Emerson provides the text for this sermon, which is my response to Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ: “Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”
No matter what else you may think or say about the film, it is provocative. Indeed, it has stirred up a religious hornet’s nest, especially around the issue of anti-Semitism, but also around the very old controversy about the nature of Jesus: was he fully human, partly human and partly God, or fully God, as defined by the Nicene Creed? The latter question points to our Unitarian roots.
The movie has gotten more attention in the religious world than Darwin’s The Origin of Species. It deserves all the attention we’re willing to give to it, though I’m not suggesting that you should go to see the film. You should be familiar with the Gospel stories on which it is based, and you should know the things Gibson added to those stories.
The film is rated R for violence, which is another reason for all the hoopla. It is excruciatingly violent, which is typical of a Mel Gibson movie. The body of Jesus becomes a Jackson Pollack painting, in living color-blood red.
It’s a different style 3-D film. You have to look at it sideways, through protective goggles so you won’t run from the theater in disgust. The 3-D I mean stands for divisive, distressing and draconian. (Draconian, in spite of popular belief, is not from Dracula, but from Draco, an Athenian lawgiver, whose code was extremely harsh, which is the way Gibson portrays Caiaphas, the High Priest who urges Pilate to crucify him for the sin of blasphemy.)
So, I appreciate the film. It is wonderfully provocative. It generates thoughtful discussion, and it sends the Biblically illiterate back to the Passion story in the Gospels. The Bible is an extremely popular piece of literature that, like Moby Dick, remains unread, except by those who take it literally.
After seeing the film twice, and thinking about a considered response, three
questions come to mind:
First, what are the roots of anti-Semitism?
Second, since the ‘passion’ story in the Bible is the story of suffering, what are the various ways we humans suffer?
Third, who or what is Jesus? The Gospel stories Jesus asks his disciples, who do men say that I am?
We’re presented with the theological problem of theodicy: how can you justify the goodness and justice of God in the face of evil? Why do the innocent, like Job and Jesus, suffer?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Gibson’s film provoked me to think about the various ways we humans suffer. I realized that all the ways we suffer are portrayed on the screen either directly or by inference. In other words, The Passion of the Christ is a reflection of our own down-to-earth human suffering.
To me, Jesus is Everyman, or, to avoid gender limitations, he is Everyperson. The Christ is our human capacity for compassion-to suffer with another person, to transcend the usual boundary of our separateness or self-concern, and to feel another’s pain.
The Existentialists, like Dostoyevsky, Sartre and Camu, say that we suffer because we feel alone in a hostile, indifferent and meaningless universe. We feel a sense of alienation, unconnected from everyone else, and unconnected to God. We feel separate and separated. We are, as Sartre said, ‘condemned to freedom.’ We suffer because we realize that we have made, and must continue to make, decisions that determine the meaning of our lives.
When we do form meaningful relationships that are characterized by love and friendship, we suffer from the fear that something bad will happen to those we love. We suffer from the fear that we’ll be betrayed, or that those we love might disappoint us. We suffer from an underlying fear that we will disappoint a loved one or a friend. We suffer because we sometimes don’t believe that those who express their love really do love us-that their love is conditional, and as soon as we fail them in some way, we’ll be rejected, and then we’ll feel even more alone and alienated than ever.
We suffer by being falsely accused, or from fear of being falsely accused.
In a more obvious sense, we suffer from illnesses and diseases, or the fear of illness and disease. We suffer bodily injury or intentional harm-abuse. It hurts. We suffer from the fear of illness. We suffer from fear of bodily harm, injury, or death being inflicted on us intentionally. We read and hear about people being beaten, raped and murdered every day. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the rule of thumb that determines what goes on television news and the front page.
So the Gospel story as interpreted by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, is the story of the ways we suffer. The ‘good news,’ offered for true believers like Gibson, is that Jesus was the Lamb of God who was given as a sacrifice. He suffered once and for all for our sins. The sacrifice of this Deity provides the solution to human suffering, but only for those who profess a belief that Jesus is the Christ, or God, who offered Himself as a willing sacrifice for our sins.
When I saw the film the first time I was with 14 clergy colleagues who wanted to see it together and follow up the viewing of the film with a discussion in response to it.
To open the discussion we were asked to say one word-a single word that described at least one thing we took away from the film. My word was ‘compassion’
Compassion is the human ability to suffer with another, to feel their pain as though it was happening to you, personally. Our compassion overcomes the existential dilemma of feeling completely separate, alone and meaningless. There’s meaning in feeling another’s pain.
