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Some Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ

by Norm R. Allen Jr.


The film The Passion of the Christ has aroused great passion throughout the world. The movies’ supporters and detractors have heaped great praise and criticism respectively.

Violent and Prejudicial

One critic referred to the film as “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre.” Indeed, the bloody torture of Jesus is difficult to watch. Ironically, conservative Christians such as Bill O’Reilly and Cal Thomas praised the film for its “realistic” depiction of Christ’s suffering. These are the same religionists that constantly rail against violence in films, including some of those in which Gibson has starred. Furthermore, these critics routinely blast hard-core rappers for “keeping it real” in their videos, even though not one drop of blood is shed. Conservative Christians obviously have no problem with violence in cinema as long as it is used to defend and glorify their anti-intellectual worldview.

Some have charged that the movie perpetuates stereotypes. Many Blacks have voiced outrage that Gibson decided to portray Christ as a White man. The Reverend Paul Scott, founder of the Messianic Afrikan [sic] Nation, advised Blacks to bypass the film. He argued that “the image of a White Jesus is more dangerous to Black children than gangsta rap.”

Not only does the film figuratively demonize Jews and literally demonize women, Gibson takes a shot at gays. He depicts King Herod as a flamboyant homosexual, though there does not appear to be historical evidence to support this view.

None of these characterizations should be surprising. Gibson is a Catholic, but he does not accept the reforms of Vatican II. His father is a Holocaust denier, and Gibson has yet to publicly acknowledge that the Holocaust occurred. Furthermore, Gibson has harshly criticized gays in public.

A Large Dose of Anti-Semitism

Fans of the film insist that it is not anti-Semitic, i.e., anti-Jewish. But how could it not be? The entire Christ story is anti-Jewish, and the Bible makes this clear. As it turns out, it is good for Gibson that he did not rely strongly on Scripture. Otherwise, he might have quoted Jesus as he reportedly spoke to “Abraham’s offspring” in John 8:44–45:

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me.

The New Testament also speaks of Jews as belonging to the “Synagogue of Satan.” Moreover, in 1 Thessalonians 2:15–16, Paul says the Jews:

. . . both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God. But hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.

In Gibson’s film, Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, is a frighteningly hateful figure.  He wants Christ to be mercilessly tortured, and the unreasoning mob of Jews joins him in hysterically screaming for Christ’s blood.

As another slap in the face to Jews in particular and non-Christians in general, Gibson displays a biblical passage warning viewers to come to Christ before it is too late (John 14:6). As long as this kind of religious arrogance exists, there will never be peace in the world.

It is amazing that many Christians do not understand why it is irrational to blame Jews for killing Christ. If this story is true, they should be thanking Jews. In a satirical Internet response to The Passion, Crispin Sartwell says Jews killed Christ because:

It was God’s will. Jesus predicted his own betrayal and death, and we didn’t want to embarrass him by making it look like he didn’t know what he was talking about. . . . He died for you? Then we killed for you . . . without us, all that’s left is the Easter bunny. You’d all be prostrating your[selves] before Odin.

Because religious fanatics generally do not understand the logical implications of their beliefs, they are among the last to get irony, if they get it at all.

It seems unlikely that The Passion will incite violence against Jews in the United States. According to most polls, most U.S. Christians do not blame Jews for the death of Jesus. However, in European and predominantly Muslim nations, the story could be quite different. Anti-Jewish bigotry and violence are on the rise throughout Europe, especially in France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Moreover, intolerant Muslims are using the film to instigate anti-Jewish sentiment.

A leading Shiite cleric in Kuwait urged his nation to show the film because it “reveals crimes committed by Jews against Christ.” Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mehri, who heads the congregation of Shiite clerics in Kuwait, requested that the nation’s information minister show the film. A state company owns the nation’s movie theaters, and the Information Ministry has the power to approve and censor films. Kuwait does not usually show religious Christian movies, but many Kuwaitis are buying pirated copies of The Passion.

Hanan Nsour, a veiled, twenty-one-year-old Muslim Jordanian woman, left a viewing of the film in tears. She said the movie “unmasked the Jews’ lies and I hope that everybody, everywhere turns against the Jews.”

Although most Muslims do not believe the prophets should be portrayed in literature, film or on stage, many have made an exception for this film. One viewer said, “The Jews are the most upset with the movie because it reveals their crimes against the prophets, the reformers, and whoever contradicts their opinion.”

At Odds with the Bible

Fans of the film have asserted that it accurately reflects the last hours of Christ. However, is there any truth to this extraordinary claim?

According to Joe Nickell, the leading investigator of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the film was based upon a book published in 1833, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Anne Catherine Emmerich, a German “psychic” nun, authored the book and based it on “visions” she supposedly had of the suffering Christ.

