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The Earthly Lesson of Jesus' Crucifixion, and Why His Secular Teachings Live On
Exclusive to STR
March 26, 2007
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
-- Jesus of Nazareth, as quoted in The Gospel According to Saint John, 13:34
This column was begun (and then set aside, unfinished) two years ago in response to Henry Lawton's 'The Obedient Son Sacrificed: Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in the Spring 2005 edition of The Journal of Psychohistory. Lawton discusses a number of possible underlying themes and backstories for the film, including speculation about Gibson's motives for producing the film. In general, Lawton's article does not paint a flattering portrait of either Mr. Gibson or the story of Jesus.
I see these topics very differently. Indeed, I believe the most powerful, important, and universal elements of Gibson's "The Passion" – and of the story of Jesus generally – have been largely overlooked. These elements are non-supernatural in character. Some cannot be well-conveyed in abstract language, for they are of lower levels of consciousness; of feeling rather than reason. Nonetheless, they are the essence of every true religion, and are critical for the emotional health of both societies and individuals.
I begin with a discussion of Jesus' story and its implications, and then briefly outline ways in which Gibson's film accurately dramatizes this material.
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Stripped to its basics, and considering only the real-world, non-supernatural elements, Jesus' story is this:
A man begins a ministry in the Middle East, 20 centuries ago. Cruelty is common in the culture, both to children and to adults; for example, even petty thieves may be executed and in a spectacularly cruel fashion: by crucifixion. That is to say, criminals are not merely executed but slowly tortured to death – and in public, where both adults and children can be terrorized by the event. The Roman occupation is brutally repressive in other ways as well, quick to imprison citizens or torture them or put them to death for even minor resistance to the regime. Slavery is commonplace, poverty is the norm, and modern comforts and protections are centuries in the future.
Completely at odds with this harsh reality, Jesus preaches love. He does so in a manner that seems deeply felt and sincere, at least from what we can know, given the materials available to us. Preaching love is not a marketing tactic for Jesus; we can easily believe, reading the New Testament, that Jesus means every word. Jesus goes so far as to assert that those who love others are his followers. From The Gospel According to Saint John, quoting Jesus:*
13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
Jesus extends his love to children (and insists his followers do the same), and makes an astonishing claim: that the kingdom of God consists of children and of adults who have retained the essence of childhood (". . . of such is the kingdom of God "). From The Gospel According to Saint Mark:
10:13 : And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
10:14 : But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
10:15 : Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
This, in a society which – like most others, past and present – practices neglect and cruelty to children as a matter of course.
These and other passages from the New Testament – about love and about children – amount to an open war on neurosis. They suggest that one way to see the kingdom of heaven is as an emotionally healthy world, here on Earth. Jesus makes this point very directly in a well known passage in Luke:
17:21 : Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
The emotional impact of this short sentence on Jesus' listeners must have been profound. Note that Jesus not only says clearly where the kingdom is, but in doing so he defines the kingdom of God (that is, heaven) as an inner state ("heaven" and the " kingdom of God " generally have the same meaning in the Bible).
Furthermore, in Luke 17:21, Jesus admonishes his followers to look nowhere else for the kingdom: "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there!"
If this seems at odds with much of the symbolic and supernaturally-oriented material in Jesus' teachings, it is nonetheless clear and direct. Compared with much of what the New Testament reports of Jesus' comments and parables, the passages above, and other passages about love and about children, seem less symbolic and more real. Jesus often speaks in parables and with great care and cleverness – apparently, in some cases, to avoid or postpone his prosecution for blasphemy, treason, or any of the other pseudo-crimes he knows he could be charged with for teaching that compassion is more important than political or religious law. When he speaks of love, however, Jesus seems to speak without artifice, guile, or defense. When Jesus talks of love and compassion, he speaks directly and from the heart.
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Given our innate, universal hunger for love and compassion, it is no surprise that Jesus gains a large and growing following.
Likewise, given the threat to individual defenses (against pain) and to political, social, and economic power that Jesus' teachings and his following represent, it is no surprise that local religious leaders, wealthy merchants, and others begin searching for a way to neutralize Jesus. Nor is it surprising that many ordinary people join the mob as it becomes clear that a blood spectacle could soon be played out, with Jesus as victim.
