Delivered April 11, 2004, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudoun.
From an Article on Beliefnet.com
[At a private screening:] “There was a two-page flyer opening to a one-page poster scattered everywhere around the public areas open to non-registrants (even in the bathrooms). It advertised ‘A Mel Gibson Film,’ gave its title as ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ and underneath was the sub-heading, ‘Dying was his reason for living.’ I have spent 40 years studying the gospels and have noticed two points about them. First, they range from a short 16 chapters in Mark to a long 24 chapters in Luke – but none of them gives more than one or two chapters to the passion of Jesus. The vast majority of their content describes how the life of Jesus as lived absolutely for the justice of the God of Judaism led inevitably to his death by imperial execution. He lived the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of Rome crucified him for it.
“Therefore, in the name of that God, his Jesus, and those gospels, I deny that sub-headed slogan and I reverse it to this: Living was his reason for dying.”
— Religious scholar John Dominic Crossan
When our older son, Tom, was 5 or 6, we drove to Durham, North Carolina, over Easter to visit Carol’s relatives. We were having Easter dinner at the home of Carol’s brother, Richard, and his wife, Lonna, whom Carol talked about in a service two weeks ago. Now, UUs come in many spiritual varieties – Christian UUs, Buddhist UUs, Pagan UUs, Jewish UUs. Richard and Lonna are Social Action UUs. They don’t seem very concerned about what some might call the more spiritual side of religion. Social action is there religion.
They don’t seem like the kind of people who’d make a big fuss over the Easter Bunny. So I found it surprising that on the drive, Tom kept saying: “Last year, Uncle Richard and Aunt Lonna had the real Easter Bunny.” I had not been with them the previous year, so I had no idea what Tom was talking about. Carol didn’t seem to show any recognition, either. But Tom persisted all the way from Leesburg to Durham talking about how Richard and Lonna had had the real Easter Bunny.
When we arrived at their house, Thomas of course brought the subject up with Lonna: “Last year you had the real Easter Bunny.” At first, Lonna seemed as confused as I was about what Tom was referring to, but then I could practically see the neurons make their connection in her brain. ‘Oh, of course!’ she said. ‘Now I remember. I think we ate it.’”
That story helps illustrate why Easter Sunday is a particularly challenging time for anyone preaching in a Unitarian Universalist church. Those who respect the Christian tradition don’t want to abandon entirely the mystery and the wonder of the Resurrection story, while the Humanists would be happy to eat the Easter Bunny – to ridicule the Resurrection myth. The environmentalists might like a service about renewal. The Jews can’t figure out what all the fuss is about.
So it was with some trepidation that I decided to attempt an Easter sermon this year. And I have to admit that I’m one of those who grew up Jewish and has trouble figuring out what Easter is all about. Christmas is easier for me to understand. It’s a national holiday celebrating the birth of Christianity’s Hero. I don’t really understand Santa Claus, but I understand gift-giving and singing and decorating trees and making children happy. But Easter, eggs, bunnies, Resurrection, the Easter parade have always been sources of confusion for me.
And it doesn’t do anything to dispel my confusion that Christians read the New Testament and come to so many different conclusions about it. Please bear with me as I make up a totally outrageous story to illustrate my point. This is a ridiculous fictional story, so I need to make up a totally fabricated place where it takes place. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m trying to sell this as a true story, so I want to invent a fantastical name. Let’s see, we’ll call this place…Purcellville.
For a couple hundred years, some of the land around Purcellville was farmed by Quakers, liberal Christians who believe that the inner glow of Jesus is within all of us. They’re Christians who believe in peace and nonviolence and inclusiveness. They’re Christians who risked their safety to harbor runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Recently, though, Purcellville has increasingly been populated by Christians who read the New Testament and find there a harsh God – one who seems willing, even eager, to damn people to eternal hell. According to these Christians, if you’re not baptized in a certain way and you die before you accept Jesus in a certain way, your eternity will be one of constant suffering.
Now I know it’s hard to accept that some could believe a loving God would condemn an innocent child for dying before either his parents or he get with the prescribed program, but remember this is fantasy. In fact, let’s get even more outrageous. Let’s say these people were convinced that God would eternally punish just about anyone whose values or whose lifestyle is different from theirs – Jews, Moslems, atheists, gays, most Supreme Court justices. Hey, why not? It’s only a story.
These fictional people were so certain about their punitive us-versus-them view of the New Testament that they didn’t want their children going off to school, where they might run into other beliefs. They might be taught about evolution, which conflicted with their views about creation, and they might even mingle with some Quaker children who possibly could talk about their view of a loving Jesus. That might lead their children astray. So they decided to school their children at home and to lobby in all 50 states to ease the requirements for parents wanting to school their children at home.