For me, compassion is the quintessential religious ingredient. It transcends the differences between the religions of the world. It’s not about a particular religion. It is recognized by all the world’s religions as the key element. The Buddha is referred to as ‘the compassionate one.’ Jesus is portrayed as taking on the suffering of Everyone. For me, then, compassion is God. God is present in every moment or every act of compassion. It’s as much of God as I need to know.
Gibson’s God is very different from John’s assertion that ‘God is Love.’ Gibson’s God intervenes in the course of history in a literal sense. Gibson seems to believe, literally, in a God who intervened in history to create the world in six days.
Gibson’s God is an angry, vengeful, jealous god, who evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because of their disobedience-because they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Gibson’s God is the literal God described in the Bible.
I see the Bible as a description of what it means to be human. Using marvelous mythology the Bible story lays out the Truths about human existence: that our innocence is lost as soon as we realize that good and evil reside in ourselves and in one another. Each of us has the capacity for both good and evil, and human liberation is the process whereby we are no longer capable of the most heinous evils which we’ve referred to as man’s inhumanity to man.
The 19th century Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker said, “As a master, the Bible is a tyrant. As a servant I do not have time in one life to find its many uses.” Gibson’s God is a tyrant, and his literal interpretation of the Bible story is tyrannical, cruel and oppressive. It is the most unattractive and offensive piece of theology ever to come to the big screen.
Mel Gibson is entitled to his god. The problem comes, however, when we realize that so many people have been slaughtered in the name of god. The true believers can be dangerous. It has happened throughout recorded history, and it is happening now. Gibson’s god looks awfully familiar.
Let me now say something about the charge that Gibson’s film is anti-Semitic, or fuels the flames of anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewishness. This is a more complicated question, and a more insidious problem. I do not want to impugn Gibson’s motives. I want to take him at his word-that he himself is not an anti-Semite, and did not intend his film to be anti-Semitic, or to fuel the flames of the anti-Semitism, which has flared up from time to time for two thousand years.
The anti-Semitism comes off the screen, loud and clear, whether he intended it or not. In the last analysis, it doesn’t matter whether he intended it. It’s at least an unintended consequence of the film.
He provokes us. His film urges us to take a deeper look into the roots of anti-Semitism. Have you ever asked yourself, ‘what are the roots of anti-Semitism?’ Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil for every one that is digging at the roots.”
Gibson fully intended a film about good and evil. Indeed, Satan, the profoundly evil adversary of God, is a dominant figure in the film. Gibson associates Satan with the Jews. Does he do that intentionally? I have to accept him at his word. It was unconscious, perhaps.
Let me offer a little aside, which I think makes the point I’m aiming at. A couple of weeks ago there was a tragic incident at a Masonic Lodge in a nearby New York town. One of the members brought two guns to the initiation rites of a new member. One gun had live ammunition, the other had blanks. The man intended to use the gun with blanks in an initiation rite in which the initiate is symbolically killed, then brought back to life-raised from the dead. The gun with blanks was in his right pocket, the gun with live ammunition in the left pocket. Tragically the man got his pockets confused and he shot and killed the initiate. No one believes he intended to kill his fellow Mason.
Perhaps Mel Gibson did not intend his film to deepen the evil of anti-Semitism. He didn’t know his film is loaded!
Anti-Semitism led to the intentional murder of six million Jews in Nazi Germany. Gibson’s father denies that the Holocaust happened. I understand why-it is too overwhelmingly evil to accept.
But he’s not entitled to deny the Holocaust, anymore than we can deny the intentional destruction of the world trade center and pentagon, with the loss of thousands of innocent lives.
Anti-Semitism is a vile evil. It’s an intentional hatred that is active in the world today, and in some places it is actually spreading. A synagogue in Denver was desecrated just after the Ash Wednesday release of Gibson’s violent film and a sign in front of a Christian Fundamentalist church read, “Jews Killed the Lord Jesus.”
Gibson’s film is like that loaded gun. We can only hope that this violent story will help us to take a closer look at the roots of the evil of anti-Semitism, and, by extension, to look again at the roots of hatred in all its forms-roots that can be traced to passages in the Bible when it is taken literally.
The Gospel of Matthew has the Jews say, “His blood shall be on our hands.”