The weapon used to arrest, torture, and murder Jesus is the coercive state – murder being its most characteristic activity, and coercive power in general being the essence of coercive government itself. Given that the wealthy and influential outside of government have so often bent government power to their own ends, it is hardly surprising that government's power to kill without legal consequence is sought and granted in this case.
For the crime of advocating love and compassion (and of course for developing a large following based on those teachings), Jesus is arrested by agents of the Roman empire – at the behest of local merchants, religious leaders, and others, including, ultimately, a growing mob. He is accused of blasphemy, but had he not been preaching love and compassion, and gaining a huge following as a result, he would never have come to the attention of the authorities in the first place. In any case, Pilate washes his hands of the matter and simply gives Jesus over to the mob rather than pronouncing him guilty of any crime – indeed, Pilate defends Jesus' innocence: "And the governor said, why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified." (Matthew 27:23) -- which Pilate then does.
Roman soldiers lead Jesus away, mock him and torture him (ripping flesh from his back with a scourge), and finally nail him to a wooden cross, leaving him to die slowly, in agony, between two common criminals who are also being crucified. All this, in plain view of the locals, including children.
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Every child comes to life needing love and compassion, only to find a world of neurosis and pain. Almost every child is ultimately broken into accepting the shadow existence that society allows. The parallels are unmistakable: Jesus came preaching the need for love, only to be broken and murdered on the cross.
Our real, deeply-feeling selves are murdered, or at least bludgeoned into some level of unconsciousness, by the traumatic infliction of pain from many sources; Jesus was murdered for championing that real and healthy self within each of us.
Among the most important details of the Christ story, then, is this: Ultimately, Jesus was murdered for preaching love, and for clearly identifying and defending the real self.
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Not a random killing, this one. Not a mugging by some petty criminal. Not the act of a violent drunk in a tavern. No: despite the famous 'washing of hands' by Pontius Pilate, this horrifying, gruesome murder was at least semi-official policy, like so many millions of other murders by empires and democracies and tin-pot dictatorships throughout history. Jesus was murdered by Roman soldiers, and in such a way as to drive the point home to all who saw it, or who even heard rumors about it:
We can do this to anyone we want, anytime we choose, and talking about love is as good a reason to kill you as any – especially if others start taking you seriously. We are in charge of your life, and the penalty for forgetting that is death. Fear us and obey, or die.
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Another important detail (and lesson) of Jesus' story, then, is that coercive government is fundamentally at odds with love; it is anti-life.
That should be no surprise, because coercion is a crime, no matter who is doing it or what the excuse. Coercion is all it takes to turn sex into rape, or a bank withdrawal into armed robbery. Coercion is among the central components of child abuse. Coercion replaces voluntary cooperation with violence and threats of violence. Gandhi, for one, put this clearly:
"One who uses coercion is guilty of deliberate violence. Coercion is inhuman."
The society-wide use of coercion that defines "government" is a major element in the ongoing cycle of emotional damage to children, who grow into emotionally damaged adults, who in turn inflict emotional damage on others, including upon the next generation of children, and so on. It is important to be clear on this point, if we ever hope to improve the human condition:
Emotional damage in adults is the primary cause of child abuse, and coercive government is the most powerful tool for inflicting and perpetuating that emotional damage.
War is the most obvious example of damaging government behavior – what other institution kills by the millions, on purpose, repeatedly? What other institution orphans as many children, maims and cripples as many children and adults, destroys the homes and livelihoods of so many families, and otherwise ruins as many lives – as does government in war?
The surprise, for most people, is that governments actually kill even more people by simply murdering their own citizens than they do in war. From Genghis Khan to Idi Amin, from Stalin to Castro, the 'leaders' of coercive governments have seldom failed to torture, starve and murder 'their' citizens whenever it suited their fancy. Governments continue this even today in genocides, in gulags and work camps, by firing squads and hangings, by torturing victims to death, by creating needless famine, and in a hundred other ways.