They started an organization in Purcellville to support families sharing their religious views who want to school children at home, and then they even built a college in this fictional town of Purcellville. They gave the college a patriotic American name – something like, oh, Patrick Henry – and they recruited home-schooled children from like-minded families to focus on subjects like debate and politics. They wanted to turn out leaders to govern the rest of the country according to their religious views.
Now if you think this story has been weird so far, wait until you hear the next part that I’m making up! In its fourth year, Patrick Henry College had about 240 students. Seven of them were White House interns and an eighth was an intern in the George W. Bush reelection campaign. If something like that were true, we’d need to be worried about the future of this nation, wouldn’t we? Well, you all know that it is true. I chose this method of telling the story so it wouldn’t seem so much like an attack against people with views different from my own. I don’t want to attack anyone. I do think we need to be seriously concerned about an apparent cultural shift that’s putting more power and influence in the hands of those whose religious message divides rather than unites us.
As Unitarian Universalists we honor those faiths that bring us together. Ours is not a message of division and exclusion. I think that’s why our friend Skip Freidhof was so surprised the first time he visited here. He actually felt good after going to church. Church should be a haven, not a place of acrimony. I saw an interview with former Senator Bob Kerry after Condoleezza Rice testified the other day. He said we’ve declared war on terrorism, but our enemy is radical Islam. He’s got a point, but if we recognize radical Islam as our enemy, then we also have to recognize as enemies radical Christianity and radical Judaism and any other religion that elevates a chosen few and degrades the rest of humankind as infidels.
And that brings me to the subject of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the most-watched Passion play in history. How divisive is it?
This focus on the crucifixion led me to wonder what it represents to Christians. I know something about Buddhism, and the stories about the Buddha’s life. Although there are many similarities in their stories, a terrible painful death isn’t one of them. The Buddha died peacefully after an illness in old age and passed into the world of no birth and no death – you might say the Buddhist equivalent of Resurrection.
The worst suffering in the Buddha stories, except perhaps for his suffering in compassion for others, was in a phase of his life when he decided that the way to enlightenment was in living an ascetic existence – denying himself more than the tiniest amount of food and water needed to keep him alive. He eventually rejected that belief and found enlightenment after pursuing the Middle Way – the way that avoids excess either in self-satiation or in self-denial.
There’s simply no parallel in the Buddha’s life to the crucifixion. So I wanted to find out how Mohammed died, and I went where I go whenever I want to learn more about Islam – to the Charcoal Kabob restaurant in Herndon. If you’ve never been there, it’s the best Kabob you’ll ever eat served by some of the finest people you’ll ever know, who are Moslem immigrants from Afghanistan. It’s in the Kmart shopping center on Eldon Street.
So after I had enjoyed my chicken kabob and saw that the owners had a quiet minute, I stepped up and asked; “In the Koran, how does Mohammed die?”
They looked at me a little strangely and politely pointed out that Mohammed’s death is not in the Koran. Duh, I realized. Of course not. The Koran is God’s story told through Mohammed. It would not include his death.
But then they explained that Mohammed, like the Buddha, died peacefully in old age after several days with a fever. But they understood the source of my questioning, and they went on to point out that, while Mohammed is not a subject of the Koran, Jesus is. Moslems don’t believe that God would make one of his messengers suffer, so Moslems believe that God took Jesus’ spirit to heaven before the crucifixion and gave his body to someone else. They also were eager to tell me that the longest book in the Koran is devoted to Mary.
I had an opportunity later to discuss this also with Mukit Hossain, the outreach coordinator for the All Dulles Area Muslim Center. He added that Moslems believe that God keeps sending the same message to humankind, and with every retelling finds better ways to convey it. Like liberal Christians preaching inclusiveness, these liberal Moslems were emphasizing the stories that unite rather than divide.
But while all of the world’s great religions teach love and compassion and some version of the Golden Rule, only Christianity has its prophet suffer and forgive his tormentors to save humankind from its sins. That’s both a strength and a weakness, and a Passion Play can be used as a jackhammer to separate Christians from others, or it can be used artfully to make a point about suffering and forgiveness. Mel Gibson chose the jackhammer.
Here’s a quote from a movie review by John Petrakis in Christian Century magazine:
The problem with The Passion isn’t the amount of violence…(even if the Bible never suggests anything so brutal) so much as the fact that there’s little in the film except violence…. The Passion doesn’t inspire. It’s like viewing an uneven boxing match in which we are forced to watch the underdog, pinned against the ropes, get beaten to within as in inch of his life. We just want to turn away….
In fact, The Passion works best when Christ is not on screen. That’s because Christ in this movie doesn’t represent anything Christ-like, such as love or peace or forgiveness. Instead, he is a victim with the guts to stand up after a beating. That approach may work for Gibson’s other loud and gory films, from Mad Max to Braveheart to The Patriot. But to reduce Jesus Christ to a tough dude who can take a licking and keep on ticking is not exactly a feat that calls for hosannas.
