discussed in its (global, not just national) cultural context. In a world in which ethnic conflicts are causing wars, caricatured and stereotypical Jews were shown as responsible for Jesus’ death. Pontius Pilate, depicted by historians of his time (Philo, Josephus) as a bloodthirsty thug who liked to crucify Jews without trials, was shown as sensitive, reluctant to kill Jesus. Historically, every time there has been an increment of attention within Christianity to Christ’s passion, there has been increased persecution of Jews. The First Crusade (1096), preached as vindication for Jesus’ crucifixion, included the first pogroms of European Jews. Similarly, in the fourteenth-century, new devotions to the Passion were accompanied by persecution of Jews.
This brings me to the content of The Passion. Was the REAL event of Christ’s crucifixion the physical event in which a human being suffered and died? Or, as in Orthodox icons, was the real event a spiritual event in which the salvation of the world was achieved? In Orthodox icons Christ is shown reigning triumphantly from the cross, his eyes open, his body erect.
Theological issues must also be noticed: Should Christians’ attention be solely on the suffering and death of Jesus, as the film implies? Wasn’t Christ’s LIFE equally salvific? Why is Christ’s ministry given such brief attention - in The Passion, but also in Christian art since the Renaissance? We might get a very different picture of the mission of the Christ if attention were distributed away from what was DONE TO him, and onto his own words and actions. For, according to the gospels, Jesus spent his adult life ministering to bodies as well as souls –feeding and healing BODIES.
What if Christians could become better Christians, not by participating in Christ’s sufferings (by viewing a visually abusive movie), but by participating in his ministry concentration. We might emulate Jesus by supporting social programs that feed the hungry and provide health care. The Christ who drove moneychangers out of the temple might, in our time, urge the monitoring of corporate greed. As a Christian, it is the active Christ of the ministry years I learn from and seek, however haltingly, to emulate, not Christ the martyr. And we could have missed the resurrection completely if The Passion were our sole source of information about “the Christ.”