Was it worth the hype?

A Reflection written after viewing Mel Gibson's film The Passion of Christ

by Kevin Kelly

from Signs of the Times, No. 14 - Jul 2004

I was not only unmoved by the film, but I actually felt it was very unhelpful in terms of helping me encounter Christ.

All the emphasis was on the violent suffering inflicted upon Christ and on the terrible inhumanity of those who beat and scourged him. It almost gave the impression that what was 'divine' about Jesus was his ability to absorb a superhuman amount of pain and suffering.

It gave no indication why his passion should be interpreted as a sign of his love for us. The viewer was almost left to conclude that God wanted Jesus to suffer as much as possible to show his love for us. But what kind of God is that? That probably explains why I felt the film was almost blasphemous in its portrayal of God.

The High Priest and his fellow priests came over as utterly wicked. We were given no idea as to why they should have wanted to get rid of Jesus, what it was about him that made him threatening to them and their form of religious belief and practice.

The soldiers too were totally and mindlessly brutal. There was no suggestion that they were just ordinary soldiers obeying orders and doing their unpleasant duty. Hence, there was no way the viewer could feel they might have done the same if they were in their position.

The film read the Gospels as completely historical accounts, rather than as portrayals of a real historical event but with various layers of theological interpretation added on. To make matters worse, it portrayed as historical some events for which there is no historical evidence at all. Admittedly, his introduction of the figure of the devil was clearly Mel Gibson's own attempt at theological interpretation. Personally, I did not find it unhelpful.

After viewing the film I spent about 20 minutes praying in church. This was not because the film had inspired me to pray. Quite the contrary, I felt a need to pray - almost to purify myself from the experience of watching what I felt was a distortion of the something utterly sacred, the most profound sign of God's love for us. Although the passion of Jesus was most certainly a horrendously violent and inhuman happening, the film gave not the slightest hint that the violence and suffering undergone by Jesus 2000 years ago still continues today.

The Good News is not that Jesus suffered barbarously 2000 years ago but that Jesus in his life and teaching revealed God's utterly unconditional love for us. Many of the religious leaders found such unconditional love too hard to swallow. It threatened their authority and way of life. That is precisely why they were determined to get rid of Jesus.

That same unconditional love of God for us remains the Good News today. And we still continue to find it very threatening and disturbing. By virtually collapsing into one the horror of human sin and the horror of Christ's suffering, the film is in danger of confirming our blindness to the fact that the same horror continues today. Christ continues to suffer today, wherever the image of God in his creatures is denied by our inhumanity to each other. And we are all involved in that. Inhumanity today is much more subtle and widespread than that shown in the film. It is the inhumanity which has its roots in systemic and institutional injustice while its effects are felt by many right across the world. The Passion of Christ continues today. Tears shed in the cinema are useless if they only blind our vision still further and prevent us from seeing the suffering of Christ in his brothers and sisters today.

Kevin Kelly is the Roman Catholic Parish Priest at the shared RC/Anglican Church of St Basil & All Saints in Widnes and Emeritus Research Fellow in Moral Theology at Liverpool Hope University College.