It is reported that The Passion of the Christ, is likely to be the largest money-maker in movie history, bringing in at least $500 million for creator Mel Gibson. And if you like the sight of a healthy male body being demolished, beyond the farthest reach of plausible endurance, then this is the movie for you. One review reports¹ that at the arrest of Jesus he is chained, beaten over and over, thrown off a bridge to crash below. He arrives at his first legal hearing already mauled and with one eye closed behind swollen bruises. He is never moved or stopped without spontaneous blows and kicks from bystanders relishing the chance to get their licks in.
One gets a sense of Gibson’s vision when he tells a writer for The New Yorker that not merely non-Christians but nonorthodox Christians, including his wife, are going to hell.²
I have not been able to bring myself to see The Passion, but what I have been able to gather from reviews of the film is that the union of the divine and the human in Jesus is not explored. He is just a sponge for punishment. This appears to be a movie about violence done to a human being, much like the many scenes in which Gibson himself is pummeled, shot, bloodied not once but many times as super cop in Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, and on, and who manages to get his head chopped off in Braveheart, the somewhat fictionalized story of William Wallace, who after losing his wife and others close to him, begins his long, violent quest to make Scotland free once and for all.
Violence is Gibson’s way to make wrong right. Garry Wills, writing of the film in The New York Review of Books, describes talking with a fundamentalist friend who is looking forward to seeing the Gibson movie. He writes, “While we talked, [my friend] got a phone call from his wife. Their pastor was not only encouraging but requiring his congregation to see the film, for which group tickets had been bought. She had called the pastor to say that she was having back trouble and, though she did plan to see the movie later on, she did not want to go now. Her pastor would not take that as an answer. He insisted. She was calling her husband to ask him what to do.”
Violence has been the way many have tried to make wrong right, including the Christian Church, which grew in the middle ages and beyond, in large part, on that very theme. God used violence to save the rest of us.
That is part of the Easter story, at least as some have come to understand it. Early in Christian history, however, Saint Augustine came to see that this view of a vengeful father was unworthy of God, and abandoned the ransom theory of Jesus’ death. God did not demand payment in order to bring about the redemption of humanity.
It was Augustine’s words “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” that spoke to theologian Rebecca Parker, who brings a different point of view to our understanding of who Jesus was, and who God is. “I had sought a ‘Thou,’ ” Dr. Parker writes, “before whom no secrets were hid. In this search, along with other feminist theologians, I’d deconstructed God the Omnipotent, God the Divine Child Abuser, God the King. I’d reconstructed God as Goddess, as Spirit of Life, as Source from whom All Blessings Flow, as Love at the Heart of Life. I’d addressed her in new words in liturgy and song. I’d tried not talking to her at all, reverencing the reality that finally we do not know any name for the ultimate beyond ‘I am who I am.’ But in all this I had not deconstructed God as Frank.”³
Frank was Dr. Parker’s next-door neighbor. In a remarkable book, Proverbs Of Ashes, she and co-author Rita Brock, describe with poignancy and intimate detail, their journeys through pain and suffering into adulthood with their struggles to find an honest understanding of themselves and their God. At one point, Dr. Parker describes her struggle to find herself and a god separate from the man, Frank, who had sexually molested her at least several times when she was a child, 4, 5, 6 years old. Frank had become the one who occupied the place of God for her, a distant, cruel god, who I imagine was similar to the god of Mel Gibson. “It was Frank’s presence, his will, his actions that ruled my life,” she writes. “I had no other god before him. My spirit bowed down to him . . . His spirit filled my life.”
In the midst of her struggle to discover herself, Dr. Parker was leading a very active, productive life as President of Unitarian Universalism’s Starr King School of the Ministry in California. In fact, she claims how she managed to separate herself into the person who was busy doing exciting, important work as a seminary president, and the person who was crying out to end the pain that was driving her. She sought solace in her first marriage, during which she had an abortion in order to try and appease a husband who did not want to be a father. That marriage and a second, to George, ended in divorce. More than once she slashed her arm, deliberately not her left, to insure that she would not damage the fingers she used to play the cello. Later her therapist advises that when the pain is too much to put her arms in ice water, and while painful, it will not do permanent or fatal damage.
After several years of therapy, deep introspection and the help of her friends, Dr. Parker returns to a Buddhist retreat center, which had been a haven for her in the past, to work on a book she was writing about the meaning of Jesus’ life. In the midst of researching and reading she writes: “When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die–and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed. I was being orally raped. I couldn’t breathe. I was just a small child! Four years old. And the weight of the man on top of me was crushing. In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘grater than’ death and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me….