Allow me to expand on that with a quote from Death by Government by R. J. Rummel, professor at the University of Hawaii and probably the world's foremost expert on government murder (Transaction Publishers, 1994):
"In total, during the first eighty-eight years of this century, almost 170 million men, women, and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. The dead could conceivably be nearly 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague. And indeed it has, but a plague of Power, not germs." (Page 9)
All that, in addition to millions of war dead in the 20th Century. Rummel has recently updated his estimate for total government murder during the 20th Century to 262 million. That averages to roughly 7,178 murders per day, every day, for one hundred years. And for every murder, a stunned and grief-stricken family; a shattered life for sons or daughters; a traumatized group of friends and neighbors. For every murder, many more who were 'only' maimed or crippled or imprisoned or tortured or gang-raped (by guards or soldiers or inmates) or otherwise harmed, but not actually killed. If 262 million were murdered, and many tens of millions more killed in war, how many more were "only" assaulted in some way or other? A billion? Two billion? How much emotional damage, to those victims and to others who knew and cared about them, was done in just the past century?
Rummel is not the only researcher to have published such material. The Marxist authors of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999) estimate that Communist governments alone murdered roughly 80 million to 100 million people in the 20th Century. The book's Foreword is titled "The Uses of Atrocity" and the photographs alone are enough to create nightmares.
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The secular story of Jesus is, among other things, a reminder of the essentially violent, cruel, and deeply unhealthy nature of coercive power. It is the story of Power's hatred and mortal fear of the real and the healthy. The story of Jesus tells, in clear language, of Power's willingness to inflict any atrocity, to murder any number of innocents, to tolerate or instill any corruption, and to do whatever else is necessary to retain control and privilege.
Power is threatened by love, by compassion, and by open, healthy access to feeling – characteristics of young children and of healthy adults – and it will not tolerate them.
Power's most devastating and subtle deception has been to corrupt the story of Jesus and to incorporate it, along with the human desire for a compassionate world generally, into Power's own justifications and machinery.
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In "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson focuses on the cruelty and violence directed at Jesus by those in power. Gibson was predictably attacked for doing so. 'All that violence; how distasteful! How disgusting that a film director would sell a movie about Christ with blood and torture and murder!' And so on. Yet "Passion" is defined as "a. The sufferings of Jesus in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion. b. A narrative, musical setting, or pictorial representation of Jesus's sufferings." (The American Heritage Dictionary, third edition).
In fact, the violence, torture, and murder are essential elements of the Christ story; without these elements, there IS no story. Without these elements, there would have been no need for Jesus to champion love and compassion at the cost of his own life. Without these elements, Jesus would have simply lived a healthy, compassionate life among his family and friends, dying in bed at a ripe old age, and two thousand years later we might never have heard of him.
The emotional damage of Jesus' contemporaries, and their cruelty – especially as empowered by coercive government – formed the milieu that Jesus lived in, and this milieu was the reason for his ministry in the first place. The New Testament details some of the unhealthy, violent, coercive, and corrupt aspects of life that Jesus was working to change. Jesus was willing to die on the cross – he knew that he would, in all likelihood, be murdered in that exact fashion – because he felt and believed that every person needed and desired, with all their heart, a compassionate and healthy world, instead of the corrupt, violent, hate-drenched world of coercion and pain that every new child of his time was born into. That reality was clearly so painful to Jesus that even the threat of his own death could not keep him from starting a ministry aimed at changing the world for the better.
Of Mel Gibson's other films, "Braveheart" in particular parallels "The Passion" in that Braveheart's hero, William Wallace, knowingly risks his life (eventually losing it, after being tortured in public) for the sake of a better world – in particular, for love and freedom.
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This linking of love and freedom is another powerful insight on Gibson's part. Love and freedom truly are linked; indeed, like Yin and Yang, love and freedom are two sides of a central duality in human life. To champion Love is to oppose coercive Power, which is to side with Freedom. Love and freedom must be kept in a reasonable balance, and at high levels, for a healthy society.
By spending $30 million of his own money on a film about Jesus that nearly everyone thought would fail, and which (to no one's surprise) brought Gibson much criticism and even insults, Gibson showed hints of the same willingness to risk himself for what is right that made his protagonists interesting and positive figures. Because he does not live in China or some other country that murders or tortures or imprisons people for their religious beliefs, Mr. Gibson was probably never in physical danger for producing a film about Jesus' last days, but Gibson was not treated kindly in much of the press, and this was surely something he knew would happen before starting the project.
