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Mel Gibson's Passion

Thoughts on a misguided creation

Written by Lowell E. Grisham

I don’t know if Mel Gibson’s Passion will inspire people to become Christians, but it certainly is a compelling promotional piece for Amnesty International and the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

I packed my pockets with Kleenex and entered the theatre prepared to be deeply moved by the story that is so close to my heart. When the movie ended, I took my dry tissues unused out of my pocket and left with a sad sense of disappointment. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found I could never deeply enter the drama;I was distracted by its main character—not Jesus—but director Mel Gibson.

Over and over again, I found myself yanked out of the narrative by the quirky choices Gibson made. He souped together a mixture of legend, non-historical literalisms, artistic fantasy, and the four canonical stories to create something that I could accept as one person’s witness—but it came off as a very peculiar witness indeed.

Everyone interprets art individually. Mel’s Passion is art, not history. He takes a lot of artistic license. Unfortunately, I was more distracted than moved by most of Gibson’s artistic flourishes. The “Satan” figure just seemed stupid to me. And the snake?…mel-o-dramatic. (Oh, I caught the reference to Genesis 3:15.) The guards were like cartoonish Orcs, better suited to the Lord of the Rings. And what was that ugly baby about?

I kept asking, “Why?” Why did Mel do that? Why have Jesus knocked off the bridge to land suspended at eye level with Judas? Why the bit with Pilate’s wife trembling, offering towels to the two Marys, and then the two women wiping up blood from the scourging site? Why perpetuate the mis-identification of Mary Magdalene with the woman accused of adultery? Why the gang of crazed kids chasing Judas? Why the earthquake that splits not the curtain but the Temple itself? Why the queasy Pilate and the effeminate Herod? For me these were embellishments that were more distracting than enhancing.

Particularly troubling was Gibson’s consistent choice to interpret Jewish involvement in its worst possible light. Now some of the blame has to rest on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Writing 35 to 60 years after the events, the authors of our gospels knew that open criticism of Roman policy was dangerous. And the Jesus movement had created close conflict within Judaism, resulting in the eventual ousting of Christians from the synagogues. So it was convenient and even wise to focus early-Christian polemic upon Jewish leadership while using coded symbolic language for any strong critique toward Rome, as in the book of the Revelation.

Biblical historians tell us that the Roman authorities were responsible for Jesus’ execution. It was a political killing. The very small group of Jewish elites who cooperated regularly with Roman rule was willing to conspire with them against Jesus since he had challenged their authority and domination as well as the economic interests of their Temple-sacrifice monopoly. But picturing a dominant Sanhedrin intimidating a cowed Pilate is just bad history. It also feeds into a subsequent history of tragic anti-Semitism. Shame on Mel for perpetuating such wrongs. It would have been easy for him to be more accurate.

When I could overlook the distractions, I was moved and horrified by the graphic scenes of torture. In a way, I was glad to see the brutality of the crucifixion as a corrective to the way we have domesticated the cross. I had a parishioner who once wore an electric-chair necklace charm as her way of challenging our ease with such a cruel symbol.

Gibson’s film is a reminder that cruel people and governments still practice barbarism. My annual renewal from Amnesty International arrived last week while the images of Jesus’ beatings were fresh in my mind. I quickly renewed my support of the planet’s strongest voice against such tortures. Witnessing the legal and religious proceedings that conspired to condemn Jesus was a stark reminder that our own judicial systems are also imperfect. Imperfect systems should never have the ultimate power to impose the death penalty. Jesus was not the last innocent person to be executed by the state.

I’m glad Mel Gibson filmed his interpretation of Jesus’ passion. It has opened up interest for important conversations. I’m happy for my friends who found it moving and compelling. But it’s not the way I would have directed such a film. And maybe Mel has done us all a great service. How would each of us have directed our film to witness to the most important thing in our lives? That’s worth thinking about.

Copyright ©2004 Lowell Grisham