It seemed like any other night at the movies. To the left I spotted the requisite young couple on their first date alternating between watching previews and attempting awkward conversation. Down in front lounged the raucous band of teenagers brazenly hanging out on a school night. The smell of popcorn. The sticky floor. The scuffle between two members of the audience, complete with profanity, regarding one’s ability to watch the movie in silence.
However, I couldn’t help but think how inappropriate it was to approach this film just like any other night at the movies. Unlike other movies which allow one to transcend reality and envision oneself in the midst of a great adventure or cheesy love story, this movie depicted the ultimate reality. The passion of Christ. Gradually the munching of popcorn ceased, and thankfully the dueling audience members settled their differences, as we all recognized the profundity of what was appearing on the screen: the events of the final day in the life of Jesus Christ. Slowly the audience seemed to realize the distinction between this movie and all others. This movie requires a response. And not just the response of respectful silence. The Passion of Christ presents a realistic depiction of the crucifixion of the man who many believe to be the Son of God. The movie demands that one addresses the questions: Is this story true? And if so, how does that fact affect my life?
Due to its magnitude and the sensitivity of its content, The Passion of Christ has attracted considerable criticism. However, these heated debates over the accuracy or appropriateness of the film’s content have arisen in order to evade this necessity of responding to its message. By dismissing the content as anti-Semitic or gratuitously violent, the critic can avoid answering the questions of its truth and its bearing on the present day.
Not that I regard these charges lightly. Indeed, I would take them very seriously and criticize the film fervently if I thought they were valid. But I do not. The uproar about gratuitous violence is downright laughable considering the meaningless violent content of countless R-rated movies that pass through theaters without attracting notice or concern. More importantly, however, the violence in this movie was not without meaning or justification. Scourging and crucifixion are no longer common practice in our society. In order to appreciate the extent of Jesus’ sacrifice, one must realize the degree of physical (as well as emotional and spiritual) suffering that he endured. As a student in Professor John Gager’s New Testament course pointed out this past week, the Bible does not need to expound on the details of Christ’s torture and crucifixion because these were common means of punishment at the time. The words automatically evoked images of brutality and bloodshed for those in the first century. On the other hand, now it is easy for the words to lose meaning if one has no conception of what they entail, or if one has often heard them in this context. It is very difficult to express more than nominal gratitude for an act of sacrifice that one cannot fathom. Through the images of violence, The Passion of Christ enables increased gratitude for those who believe in its message.
As to the second prominent accusation that the film is anti-Semitic, I can only wish that the Roman Empire still existed, so that Roman citizens could flail their arms in frustration at why few have seemed to notice that the Roman guards are portrayed as the real bad guys, directly inflicting the blows of Jesus’ physical suffering. However, even if there were still Roman citizens today, to point fingers in any direction completely misses the point. Unless that finger is pointed towards oneself.
The message of the Gospels is that all people bear responsibility for Christ’s death due to the fact that he died in order to save us all from our sins. As Romans 6:23 explains, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” He wouldn’t have undergone that torture if not for his love of each individual person in creation and his desire to save them from the rightful punishment for their sinfulness. To perceive the Jews, the Romans, Judas, or any other person or group as the cause of Jesus’ death is to ignore the message of the passion. Jesus willingly died for each of us. This is not conveyed to inflict guilt, but rather to inspire immeasurable gratitude for such a sacrifice.
As you may have guessed by now, my response to the first question which this movie compels viewers to answer is: Yes, this story is true. The answer to the second question, regarding its relevance to one’s life, is more complex and subjective. Similar to Mel Gibson, who tried to convey the message of our involvement in the crucifixion by using his own arm in the film to drive the spikes into Jesus’ hand, my personal reaction involved imagining myself as those persecuting Christ. In so doing, Gibson’s movie can provide a means of increasing gratitude – for the prayers that Jesus offered for his persecutors, for the incredible sacrifice, for the forgiveness offered to each person as a result. While I do not pretend to believe that this is the only way one can interpret the message of the movie and relate it to one’s life, I do believe that The Passion of Christ demands an assessment of these questions. Do not use weak criticism to evade the questions it poses. If you have chosen to view the movie, show enough respect for its content to recognize that it demands a response. And respond.