The Politics of the Christ
I suppose since this essay is largely inspired by Mel Gibson's new God flick, The Passion of the Christ, I should start with a quick review. I had a chance to see it this past weekend, and in short: I thought it was good.
Visually speaking, The Passion is gritty and surreal. Is it dripping with violence, as some allege? Yes. But it's also dripping with realism. The flogging. The scourging. The trembling of fists atop a whipping post. It's far from PG-13, it's true, but to say Gibson's vision is sadistic is wrong. What do you think crucifixion is, anyway? A piece of cake? A walk in the park? We're talking about cruel and unusual punishment here. This isn't lethal injection. They don't prick your skin with a needle; they drive nails through your hands.
So kudos, I say, to Gibson & Co., for spot-on cinematics and a smart hand in casting straight down the line. No amount of spilled crimson can detract from the fact that this depiction seems very, very real.
(I mean, if it turns out our on-screen Jesus, Jim Caviezel, didn't survive filming -- he was struck by lighting on the set, after all -- it wouldn't surprise me. They really seemed to be killing the poor guy. And, indeed, he played as convincing a Christ as you're likely to find -- save for the Savior himself. That's no easy task, either, when your few lines of dialogue are in a language unused for 2,000 years.)
Now, beyond bloodshed, though, the other main point of contention with The Passion is the light in which it shows Jews. Is it, in fact, an anti-Semitic hit piece, as the Anti-Defamation League prophesied months ago? Well, let me start by saying this: From a purely critical standpoint, I do think it lacks context at times. This is no accident; its aim is to show 12 hours alone. And it's not that the context isn't there -- it is -- but it's not stressed. And that's fine in its own right, but for those not in "the know," who perhaps come to this picture expecting -- even hoping for, or trying to prove -- anti-Semitism, the understated back story is their only hope for extracting such a theme.
What I mean is, without proper context, it'd be easy for someone to say the involvement of some Jews in the murder of Jesus condemns Judaism on the whole. Not because it's true, but because -- for some reason -- it's what they want to believe. But to say so ignores one of the bible's most crucial lessons: That we ought to put faith in God, not man.
Let me explain.
In the months leading up to The Passion's release, Gibson's father, Hutton, was quoted a few times as having what might be mildly described as unconventional thoughts on the Holocaust. As he sees it, Adolf Hitler didn't kill six million Jews. No. "They simply got up and left," he says, in favor of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Sydney, and L.A. And because Mel Gibson hasn't denounced his dad's ramblings, The Passion, some say, must be guilty -- by association -- of anti-Semitism, too.
Maybe the fact that a son won't bash his father for the sake of his own reputation is hard to accept in this oh-so-familial day and age. Be that as it may, though, and in spite of Hutton's influence being absent in the film, it's easy to see why some say his comments don't bode well for Mel. After all, history shows us some people do think "the Jews" committed deicide.
In Denver, for example, the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church has responded to The Passion buzz with a sign outside their building which reads, "Jews Killed The Lord Jesus." It goes on to reference a bible verse, 1 Thess. 2:14-15, before proclaiming the matter: "Settled!" And that's it, as they'd have it. The exclamation mark proves the debate is over and done.
But not so fast. A quick look at the passage reveals something else. It mentions Jews killing Jesus, all right, but the Jews in question "killed Jesus and the prophets and drove us out." This was written by Paul. Like most early Christians, Paul was a Jew. And his words condemn not Judaism but a group of Jews who responded to the Jesus phenomenon with an old-fashioned "we don't want to hear it" attitude.
The lesson here is very much one of unalienable, God-given rights -- read: free speech -- abridged. And if you follow it to its logical, modern day conclusion, you'll find political correctness similarly blocking out viewpoints other than its own, as in some critiques of this very film.
But who, then, killed Jesus if it wasn't the Jews? The typical counterpoint is to say the Romans killed him. While the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, washed his hands of Christ's murder, it's true he allowed it to go on. So does that mean he's complicit or what? Well, let's look at it in context.
The Passion depicts Pilate as caught in a no-win situation. He's hardly a good guy. In fact, Caesar has twice warned him for being too violent. But while he finds no reason to execute Jesus -- and, in the movie at least, seems irked by the idea -- he fears an angry rebellion, the squashing of which might get him fired by Caesar once and for all. So Pilate fails to stand on principle. He takes the politician's way out.
But, as Jesus tells him in the Scriptures, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."
Surprise, surprise: The men who bring Jesus before Pilate are the very same men who stand to gain from his execution. They're Jews, sure enough, and priests to boot. But that's not the point. What's worth noting is the fact that they represent the establishment. Indeed, as John tells it, they say of Jesus, "If we let him go on [performing miracles], everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." In other words, Jesus threatens their power. He claims to be "the king of the Jews," but speaks of a heavenly kingdom -- which, unlike their earthly kingdom, has little room for bureaucrats.
In an earlier era, according to the Old Testament book of Judges, "Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." But it soon came to pass that they rejected God's order and demanded a monarch to rule them. A king would raise armies, collect taxes, and make slaves of men, they were warned. "[Y]ou will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day." But still they wanted a king, and so God gave them what they asked for.
Things of this world crumble. They wither. They die. But as modern experience shows us, politicians, bureaucrats, and willing constituents aren't interested in the long term. Given one last chance by Pilate to protect the man who claimed to be their king, the chief priests said of Jesus, "We have no king but Caesar." "Take him away! Take him away!" These men weren't going to believe in Jesus, no matter the accuracy of his message, because they'd already chosen to worship manmade institutions and their own power ahead of God.
So is The Passion of the Christ an anti-Semitic screed? No. Can it be interpreted as such? Sure. But only if you're willing to draw those dots and connect them. The fact of the matter, though, is "the Jews" did not kill Jesus Christ. Special interests did. And "the Romans," likewise, did not enable his murder. This honor belonged to the political expedience that goes hand-in-hand with putting one's faith in a government.
And so, politically speaking, the mistake everyday Jews made was allowing this spiritually bankrupt sham to go on.
Some would say, as human beings, we're all guilty of killing Jesus. I'm not going to challenge this statement, for or against, because I've got limited space to work with, and because the spiritual implications of his death are best left to wiser men than me. I will say this, though: That the Jews were Jewish, and the Romans were Roman, seems mostly incidental. Their flaws weren't ethnic, but human. And in a country that elects politicians to raise armies, collect taxes, and make slaves of men, all of us here in this melting pot, America, are descended from those particularly bloodthirsty human beings.