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Passion film conveys realism without profound meaning

By Rev Ken Olsen

The Passion of the Christ is certainly not the kind of movie one would go to enjoy. It is far more likely to leave one profoundly moved, shocked or disturbed.

Covering the last day in Jesus’ life, the movie brings home the terrible brutality and violence he experienced in those last hours. It conveys more violence than almost any movie I have seen, hence it is not for the faint hearted or squeamish.

Gibson does not seek to make any profound theological or political statement, even though some have perceived it as anti-Semitic. It places no more blame upon the Jews than indeed we find in the gospels themselves. Any profound meaning for Jesus’ death goes unexplored.

Substitutionary sacrifice, the power of humble submission when allied to overwhelming good, gracious love in action, or divine trickery of the old enemy – none of these understandings, good or bad, are explored. It simply tells the brutal story (with a little Hollywood embellishment) and leaves one stunned and numb as the final, and very brief, resurrection scene closes. We are left to grapple with any deeper theological meaning for such brutality.

What the movie does do is cut through 2000 years of sanitizing of the event. Our finely crafted crosses and elegant hangings can mask that this was a brutal execution. There is a world of difference between reading about reality and the actuality. One may read of a brutal murder perpetrated in our midst and even feel revolted that it may happen but it is very different to being the one who stumbles over the body.

‘The Passion of Christ’ certainly brings home reality. We may still want to argue about whether such realism is actually necessary or helpful. It shows just how appalling and unfeeling humanity can be when driven by hatred, fear or indifference to the sacredness of life – let alone of this life.

The most puzzling character in the movie is that of Satan. A mysterious, elusive presence, that lurks in and around others at moments when pity for Jesus is at its most poignant. Satan’s treatment of Judas as both league and persecutor shows how evil is never to be controlled nor trusted. It will bite as quickly as it would seem to be ones ally. There are a number of scenes that remain a mystery with regards what was being conveyed in relation to this character.

My fear is that some well meaning souls will use this movie to emphasise our role in our Lord’s death, saying ‘You did that to Christ!’ in the hope that the resulting guilt will convince seekers to commit their lives to Christ. True, there can be collective responsibility and guilt, yet I do not believe that guilt, rather than grace and love, should be the stimulus for commitment to Christ, especially Christ who dies in such a way.