Graduate Theological Union

The Subliminal Messages of Mel Gibson’s Passion

David Biale, Emmanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at UC Davis

By now, as much ink has been spilled on the “Gospel According to Mel Gibson” as the copious blood his Christ spills in the movie. The world is now divided between those religiously moved by it – and the rest of us, a Manichean division that confirms Gibson’s view of the world and one that he has worked so hard to promote. Gibson’s professions notwithstanding, his Jesus is not a figure that unites, but one that divides.

As a Jew asked to comment on this movie, I find myself placed willy-nilly in the traditional Jewish role of the stiff-necked people denying the “truth” of the Good News, the same role played by the perfidious crowd in both the Gospels themselves and in Gibson’s movie. Small wonder that Gibson has aimed barbs at conspiracies of secular critics, a thinly-veiled cover for the Christ-denying Jews. The controversy around the movie thus replicates the theology on which it is based.

Oddly enough, the very literalism with which Gibson has rendered the Gospels’ story of the passion – notwithstanding occasional historical inaccuracies and borrowings from latter-day mystics – conforms to the kind of literalism with which the Jews themselves were traditionally accused of reading the Bible. If Jews represent the “carnal” Israel, then Gibson’s bloody corpus christi – that is, attention solely to the body of Christ – is about as “Jewish” as you can get. But I leave it to my Christian colleagues to decide whether this image of Jesus is heretical or not in Christian terms. Indeed, whatever problems we Jews may have with the movie, I think that Christians have as big a problem with what may well be a hijacking of their religion.

Fortunately, these theological conundrums are not my problem. As a Jewish historian, though, I’m stopped several times a day by people who are curious to know if I think The Passion is antisemitic. My short answer is that if it is antisemitic, it’s not much more than the Gospels themselves (which, of course, is still a problem). Yes, one of the priests looks like he stepped right out of the pages of Der Sturmer, the Nazi antisemitic rag, but most of the rest of them looked more like Greek Orthodox priests than kohanim. Although there may be some viewers who leave the theaters intending to wreak vengeance on the Jews for killing Christ, what’s more likely is that they’ll leave thoroughly confused. This is because both the movie and the books on which it’s based tell a very muddled – even incoherent – story about why the Jews, who five days earlier welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as their savior, now want him dead.

Gibson claims that the violence of the Passion story is the responsibility of all mankind and not just the Jews. It’s easy enough to universalize or neutralize the guilt for violence when the party in question no longer exists. For example, the Hebrew Bible notoriously contains a prescription for genocide against the Canaanite nations. But, with the exception of fringe extremists who think that today’s Palestinians are the descendants of the Canaanites, Jews reject this passage as having any contemporary significance. After all, there is no such thing as a Canaanite Anti-Defamation League. It would be a lot easier to universalize the Gospels’ story if the mob was made up of Hittites. Unfortunately for Christians, the Jews are still around and the implications of the Passion cannot be easily universalized, especially by someone claiming to tell it “literally.”

But I would like to turn away from whether Gibson’s movie is antisemitic, a topic which has already been so widely discussed, to focus instead on certain subliminal messages in The Passion of the Christ, that have not yet been addressed. I want to argue that these subliminal messages that can only be understood in light of the political and cultural contexts that surround its appearance. For films – and other works of art – can never be understood in a void, since they are necessarily produced in a given time and place. There are three such contexts that seem to me relevant in watching this movie.

The first is the role of the Holocaust in contemporary culture. For decades after the Holocaust, no one dared denigrate what happened to the Jews under the Nazis. But there are many disturbing signs of late – such the equation of Stars of David with swastikas – that some are growing impatient with recent Jewish suffering. Gibson, for his part, has been reticent in the extreme to reject his father’s denial of the Holocaust (“don’t go there,” he said to Diane Sawyer). He himself has said evasively that many people suffered under the Nazis and only later conceded under pressure that maybe the Jews were singled out.

Yet, as I watched the brutal Roman soldiers beating Jesus with such sadistic pleasure, the image that came most to mind was the way the SS tormented their Jewish victims before killing them. Indeed, as the Christian theologian Franklin Littell argued in a small book called The Crucifixion of the Jews, the Holocaust is the true passion of our time, for had Jesus himself been alive in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, he would have been among the victims in Auschwitz and not among the ostensibly “Christian” perpetrators.

