March 30, 2004

The Passion of the Christ

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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Different Artists, Different Visions
The Anti-Semitism Debate
Did God Want Jesus to Suffer?

By the time you read this, you may think you've heard enough about Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. It has stirred up quite a dust storm of controversy. Before the film opened on Ash Wednesday, I had read pages of heartfelt comments from people who had attended pre-screenings of the film. Many spoke of the stunned silence at the end of the film and of how many viewers left the theater in tears. I was looking forward to seeing the film and feeling the same spiritual impact in my own heart.

When I had a chance to see the film a week or so after the opening, I had very mixed feelings. During the opening scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane, I was very much into what was happening and felt the heart-pounding terror and anguish that Jesus himself must have felt. The cinematography was powerful. It seemed to promise a profound spiritual experience.

But once the scourging started—and seemed never to stop—I knew I was in the camp of those who saw the film's violence and bloodletting as over the top. The excess ended up repelling me and desensitizing me to the film's intended and profound message, projected on the screen before the story began: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed." Although the violence muted the film's impact on me, I know that for many the full effect of those words was not lost and they were deeply moved by the movie.

Different Artists, Different Visions

Over the centuries, devout artists have depicted Jesus' passion in a wide range of waysall the way from showing Jesus' body in extreme agony and oozing blood in abundance to presenting him in serene acceptance with minimal signs of anguish or blood. One of the most popular images for Franciscans is the San Damiano Crucifix, which presents a peaceful Jesus offering his saving blood to the world from an almost luminous body that seems already on the way to Resurrection. Yet the Franciscan movement is also responsible for the popular Catholic devotion of the Way of the Cross and the practice of meditating lovingly on the concrete details of Christ's mental and physical suffering.

Artists, very appropriately, have leeway in how they choose to convey the central message of God's unconditional love for us, as expressed by John 15:13: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Because of his own unique journey and theological perspective, Mel Gibson has chosen to present a brutalizing blow-by-blow account of Jesus' suffering that is more "in your face" than any account of the four evangelists. By comparison, the words of the evangelists come across as understated. Yet they present the drama of the passion and of God's great love very powerfully.

I admire the courage and faith of Mel Gibson. I believe his making of The Passion of the Christ for worldwide distribution was a great act of devotion, heroic witness and love. The film is drawing Christians and non-Christians alike, by the millions, to experience the greatest drama ever told—and the core of the Good News: that God wants all humanity to be healed and "made new" in the blood of the lamb.

The Anti-Semitism Debate

The film has also given rise to what might be the most widely aired debate ever concerning the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death and anti-Semitismand the teachings of the Church regarding the subject. It's a very sensitive debate that touches the deepest feelings of many and cannot be easily resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Yet, fortunately, a lot of education and discernment has been going on in heated newspaper columns and talk-show discussions. It has been a "teaching moment," as they say. And Mel Gibson even made a change or two in the film for the sake of interfaith feelings.

Although I am confident that Mr. Gibson had no intention of making an anti-Semitic film, I personally believe the film could have been more attentive to Jewish sensitivities in light of the availability of solid interfaith literature and guidelines for avoiding anti-Semitism in dramatic renditions of the passion.

Did God Want Jesus to Suffer?

This is a pertinent question in discussions about Jesus' passion and death. In the same chapter of Isaiah quoted at the film's beginning, we find statements like: "The Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all" (53:6) and "It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain" (53:10). One must be careful in understanding such lines. Could the good God that you and I know really "will," at least in any direct way, such a horrible death for his son? Such a notion seems contradictory to the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures as a whole. It seems contradictory, for example, to picture God as personally staging the torture of Christ in order to satisfy divine anger over the sins of humanity. I don't think it is fair to God to picture our all-loving Creator in this way, and responsible theologians don't take such approaches today. (I am not, by the way, suggesting that Gibson's film falls into that kind of interpretation.)

How then are we to look on God's will in this regard? I would like to answer this question by quoting something I have already written on the topic of suffering. In the essay "Why Must I Suffer?" I pose the same question and try my best to give a satisfying answer:

"What then should we say God willed regarding Jesus' death? Why not that God willed Jesus to be a whole, honest, loving human beinga model for humanitya person who would serve others totally, especially those in need....The price, however, of being a completely just and loving person in an unjust and imperfect world and of confronting the world's sin could well be suffering and death. And so it was for Jesus. God did not want Jesus to die on the cross at all costs so much as to want him to be an exemplary human being at all costswhich predictably mean death on a cross. In this sense, of course, God was willing to give up his Son.

"When we look closely, however, Scripture does not portray God as the one who actually willed or inflicted suffering and death on Jesus. In fact, it was precisely the anti-God forcesthe enemies of God [on all sides]who caused Jesus to suffer. Jesus' Crucifixion was not orchestrated by God's will but by human beings who were acting in direct opposition to God's will."

With Holy Week approaching, there is no better way to understand God's loving will toward us than by understanding Christ's will for us: That we become whole through the gift of the total love that God offers usand as revealed most dramatically in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Isaiah says it well: "By his wounds we are healed."

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