Gibson’s violent depiction of the last hours of Jesus flies in the face of the most basic, essential teaching of Jesus, who is called The Prince of Peace. The film is not about that easy brand of Christianity we call ‘the teachings of Jesus.’ This film is about the old time religion of vicarious atonement that asserts that only those who are ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’ are saved, and God consigns everyone else to the eternal fires of hell. This idea, I submit, lies at the root of anti-Semitism and the hatred that certain theologies engender.
Gibson’s God is an angry, vengeful, ugly god who chooses favorites, and sends a chill down the spine of a sensitive observer.
Gibson’s God sent Thomas Jefferson back to the Bible with a razor blade. Jefferson said that Christianity was in danger of becoming a religion about Jesus, rather than the religion of Jesus. So Jefferson became a Unitarian. He was denounced as an enemy of Christianity.
To make a case in his own defense he produced a book he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, which we call The Jefferson Bible. The book is Jefferson’s attempt to extract from the Gospels the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus, without any interpretations or theology attached. Jefferson said, “A more beautiful or more precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is proof that I am a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from those who call me an infidel and themselves Christian, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said or saw.”
Gibson’s film paints a picture of the old-time tyrannical god. The film is introduced with a Biblical quote from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the prophet Isaiah: “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” These words predate Jesus. Gibson capitalizes the word ‘he’ to suggest that Isaiah is referring to Jesus. He wasn’t. Vicarious atonement-the idea that Jesus suffered for our sins, and took our sins upon himself, is as far from Jewish theology as you can get.
So, before the story begins, the big screen presents us with Gibson’s god, that old-time religion that emphasizes vicarious atonement, or substitutionary atonement. For Mel Gibson, and for many believing Christians of various kinds, that’s the meaning of the cross; that’s the meaning of the suffering, or ‘passion’ of the Christ.
Gibson’s God depicts Jesus as the ‘Christ,’ the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, the anointed one. That’s the old-time religion that has been losing its foothold in theological circles and has prompted a reactionary brand of Christianity which we know as Christian Fundamentalism. It’s a relatively new child in the Christian household. It was born out of the Enlightenment.
I said earlier that I appreciated the film, not only because it provokes discussion, but I appreciated it as I appreciate any work of art. I don’t have to enjoy it. I certainly didn’t like the film. Let me tell you a little bit of what I saw that helped me to appreciate the Passion of the
The film opens with Jesus alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. I refer to the above description of Existentialism. I identify with the suffering of Jesus. I’ve been to the Garden of Gethsemane.
The story reaches into the depths of my own experience with suffering and it touches something beyond my poor capacity to explain it in a rational way. For me, then, the story penetrates the surface and digs into the roots of the human experience. It is a marvelous mythology, a Truth story. It’s not supposed to be literally true. It’s not about history. It’s about our story; what’s happening right now.
Theodore Parker said it better than I’m able: “There has never been an age in which the Son of Man has not been crucified again.”
The story is unfolding now. It becomes a Truth story when we locate ourselves in it. Look again. The Gospel of Mark describes the opening scene: “And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I pray.’ And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.and going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible the hour might pass from him.”
This is the scene with which the film opens. Jesus is in the garden, in the depths of despair. He is praying. He’s alone. Then he finds that his friends, who he had asked to be there with him, and to stay awake and to pray with him, are sound asleep. They’ve disappointed him. They’ve added to his suffering.
He returns to his prayers, which we hear in Aramaic, and goes even deeper into the depths of his despair. He is sweating profusely. The sweat pours from him. His long hair is soaked with sweat. It’s a powerful scene of existential suffering.
Then his friend Judas comes and betrays him with a kiss. A kiss is a sign of love and friendship. It’s a powerful metaphor that needs no further explanation.
Jesus is arrested, and, his best friend, Peter, his most trusted friend, denies him, as he predicted.
Jesus is brought before the High Priest, and Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders who are in charge of keeping order in the Temple. Gibson portrays them as devious, corrupt and pure evil. Not all of them, to be sure, but the vast majority. You have to watch carefully to realize that a couple of the members of the Sanhedrin disagree with Caiaphas. They are opposed to persecuting Jesus. But the portrait Gibson paints of the Jews is vile-it’s the personification of evil.
They bring Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor in charge of Jerusalem, who Gibson presents as a nice guy who doesn’t want to hurt this poor man. But the Jews insist that he should be crucified, a typical form of Roman execution.