Furthermore, despite complaints to the contrary, I do not believe that "The Passion of the Christ" shortchanges Jesus' message. The brief scene in which the doomed Jesus tells his followers to love one another would be enough, by itself, to convey the essence of Jesus' teachings. ("So love one another" reads the English subtitle). Keeping this scene short, poignant, and without distractions gives it all the more emphasis. Also, the official trailer for the film**, which includes that line, also includes a text panel reading: 'His message was love.' The film makes that message clear in a variety of ways, mostly by the actions and demeanor of Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus.
Jesus' message of love was hugely appealing to the masses, and this message, combined with the large following it attracted, was, as I have already said, also the reason for Jesus' perceived threat to the power elite of his time.
As someone with no interest in the supernatural elements of any religion, I am focused on what I see as the cornerstone of every true religion: the importance of love and freedom in human life.
Because love implies and requires freedom, this can be abbreviated to "the importance of love" – exactly what Gibson highlights, correctly, as being Jesus' Earthly message.
Cruelty and tyranny are not what we want out of life, and they make for harmful, unhealthy environments. The mark of any true religion is the attempt to minimize cruelty and tyranny by maximizing love and freedom. Supernatural elements are optional, in my view: an afterlife, a deity, reincarnation, or an eternal soul, for examples. I have no quarrel with those who believe in such elements; to each his own. But the core importance of love is, in my opinion, far more basic, more in the present, more real, and more important.
It is no surprise that the most positive and healthy religions oppose both cruelty and coercive power generally (if often obliquely in regards to government coercion, given that direct opposition is quickly stamped out by those in power) while focusing on the importance of love.
Jesus' teachings about the importance of love will live on, long after the common desire for an afterlife has disappeared – as I believe it eventually will. Those same teachings about love will be widely comprehended if and when the world begins living up to Jesus' teachings about children:
18:1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
18:2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
18:3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
No one who spanks, belittles, or otherwise offends a child is following the teachings of Jesus. The Old Testament may say otherwise; others quoted in the New Testament may say otherwise, but Jesus himself clearly insisted that children were the examples for adults to follow, not the other way around. Jesus is direct and passionate in Matthew 18:6 that offending a child was among the worst of crimes. Given what we know today about the life-long and severe damage caused by childhood trauma, Jesus' insistence on loving treatment of children seems absolutely prescient. Certainly his attitude towards children was emotionally healthy.
The fundamental importance of love; the understanding that a loving world requires better treatment of children, and the flat assertion that "the kingdom of God is within you" are what I see as the most real and powerful of Jesus' teachings – or of anyone's teachings. These three teachings are the best short summary of human wisdom I have ever seen.
Jesus knowingly added a fourth teaching – of Power's hatred for all that is loving, decent, and real – by arranging for and allowing Roman soldiers to arrest, torture, and murder him. By the most vivid and courageous example possible, Jesus thus taught that the coercive State is an evil almost beyond imagining.
While reflecting upon Jesus' teachings, life, and sacrifice, please do not overlook the Earthly, here-and-now lessons that Jesus gave his life to burn into human memory. Please do "Love one another" – and follow that most central of Jesus' teachings wherever it leads for you.
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* We can only know Jesus' words as reported by others, of course. Then (centuries later), these reports were translated into English and other modern languages – a process with more difficulty and less precision than one might wish. For the purposes of this essay, I am assuming that the verses quoted here are authentic and accurately reflect Jesus' views. Certainly, these verses fit well and coherently with much else that Jesus is reported to have said – although not with everything, which suggests (among other possibilities) that some of the material was meant symbolically or that not all of it is authentic. In any case, we cannot "replay the videotape" or otherwise directly verify anything Jesus might have said or done. (This footnote was taken from my Three Teachings On Compassion, which includes other relevant notes and further discussion of topics in this column).
** Several trailers were put out by the studio; this is the trailer I saw in theaters before the original version of the film was released.