How to Watch The Passion of the Christ

for those who have not yet seen the movie

Written by Lowell E. Grisham

It seems a bit silly to write about Mel Gibson's movie without having seen it. But the movie became a cultural event even prior to its release, and opinions about it are a dime a dozen. Since is free, I'll give you my ten-cents worth.

I was impressed by Mel Gibson's passion in his interview with Diane Sawyer. He has had a transforming spiritual experience that led him out of a materialistic soul-sucking lifestyle and into a satisfying spiritual practice and a fulfilling family life. I applaud that.

I expect to be deeply moved by The Passion. One thing it will do is witness to the vicious cruelty of crucifixion, which has been too domesticated by our jewelry and art. The cross was exceedingly ugly. That's real.

Everyone brings his or her own interpretations of Jesus to a movie like this. In some way, it's like reading the Bible. Everyone is an interpreter. Even people who claim to be literalists bring a theology to their reading, whether they admit it or not. It helps if people are clear about their presumptions on the front end.

If we accept this film as Mel Gibson's preaching, his witness, that is fine. He has a theological place to stand. But to jump to the conclusion that he has filmed history is too far to go. It's like the Biblical literalist's error of reading scripture as though it were a newspaper. The Bible is “poetry plus, not history minus.”

Atonement is the Christian doctrine of the cross—Why did Jesus die? What did his death accomplish? There are a lot of versions of the Atonement doctrine in Christian history. I don't like some of Mel Gibson's theology. I already know that. The “substitutionary blood sacrifice” version of the atonement is the least compelling theological explanation of the cross for me. That's what Mel believes. I don't have space to go into that here, but let me describe where my heart will be as I watch the violence of Jesus' crucifixion on the screen.

For me, the suffering of Jesus is a sacrament of the love of God. The story tells us that God willingly soaks up all of our systemic injustice, personal evil and violence and returns only love.

The predominant ethos of Jesus is compassion. And here's where the use of Latin actually comes in handy. Cum , meaning “with,” and passio, meaning “to suffer; to feel deeply.” Compassion = “to feel and suffer deeply with.” It is a visceral word. Biblically it is associated with the kind of feeling that comes from the womb or from the bowels, and so we have that odd biblical expression of Jesus that “his bowels were moved with compassion.” (John 11:33, 38) Jesus reveals a God whose love for us is deep and womb-like, like the love a mother has for the child of her womb.

So, God is no distant deity in some pure heaven far away. God is with us on earth in our horror, our terror, our violence, and our suffering. God refuses to add to the evil and violence, but instead responds with vulnerable, compassionate love. That's how God wins. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression, and vulnerability overcomes power. Jesus invites us to put our trust in God, even in the face of horror, oppression, cruelty and death. God is with us. God feels and suffers deeply with us. And, what God does best is to bring life out of death.

That's how I'm going to watch this movie. And you don't have to be a Christian to watch it that way. Every enduring religion places compassion at its center and witnesses to a path of transformation from death to life. So Christians, back off from the triumphalism and conversion stuff. Lead with your strength. Jesus shows us a way of compassionate, courageous love. That's something for the healing of the planet, not its division.


Copyright ©2004 Lowell Grisham