The Passion: film tastes awful and it works

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 18, 2004

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ premiers across the land Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Preview showings of the controversial film have drawn praise from many who see its graphic portrayal of Jesus' last 12 hours culminating in His crucifixion as a deeply moving reminder of the price the Son of God paid to ransom the human race held hostage by sin and death.

Others have been outraged by the depiction of violence and by the possibility that the film could stir up anti-Semitism, a concern not to be taken lightly.

When I had a chance to preview a nearly-final version of the film several weeks ago, my own reaction was not unlike the TV commercials for Buckley's Mixture cough syrup: "It tastes awful and it works."

Tastes awful? How else can I describe over two hours of relentless, shocking images of assault against any human being, let alone Jesus? This is definitely not a film to be "enjoyed."

Based on the last chapters of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the film begins with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing in prayer in anticipation of the horrific events soon to take place.

His betrayal, arrest and mockery of a trial lead to scenes of unimaginable brutality, as Roman soldiers flog Jesus till He is covered in blood head to toe and then force Him to carry His own cross to His execution by one of the cruelest methods ever devised.

The fact that the film fingers some of the Jewish leadership of the day as instigators of Jesus' martyrdom, however, does not justify allegations of anti-Semitism in either the film or the Gospels. After all, Jesus Himself was a Jew, as were His Apostles and most of His earliest followers.

On the other hand, not everyone who boasts the mantle of religious authority walks the walk. Jesus certainly didn't ingratiate Himself with corrupt elements within the Jewish religious leadership of His day – compromised leaders whom He called "unmarked graves" and builders of "the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed."

But in saying such things, Jesus was speaking within the grand tradition of the Hebrew prophets of old, many of whom indeed were put to death.

Were Jesus speaking publicly today against the abuse of religious authority, He might just as likely be addressing corrupt elements within Christian leadership. Wrong is wrong, especially when carried out under the cloak of piety, and no religious tradition has a monopoly on that. Do we have to look any further than our own shores?

In comparison, consider recent headlines about Canadian politics. Is Auditor General Sheila Fraser somehow "anti-Canadian" because she fingered grave governmental wrongdoing? And are the newspapers and broadcasters of the nation anti-Canadian because they have carried the story?

So it seems to me that neither Jesus, nor the New Testament, nor Gibson's film should be accused of being "anti" anything other than abuse of religious authority and trusteeship.

Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be those who will twist this film, just as for centuries they have twisted the Scriptures, to justify hatred. May God forgive them.

On a more positive note, now, I said that the film works. It touched me deeply.

I think the 18th Century hymn writer Isaac Watts captured my feelings beautifully in a hymn I've treasured since childhood. Gibson's film provides me a set of vivid images for visualizing this hymn. Please note that there's nothing here about pointing a finger of blame, but only about embracing the love of God:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down –
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page