“The man was stopped by the Presence, that’s what I believe. The Presence saved my life. But he might not have been stopped. He could have killed me. Molesters do kill. The Nazis did kill. Batterers do kill spouses and children. I know that had he killed me, it would have been because he completely denied the Presence. Such denial is entirely possible and happens all the time….
“But it still offends me when the murder of Jesus is lauded as revelatory of God’s presence–and I’m not sure why. I think it is the pious suggestion that such experiences are, therefore, a blessing. If I hadn’t been raped as a child, [this view suggests] I wouldn’t have experienced the blessing of revelation.”
And, she concludes, “Jesus didn’t have to die for us to know that God is present. He didn’t have to rise from the dead for us to know that God’s creative power is greater than death. Judaism already affirmed all this. Furthermore, nobody has to suffer for God to be made known to us.”⁴
That is what the early Universalists understood; namely, that God would not demand suffering from us, and I would add to that no god worth his or her salt would demand it of one’s son.
After he had suffered the crippling pain of arthritis for 20 years of his life, August Renoir was asked by his student and friend Matisse, “Why do you torture yourself to go on like this?” To which Renoir replied, “The pain passes; the beauty remains.”
Religion has perpetuated that distortion of truth. The distortion being that all suffering is ennobling, all suffering builds character. There is that oft told wisdom, the more you suffer on earth the greater your reward in heaven. Well, that makes no sense to me.
It may be that the suffering he experienced influenced and enhanced the depth of Renoir’s paintings, but the lesson of his life is not that suffering builds character or increases creativity, but rather this: When suffering is interwoven with creation the suffering is made whole. Certainly our lives experience agony and torment. There is the pain of growth, of change, of disappointment, of loss. There is the death of a loved one, addiction, divorce, bankruptcy, homophobia or racism, miscarriage, betrayal, disillusionment. To risk caring for others, to risk living with any depth or sense of adventure is to invite pain into our lives. But that suffering can be redeemed by beauty, aesthetic beauty and the beauty of the human character.⁵ Life can be redeemed by relationships made whole again, by peace winning out over war, by violence overcome by compassion. In fact, I have known many, including some of you, who have survived these and other sufferings. Life is more than suffering. Again, Dr. Parker: “Love encompasses life. Like an arc of fire across the night sky . . . Love is a seal upon the heart, a hunger to create, to honor life, to protect it, and to see it flourish.”⁶
Therefore, what makes sense to me is that Jesus was about calling us to a kind of loving; being faithful to one another, sustaining and healing as best we can, and in so doing creating a presence that is more than we might build alone. When we lead each other to experience wholeness, right relationship, beauty, then this presence is made real. This presence, this mystery, calls for justice. It calls for an end to violence, an end to abuse, to murder, to cruelty to each other and abuse of the earth. This presence is what we are to give our life for.
This presence is among us in quiet moments of “mutual discovery by friends sharing coffee on a sunlit afternoon, tears appearing on a frozen face, a community meeting that resists violence, the embrace that holds the other through the terrors of the night, the sheltering moon watching over the unblessed child, an old woman keeping faded photographs on a mirror, the dark ocean shimmering with diamonds.”⁷
As my colleague Lisa Doege puts it: “The true message of Easter is this: the human spirit is capable, in ways not short of miraculous, of triumphing against all odds, and indeed does so again and again, as long as we live upon this earth.”⁸
What we give our life for, against all odds, is to redeem what has been lost, to overcome suffering with solace and justice, to make whole what has been broken. That is what the passion of Jesus was about, and it did not take a cross to make it so.
1. “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” Garry Wills, New York Review of Books, April 8, 2004. pp. 68ff.
2. “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession.” Peter J. Boyer. The New Yorker. September 15, 2003. p. 71.
3. Parker, Rebecca Ann and Rita Nakashima Brock. Proverbs of Ashes; Violence, Redemptive Suffering and The Search for What Saves Us. Beacon Press, 2001. p. 195.
4. ibid. pp. 211-12.
5. “The Second Week of Lent.” Suzanne Meyer. First Days Record. February 1992. p. 48.
6. Parker, et. al. p. 252.
8. “The True Stories of Passover and Easter.” Lisa Doege. Quest; A Monthly for Religious Liberals. April 2004. p. 1.
© 2004 Richard Venus