Pilate tries to satisfy their blood lust by having Jesus scourged. The scourging is so extreme that if it were not so horrible it would be comical. No human could survive such a beating, much less carry a heavy cross to Calvary. But he did carry it, with the help of Simon of Cyrene. There’s a scene showing Simon and Jesus carrying the cross together. Simon is helping to hold Jesus up-he has his right arm wrapped around the center bar of the cross and his left arm wrapped around Jesus, and they struggle, together.
The Passion story, and Gibson’s portrayal of it, concludes with Jesus crying out his last words from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He breathes his last, and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two. Gibson has the Temple itself split into two distinct parts. Perhaps this symbolizes the division between good and evil, right and wrong.
Perhaps the destruction of the temple into two distinct and separate parts is a way of distinguishing the Old Testament (Jewish) from the New Testament (Christian.) Perhaps it symbolizes the conscious mind and the unconscious, or literal truth from poetic or metaphoric Truth. Gibson, I think, intended it to symbolize God’s anger. The Temple, the Jews religious home, is destroyed because the Jews are the evil ones.
The Passion of the Christ is characterized by extremes-the extremes of the violence perpetrated on Jesus by the Jews, contrasted with the sensitive and tender love of Mary. It’s a simplistic statement about the extremes of good and evil as clear cut; the good guys v. bad-guys. The Jews are the bad guys, the Christians are the good guys.
Gibson has said that God was working through him to make this film. His job was simple: to make a film in which the Gospel story is realistically portrayed, the extreme suffering of the Christ is clear, and the reason for that suffering-human sin. So he had to show the extreme agony Jesus endured ‘because of our sins.’
Another example of his black and white thinking about good and evil was the fact that he purposely used his own left hand to pound a nail into the hand of Jesus, saying that he, too, is a sinner. Why his left hand? The left hand represents evil. “He will say to those at his left hand, depart from me you sinners, for I was hungry and you did not feed me.and he will say to those at his right hand, come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Jesus, the creeds say, ‘sits at the right hand of the Father.’
Gibson’s portrayal of Jews as evil is not subtle. Far from it. They are portrayed as cruel and blood-thirsty. Gibson portrays the Roman Governor, Pilate, as a gentle, sensitive and caring man, who tries to help Jesus avoid scourging and crucifixion. His portrayal of Herod as a buffoon is a silly caricature of the stereotypical characteristics of a homosexual, an added little touch that does not go unnoticed. I can only assume that he’s making an anti-gay statement, consistent with the homophobia we associate with that brand of Christianity that condemns homosexuals to ever lasting hell.
I’ve tried not to impugn Mel Gibson’s motives, and in that effort I may have failed. He has a right to his personal religious beliefs, and he has a right to use the cinema to present those beliefs. . I’ve watched the film twice. I’ve tried to listen to what he has said, off screen, about the film.
I listened as he told Diane Sawyer that several years ago he reached a point in his life where he felt controlled by drugs and alcohol. He said that money and fame didn’t provide what he always thought being rich and famous would provide–quite the opposite. He said he felt empty, that his life had become meaningless. “He began to be sorrowful and troubled,” is the way the Gospel of Matthew put it. Gibson told Sawyer that out of those depths he felt the Holy Spirit moving through him to make this film.
It’s hard to accept a portrait of Jews as the ugly killers of Christ as the work of God. Jews have been persecuted by Christians, Nazis, Muslims and others whose hatred can only be called pathological. But if he wants to say that it’s the Holy Spirit moving through him, so be it.
I believe that God and the devil are words we use to describe aspects of our inner selves-the place from which we have made, and continue to make the decisions which have determined the course of our lives, individually and collectively.
One of the roots of anti-Semitism can be traced to the New Testament, and the charge that the Jews killed Christ. So, after the devastation of the Holocaust, Pope John Paul VI called a Council which was his attempt to remove the anti-Semitism that contributed to the Holocaust. The Vatican indirectly acknowledged the churches’ complicity in the murder of the six million. More recently, Pope John Paul II, at a meeting with the American Jewish Committee, said that the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of anti-Semitism is still urgently needed in today’s world.
Gibson rejects Vatican II. Pope John Paul II said, ‘Violence in the name of religion is always a desecration to religion.we stress the importance of religious education which promotes respect and love toward others.”
