Good, evil, and The Passion

By Patrick Boyle

A friend recently sent me a series of notes about Mel Gibson’s recent film The Passion of the Christ, based on a discussion with a Catholic priest who claims to have been on set throughout the filming.

Although I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have devoted quite a bit of time to following the media hype before, during, and in the wake of its release. That said, I am planning on seeing it because my Catholic rearing has left me well-acquainted with the Passion story and I’d like to see it played out in a dramatic way on screen. I’m also a big fan of foreign language films, especially when it’s like half-Latin–one of my favourite languages–and half-Aramaic. Finally, I’d like to see if the violence lives up to the hype. Call me raunchy, but at least I’m honest. Being a 21-year-old North American male, I’m pretty desensitized at this point, so I’m sure it won’t hurt.

From what I know about the film and from the content of the aforementioned "notes," I don’t think I’m going to be moved to tears, nauseated or visibly shaken when I eventually see it. The document in question cited several specific images used throughout the film (Satan, the snake, the Agony in the Garden) and attempted to offer explanations in the context of Christianity. Overall, it strikes me as an extremely base, juvenile interpretation of the Passion story. In many cases, I got to the end of a particular section and said "why did this need to be explained?"

For instance, the author makes the following statement about Jesus’ extreme physical suffering during the Agony in the Garden.

"Since Jesus is the Son of God and God is pure love, taking on the sin of the world, yours and mine, the sin of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Genghis Khan, etc., was an excruciating experience for Him."

Citing sins of historical villains–particularly ones yet to be born–and interpreting the "taking on the sins of the world" in such a visceral, physical sense is the author’s way of invoking the universal notion of absolute evil. I believe it is simple-minded to take such a profound statement literally and I suspect the intent of the sentence is to create a sense of dialectical tension between absolute good and absolute evil.

Carrying on from this disturbing, over-simplified conclusion, the author preaches a stark morality lesson, which is where my blood really began to boil.

"Mel’s message was that every time we choose sin, the choice is always obvious like the choice between Barabbas and Jesus."

This, one of many similar statements, struck me as far too broad a generalization. I don’t think I need to go into a lot of reasons why this logic is completely flawed. Don’t get me wrong, one aspect of Christian faith that has stuck in my mind is the existence of absolute good and absolute evil (although I’m constantly struggling to decide what falls into each category), but to make the assertion that every decision in a human life falls neatly into the format of "choose good or choose evil" is dangerous, irresponsible and flat-out wrong.

I don’t know why everything I read about this movie leaves such a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s the fact Gibson is calling us out, asking us to "witness" as if he were a fire-and-brimstone minister, saying either you believe this completely or you don’t believe it at all–there’s no in-between. In America, this sort of "dumbing-down" to an A vs. B mentality is quite typical and in some cases, like Republican vs. Democrat, it works (debatably). However, I believe it is hazardous and detrimental to humanity when applied to something as important and far-reaching as religious beliefs.

My approach to religion in general is that there are five "major" ones and they all preach the same general principle: don’t be an asshole. So that’s where I try to start. Details are details and I personally believe that if [insert your Deity’s name here] is such an understanding guy, he is probably more concerned about people being kind, loving and understanding toward each other than he is about people worshipping "the right God" or following "the right book." Do I go to church because it says I should in the Bible? No, I go to church because of the important sense of community and spirituality that it fosters in me.

I guess my main point is this: Gibson’s movie has produced a lot of self-righteous, and perhaps misguided, fervour in the Christian population of the world. They think they’re doing their duty by paying $12 to see a film about Jesus. They think they’re achieving a better understanding of Jesus’ pain by watching the most violent film ever made. They think they’re doing the will of God by using the film to make converts of their non-Christian friends. If they expended half as much effort living better lives as they have flogging this film, we would live in a much, much happier world.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In Gibson’s world, there are two ways to make any decision: the Christian way and the sinful way. Following this logic, only a few steps down the line we reach the very dangerous corollary that there are two types of people: Christians and sinners. This is the sort of conclusion that thrives on hatred, not love. It creates war and misery, not peace and happiness.

This is a dangerous movie, and America is a dangerous place to let it thrive.

Leave a comment