The Passion of the Christ
Reflections on this year’s Most Controversial Movie
March 5, 2004
I finally went and saw it last night.
Because mine is a marketing and publicity website, a brief comment about that before we move on: The opposition to this movie, and the public accusations against it, guaranteed its success.
You see, when people are told that they should not go to a movie, or should not read a book because it’s “bad,” people will automatically go to it. The exact same thing happened 15 years ago when Martin Scorsese produced his film The Last Temptation of Christ. Christians were angry at his perversion of the story, and their outrage made an ordinary movie producer’s name a household word.
The Passion movie has sparked a debate about anti-Semitism, Mel Gibson, Gibson’s particular sect of Catholicism, and the extreme violence that it depicts. That’s what everyone’s arguing about out on all the TV shows and websites.
For me, however, The Passion of the Christ was not about Mel Gibson. It was not about the Jews. Or the Romans. Or the politics of first-century Palestine.
It’s about what happens when man meets God, but doesn’t recognize him.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to me.” Meaning that however we treat the poor, the sick, the weak, the homeless, the orphans, the fatherless, those in prison – however we treat them, is how we have chosen to treat God.
So here’s the plot: God comes to live among us, but as an ordinary man. A man whose teachings and actions cut straight to the bone. A man whose principles threaten to topple the status quo. A man who does not retaliate, because he has made a decision to not fight back.
Those with political power hate him. Men who claim to represent God and do not, accuse him of being a devil and a God-hater. Because they lack legal authority, they join forces with the State.
In order to keep the peace, Pilate, the State Administrator, obscenely inverts justice, setting a guilty man free and sentencing an innocent man to death. Then he washes his hands of the whole deal. (Is Pilate any different from any other politician in public office?)
So why does this happen?
Because man likes his religion – but he hates God.
Man’s hatred is poured out on the innocent, in all its ugly fury.
This film spares no details in depicting their vile hatred. And as I’m watching these men mercilessly beat Jesus, my mind flashes back to a scene in my own life.
It’s the spring of 1982. I’m in 7th grade. I hang out with three other guys at school most of the time, and one of them is my locker mate, a guy named Jeremy.
The four of us would eat lunch together every day, but Jeremy was annoying. Gradually we began to dislike Jeremy. We declared that Jeremy was a ‘fag.’ And one day when Jeremy was absent, the three of us decided that we didn’t want Jeremy to eat lunch with us anymore.
After school, we told Jeremy we were going to beat him up – three on one. Jeremy turned and started to run. I remember his palpable fear and his hot tears. He ran fast. We chased him down the street for three or four blocks.
We finally gave up and he got away.
Had we caught him, in all honesty, we probably would have beaten him up.
Well, we got what we wanted: Jeremy never tried to eat lunch with us again. Nor did Jeremy keep his stuff in our locker after that.
So I’m watching these thugs deriving great pleasure from torturing an innocent man, and this picture of chasing Jeremy down the street in 7th grade, which I hadn’t thought of in years, suddenly appears in my mind’s eye. And a voice inside my head: This movie isn’t about the Jews killing Jesus, Perry. This movie is about YOU. This is YOU beating up Jesus, just like you tried to beat up Jeremy.
The only difference between Jesus and Jeremy was that Jesus didn’t run away.
“Whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”
On Ash Wednesday, the day the Passion movie opened, I put up a website and started asking people’s opinions about it. I got thousands of responses.
Now that project is a whole story in and of itself, but nearly all of the comments I have received express one of the two following sentiments:
- “This is the most powerful movie I have ever seen, because I suddenly realize that I did this to Jesus, and that Jesus willingly died for my sin.”
- “Why do we need a movie like this? There’s no need to dredge this up, and besides, none of it ever really happened anyway. This film is just a bloodthirsty depiction of senseless violence, and it’s only going to breed more violence. It’s preposterous!”
I have not spoken to a single person who felt neutral about this movie. It is intensely polarizing.
The cross: A picture of suffering and injustice. Isn’t it interesting that the cross, in all its ugliness and terror, is the universal symbol of Christianity? Isn’t that a strange way to “brand” your cause or movement? As logos go, isn’t it a little bit lacking in aesthetic appeal?
Sure is. But what does it mean?
It means that Jesus is brother to every person who has suffered injustice. It means that he stood in the place of every person who has lived in terror and oppression and slavery. It means that while we grapple life’s great questions – why is there evil, why is there suffering, why is there so much pain in the world – instead of writing some kind of “answer” to these questions for us on a chalkboard (as though that would help), God instead came and lived among us, suffered with us, and died for us and with us.
Next to Jesus are two criminals.
One says to Jesus “Hey, if you’re the Son of God, why don’t you save yourself – and us too! ”
That criminal got himself on that cross by his own doing. But is he accepting responsibility for his actions?
He’s just blaming God for all his problems.
But what about the other guy?
At first he joins in with the first guy, but then he stops. He says “We deserve this, because of what we’ve done. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he says to Jesus: “Please remember me in your kingdom.”
Jesus reply: “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise.”
Those two criminals are a snapshot of the entire world. We’ve all done wrong, to someone. And now we can either blame God for our problems, or accept responsibility for the mess we’re in and ask God to be merciful.
Ultimately, everyone responds to God either one way – or the other.
This movie is a mirror. It shows us the unattractive truth of our human condition. And it certainly reminded me that I’ve committed more than my share of wrongs. If anybody knows a guy named Jeremy who was a 7th grader at Pound Junior High School in Lincoln Nebraska in 1982, pass this along to him, because I owe him a humble apology. What I did to you was wrong, Jeremy.
Jesus’ teachings were radical and scandalous. He claimed to be the Son of God. He said he would rise from the dead, and by most historical accounts, he did. He stepped into the world and split time in half: BC and AD. And his words still resonate throughout the earth in 2004.
Still rolls the stone from the grave.
I hope you’ll go see this movie. And I hope you’ll look beyond the surface-level debate, to the deeper meaning – and ponder the implications it has for me and you.
Thanks for reading.
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“Where did the Universe Come From?” – Go here to subscribe to my 5 Day Email Series on God, the Big Bang, and the wonders of DNA
Ralph Zuranski Interviews Perry Marshall – Ralph asks very personal questions about faith and ethics; success, freedom, social responsibility and values. Perry talks candidly about his father’s death, his philosophy of life, travels in developing countries, racism, and views on spirituality.
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