Gibson’s God is the old-time-religion God that allows Christians to blame the Jews for the death of Christ, fanning the flames of violence, and all in the name of God.
For me, the Passion of the Christ is the human story. It’s the story of suffering and the capacity for evil that dominates so much of what we call the human experience, both personally and collectively. At the same time, it is the story of human compassion–the ability to suffer with another–to feel their pain, and by feeling their pain, to feel somehow connected in a deep way to those who suffer.
Compassion is the presence of God made visible. God becomes most real in the tear that comes to the eye of one who witnesses the suffering of another. That may be as much of God as we can know, for certain, or as much as we need to know.
The Genesis story began in the Garden of Eden, before the loss of innocence, before human consciousness evolved to the point of realizing that we have the potential for creativity and destructiveness, good and evil.
The new story shows Jesus back in the Garden, wrestling with his decision. Adam and Eve didn’t know enough to wrestle with their decision to eat that mythical apple-God had not introduced them to death-indeed, death is portrayed as a punishment for their disobedience.
Adam and Eve represent our pre-human origins, and the transition from pre-human to fully human. To be fully human is to assume the burden of good and evil as aspects of the Self. Jesus, a fully developed human, understood this. The metaphor of Jesus in the new garden, reminds us that we all make decisions that seal our fate. Jesus knew he was going to die ‘tomorrow.’ So do we!
Tomorrow simply means ‘in the not-too-distant future.’ And that’s the point. We know we’re going to die. “Nothing more certain than death, nothing more uncertain than the hour,” is the way the poet Sandburg said it.
Look again at the old story: The moment that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they felt ashamed of their nakedness, so they made fig leaves to cover their genitals. When they hear God’s footsteps in the Garden they hide from God. God sees the cover-up, he realizes what they’ve done; as a punishment, he evicts them from the garden.
This story is the source of what later became the doctrine of original sin. Adam’s sin is passed on to all and Jesus is sent as the sacrificial lamb to atone for original sin.
In the story, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.”
“Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”
Imagine what Mel Gibson could do with the scene of Cain killing his brother Abel!
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brothers’ blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed.”
Again and again I return to this story, the new version of which is depicted in the Gospel story known as The Passion of the Christ. Jesus is sometimes referred to as the new Adam who will get it ‘right,’ this time. In the old story, Abel’s gift is a sacrificial lamb, for which God ‘has regard.’
In the new story, Jesus is ‘the lamb of God,’ the ultimate and final sacrifice. It’s the old story told with a human sacrifice, offered for the sins of mankind. Our Unitarian forebears rejected this idea.These stories are embedded in the collective unconscious, our shared, but unspoken way of thinking about what it means to be a person. The stories are myths that help us to connect to deep truths about what it means to be human.
The Passion of the Christ begins in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s no coincidence that final story returns to a garden, a fertile place. At the end of any story we hope that we arrive at a place of understanding, not just to ‘get’ the story, but to understand ourselves and humanity better.
Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”
So I’ll return to the place from which I started, with those three questions: what is the nature of human suffering (passion)?; who was Jesus?; and what are the roots of anti-Semitism.
The stories in the Bible are our stories when we see them metaphorically. They show the truth about human suffering, especially the story of the Passion of the Christ. Our task is to understand what they mean for our lives, here and now.
We can see some of the roots of anti-Semitism in the ways these stories have been interpreted.
I appreciate Gibson’s film because it has provoked discussion, debate and dialogue between Jews and Christians, and among Christians, and among Unitarian Universalists. We’re all struggling to understand the deeper meanings of our lives. None of us has a monopoly on Truth. We run the risk of appearing to reject other’s religious beliefs by suggesting that we have the right way of seeing these stories and interpreting the theologies that have grown out of them.
For me, then, the Passion of the Christ is happening now. Our Christ nature is our capacity to care, and to suffer with another. When we tap into our own Christ nature, we find ourselves on that cross, looking down on our war-weary world, and a tear forms and falls to a scorched earth.
Gibson provides an effective portrayal of that tear falling, falling, falling in a slow motion sequence at the end of the film. I was touched by it.
Now we’re looking down from the Twin Towers on September 11, or from a train in Madrid on March 11, or from the wreckage and carnage of a school bus in Jerusalem after a suicide terrorist attack.
God help us to end the violence and move humanity a step closer to the love with which we are capable, the love to which we are called by the God who dwells within.