Nickell closely compared Emmerich’s book and Gibson’s movie and concluded that the two were very similar in content. Despite Gibson’s insistence that his film was based on the Gospels, he obviously took many liberties.

For example, there is nothing in the Gospels about the appearance of Satan in the form of a woman, yet this devilish woman figures prominently in the film. Moreover, the Bible does not go into gory detail about the alleged violence inflicted upon Christ after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

According to the Bible, Christ could not have had long hair. One passage states that it is common sense for a man to know that “long hair is degrading to him.” Yet Gibson’s Christ has long hair.

There have been some thoughtful critiques of The Passion in the mainstream media. However, few, if any, of the major critics have raised the question as to whether the Resurrection was a historical event.

The Gospels were not written until decades after the supposed Resurrection. Eyewitness testimony can be extremely unreliable just minutes after the occurrence of an event, let alone decades. However, many Christians take a tremendous leap of faith and assert that, for some mysterious reason, God simply decided to wait until decades after the supposed event to finally inspire the Gospel writers. In any case, it seems odd that an omniscient God would wait so long, knowing very well that highly educated skeptics would one day challenge the story. Why would he have intentionally made it more difficult for people to believe?

Many Christians are easily impressed by Paul’s claim that there were five hundred witnesses to the Resurrection. But all we have are Paul’s word. Who were these supposed witnesses, and how reliable were they? Most important, should we blindly believe the outlandish claims of supposed unnamed witnesses who lived during a time when the world was steeped in superstition and gullibility? As easy as it is to fool people today, how much easier would it have been to fool people in biblical times?

Christian apologists routinely claim that legends do not spread almost immediately after they are started. But this claim can be easily countered. In recent years, there have been urban legends about well-known figures. For example, shortly after his death, many Bruce Lee fans believed that the martial arts film star had faked his death. He instead was reportedly on a secret island making the greatest martial arts film of all time. After the death of Elvis Presley, many people reported having seen him in shopping malls, at gas stations, etc. Some people still believe that the late hard-core rapper Tupac Shakur is still alive and making music. Why, then, should it be so difficult to believe that a myth would have arisen regarding a resurrected savior?

Today we know where Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and other great historical figures are buried. Why, then, can we not locate the actual burial place of Christ? According to philosopher Keith M. Parsons, the early Christians would have commemorated the burial site of Jesus had the Resurrection occurred:

No place could have been more sacred for the earliest Christians than the very spot where the Resurrection occurred. They certainly would have honored the site if they had known where it was. (Does God Exist: The Craig-Flew Debate, edited by Stan W. Wallace, p. 121.)

Why should anyone be terribly impressed by the supposed empty tomb, anyway? Religionists are always making outrageous claims that do not stand up to critical scrutiny. For example, according to Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam (NOI), the late Elijah Muhammad, the group’s former leader, is alive and well and thriving aboard a Mother Plane in outer space. Farrakhan claims that, if people search for Muhammad’s  body at his alleged burial site, they will not find it. If this turns out to be true, would most Christians conclude that a genuine religious miracle has occurred? Or would they look for a more plausible explanation for the disappearance of the body? If they would pursue the latter course, why would they not do likewise when examining the truth claims of the religion they embrace?

What about the supposed “sacrifice” that Christ made for humanity? As it turns out, the Crucifixion was not much of a sacrifice. In fact, it was no real sacrifice at all. On the contrary, if it occurred, it was the greatest power play in the history of human civilization! Christ had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Why would a person refuse to “sacrifice” himself for power, prestige, influence, fame, glory, unimaginable happiness, etc.?  That is not a sacrifice—that’s a bargain!

Finally, many Christians—including Gibson—claim that “we are all responsible for Christ’s death.” If Christians want to go on a guilt trip, so be it. However, why should non-Christians feel in anyway responsible for an alleged crime they did not commit? That is about as ridiculous as blaming all human beings for the alleged sin of Adam and Eve. It is time to do away with this absurd and unfair notion once and for all. When people relieve themselves of the burden of undeserved shame and guilt, that can only improve society.

The Political Agenda

The Passion is ultimately another weapon in the ongoing culture wars throughout the United States. Before the film was released, President George Bush voiced his desire to see the film. (It is rare for a U.S. president to lend support to any film.) Two conservative Christian groups offered two free tickets to all 535 members of the U.S. Congress. Highly influential conservative pundits praise the film.

These supporters, of course, are those who wish to reelect Bush to another term and hope to see a predominantly conservative Supreme Court. They oppose abortion, comprehensive sex education, gay rights, same-sex marriage, and numerous social programs. They are in favor of U.S. imperialism and war against real and perceived enemies of the state. The Passion has helped to reinvigorate their efforts to dominate U.S. politics, and this could be only the beginning. Many people have suggested that Gibson should consider producing more films with Christian themes that resonate with conservative Christians.


Norm R. Allen Jr. is the executive director of African Americans for Humanism.

 


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