Mel Gibson’s Jesus


There are some compelling reasons why I do not want to see the Mel Gibson film, The Passion.
 
The violence alone, I must confess, would keep me from watching it.  Some have considered the violence unrelenting and gratuitous. The R rating certainly is not an empty admonition.
 
More seriously, however,  is my concern for Mel’s brand of Catholicism and his exclusive focus on the physical sufferings of Christ.  I consider it a misinterpretation of the Christian faith. Critics have considered it “sadistic, manipulative and boring.”  More important, however, is the theological import of the film.  The New York Times recently reported that "the Roman Catholic daily, La Croix, appraising the graphic depiction of Jesus’ last hours, said, ‘Sadism and voyeurism are not substitutes for catechism.’ An organization of French bishops noted that the film’s violence ‘ends up blotting out the meaning of the Passion and the essence of Christ’s person and message.’”
 
Pietistic Mel, who rejects both the Second Vatican Council and the legitimacy of the present papacy, represents a throwback to a kind of Catholicism that prevailed in a less enlightened age. I am amazed how fundamentalist evangelicals have gone overboard in their rush to embrace this kind historically conditioned "Catholic" thing that flourished from the beginning in the second millennium of Christendom throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.  Anyone who has seen those wonderful, but grotesque, paintings of that era that graphically depict the sufferings of Christ and the martyrdom of the saints or who are familiar with the grisly cult of the relics of saints during that era will recognize this.  The visitor to Europe’s medieval and Baroque churches can't miss the innumerable reliquaries of saints whose remains have been carved up into little pieces (e.g. poor Catherine of Sienna whose body parts are strewn across Europe).  
 
Then there are all those relics of the true cross – enough to build a barn - the public flagellations,  the foreskin of Jesus in the Church of the Twelve Apostles (preputium Domini Nostri Jesu Christi in the Church of the Duodeci Apostoli in Rome),  relics of the milk of the Virgin Mary (ex lacte Beatae Mariae Virginis as found in the Church of Évron in the Diocese of Laval in France or the ”Milk Grotto” in Bethlehem),  feathers from the wing of Michael the Archangel. This is a kind of Catholicism that we ought to have outgrown by now.  I would like to think most Catholics have gone beyond this obsession for such “folk Catholicism” as Karl Rahner describes it.
 
Nor is the resurrection story of Our Lord within the focus of the movie.  Yet this, according to Saint Paul, is at the core of our belief without which our faith is in vain. It does not seem to figure in Mel’s understanding of the Christian faith. Nevertheless conservative evangelicals have discovered this kind of primitive Catholic piety and seem to have eagerly embraced it.   These same Christians are the descendants of the Protestant Reformers who rejected such things during the Reformation.  Now we find them rushing to embrace this kind of unreformed Catholicism.  Ironically these are also the same folks whose churches have crosses with no corpus on them.  Will we soon be seeing crucifixes in their churches with an agonized corpus of Our Lord hanging upon them?
 
For me, as a Catholic Christian, I too am grateful for the redemptive love of Jesus for mankind, His sacrifice, and the Good News of His Gospel message.  But I can't do anything about His past historical sufferings – terrible as they were.
 
What then can a Christian today do?  I am reminded of the words of Blaise Pascal: "Jésus sera en agonie jusqu'à la fin du temps  - Jesus will be in agony by until the end of time."

 
It could mean that if I want to relate to the suffering of Jesus I should look around me here and now and not back 2000 years ago: Jesus continues to suffer in the humanity around me. About this I can do something: Jesus has identified himself with the poor, the sick and the dying, the victims of war, abandoned and abused women and children, the persecuted, the jobless, those working the in sweat shops of the Third World and the unemployed in our own country.  This is where I can find Jesus and try to alleviate His suffering in my brothers and sisters and not in some nostalgic and voyeuristic focusing on His sufferings of the past.
 
A former student of mine did go to see the film and his reactions may well be the same as mine would have been.  He writes, “Gibson pretends legitimacy; but in fact mixes historical fact with ideological fervor, sympathy with sado-masochism, prurient curiosity with scholarly inquiry, obscenity with aesthetics, and pedagogy with brainwashing.  …… It turns on its head the medical vow to do no harm.  It cures by killing.  Even the very young are pulled into Gibson's creation, his invention. His classroom is  ‘R-rated’ indeed.  Roman Catholics and their clergy should be shouting from rooftops about this piece of distorted, even contorted, injurious media. They have to do better than this and not repeat the same 2000-year-old mistakes.”