For Christians, therefore, the Holocaust remains a fundamental theological challenge. Gibson may not deny that the Holocaust happened, but his film seems to respond to this challenge by saying: “You Jews have monopolized suffering for long enough; now I’m going to show you the mother of all suffering.” As one who has always found distasteful the question of “who has suffered most,” I was disturbed by Gibson’s subliminal message that the Christian story trumps the Jewish one.

The Holocaust is not, however, the only larger context in which this film takes place. In contemporary America, the great, looming culture war is over equal rights for homosexuals. One wouldn’t think that The Passion has anything to say on this score, but in one scene (reported only by the Gospel of Luke), Jesus is taken to an interview with King Herod. With no scriptural basis, Gibson has chosen to portray Herod and his entourage as virtual drag queens, effeminate revelers who mock the Christ. The chaste Christians have nothing in common with these degenerate libertines. You can tell which side this Jesus will be on in the battle over same-sex marriage.

But we need to juxtapose this scene with the interminable flagellation of Jesus by the leather-clad Roman soldiers. As Christopher Hitchins has rightly pointed out, the film is a “homoerotic exercise in lurid sadomasochism for those who like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time.” What all this says in terms of Gibson’s psychopathology is a subject that I won’t explore (I can hear him already saying: “don’t go there”). But it seems clear that, as in so many expressions of homophobia, homoeroticism lies barely concealed under the surface. While The Passion clearly reinforces the religiosity of those who see contemporary Christianity fighting a rearguard action in defense of the heterosexual family, its own subliminal message is much more confusing. Just as Gibson has found a loophole for showing unspeakable violence on the screen without incurring the criticism of those who regularly denounce Hollywood violence, so he has smuggled in an eroticism that ought to make the same audience very uncomfortable.

Finally, there is the question of empire. The story of the Gospels cannot be divorced from Roman imperialism, but they give a very curious spin on the power relations between the occupier and the occupied. While it is the Romans who crucify Christ, Pontius Pilate really doesn’t want to exercise this power. He would like to save Jesus, but the fanatical mob brays for his blood and, in a line that doesn’t even appear in the Gospels, the priests warn Pilate that a revolt has already broken out which can only be suppressed by crucifying its leader. What we know of the historical Pilate is very different: he was one of the most brutal of all the Roman viceroys and would have hardly needed any prodding to string up a suspected rebel. In portraying Pilate so unhistorically, the writers of the Gospels were almost certainly trying to curry favor with the Empire and to dissociate themselves from the rebellious Jews.

In Gibson’s film, this peculiar view of the Roman Empire is even more exaggerated. With the exception of Mary, the only figures with whom we identify in the movie are Pontius Pilate and his wife (the latter barely mentioned in the Gospels themselves). While the Roman soldiers are pathological sadists, Pilate and his lieutenants emerge as a bleeding-heart liberals, sensitive souls condemned to maintaining order in a miserable corner of the Middle East.

How does all this resonate in contemporary America? I would argue that Gibson’s movie must be seen against the backdrop of our own recent foray into empire. We, too, have a viceroy in a remote region of the Middle East, but, in America’s self-conception, L. Paul Bremer is as benign a figure as the Gospels’ Pilate. If we have to use force in Iraq, we believe that it is because the fanatical natives insist on butchering each other. But while we obviously don’t engage in crucifixions, the idea that American Empire has nothing in common with brutal imperialism is about as realistic as is Pilate in The Passion. Quite apart from the religious controversies stirred up by this movie, then, it also sends a deeply disturbing message about the nature of empire, one that can all-too-easily lull the viewer into delusions about how power really was exercised two thousand years ago as well as about the dangers that await us when we exercise it today.

When viewed as a commentary on these contexts as we head into this year’s highly charged presidential campaign, The Passion of the Christ appears even more problematic and troubling than its reviewers have so far noticed. And who knows? Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before one of the evangelical supporters of George Bush notices that real name of John Kerry, the grandson of a Czech Jew named Cohen, ought to be Yonatan ha-Kohen – a patrilineal descendant of the Gospels’ wicked Caiaphas. A stretch of the imagination, you might say, but, Vatican II notwithstanding, we apparently live in a world where, for some, “his blood is still on us and on our children.”

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