My own feeling after watching the film was that there wasn’t much to it. It doesn’t take much acting or much writing to portray a lot of exaggerated cruelty and suffering. The only part of the film requiring much skill was the makeup – putting all the welts on Jesus’ body. And then, of course, there’s the question of whether it’s anti-Semitic. Maybe this quotation can throw some light on the subject:
It is vital that the Passion Play be continued…for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.
That was Adolf Hitler in 1942 after having watched the Oberammergau Passion Play. Of course, a Passion Play doesn’t necessarily have to be anti-Semitic, but the Mel Gibson version does indeed portray the Roman governor Pilate as a kind man driven to a course he didn’t want – driven by the muck and mire of Jewish rabble. And his film extends to the Jewish priest Caiaphas no such revisionist kindness.
I’d suggest, however, that most Christians don’t come away from this or any other Passion Play hating Jews for killing Christ, but nevertheless there are things that we all should understand about each other. Here’s columnist Dennis Prager in an article I found on Beliefnet.com:
It is essential that Christians understand this. Every Jew, secular, religious, assimilated, left-wing, right-wing, fears being killed because he is Jewish. This is the best-kept secret about Jews, who are widely perceived as inordinately secure and powerful. But it is the only universally held sentiment among Jews. After the Holocaust and with Islamic terrorists seeking to murder Jews today, this…is not paranoid.
However, what Jews need to understand is that most American Christians watching this film do not see “the Jews” as the villains in the passion story historically, let alone today. First, most American Christians – Catholic and Protestant – believe that a sinning humanity killed Jesus, not “the Jews.” Second, they know that Christ’s entire purpose was to come to this world and to be killed for humanity’s sins. To the Christian, God made it happen, not the Jews or the Romans (the Book of Acts says precisely that).
And that leads me to another story I want to tell. This is a true story, and it took place in a private room in one of those highly excessive downtown Washington steakhouses. In my public relations business, I sometimes participate in meetings with top corporate executives and $450-an-hour lawyers, and this was one of those times. I had been in a conference room all day with a lawyer, a lobbyist, a science consultant and four corporate execs, and now at dinner we got what was called the Board Room and proceeded to have a pretty liquid dinner. I was the only one whose liquid was not spiked.
As the liquor flowed, the lobbyist began to profess his high regard for Rush Limbaugh, and then one of the execs talked about having seen The Passion. As soon as the subject came up, the lawyer, who is Jewish, looked very uncomfortable and began making frequent trips away from our private room. The man who did want to talk about it, a Catholic, found the violence extreme – he wouldn’t let his 16-year-old daughter see it – but he thought it was a good and important film.
Most of those present seemed to agree, but then the scientist spoke up. “Look,” he said, “I’m one of those Catholics who thinks the Mass should still be in Latin and that Vatican II made a lot of other mistakes, but I see no value in this movie. Why focus on the violence and the suffering? Many people have suffered more than Jesus did. To stay in the same religion, what about the Catholics that Hitler sent to concentration camps? Their suffering lasted for years.”
I sure hadn’t expected that, and I didn’t fully understand it either until I got help from another article in Christian Century. This one by Matthew Myer Boulton:
Gibson is convinced that the greater the torment, the greater the portion of sin’s burden is carried and the greater the shepherd’s love for his sheep. So he sets out to overwhelm us with a dark kind of awe…. The film effectively exalts Jesus as the one sufferer above all others. But this exultation, to my mind, is a reversal of the true meaning of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Christ crucified is not the Hero, nor the strongest man. On the contrary, he is the weakest man, the least of these. There is his strength. He is not the greatest sufferer, famed above all others. He is, finally, the anonymous sufferer, in radical solidarity with every sufferer, everywhere. There is his proper fame. As the Son of God, he suffers and dies with sinners, forgotten and alone, disappearing into the thousands of Jews and others crucified under a brutal, violent, imperial regime. So he continues, even today, wherever agonies are borne against the human family.
The trouble with The Passion is that it proclaims a Braveheart Christianity. The Christ of the New Testament, by contrast, has a heart not so much brave as broken – “broken for you,” Christians recall.
My scientist colleague and Matthew Myer Boulton had both identified a central difficulty in The Passion. I’ve never been a Christian so I’m reluctant to proclaim what Christians should believe, but from the outside it seems to me that what’s important about the suffering of Jesus is that it made him like us, not better than us. It was forgiving his tormentors that made him different, and that is hardly touched on in the movie.
But there was much more that I learned that night in the downtown steakhouse. While the Jewish lawyer was on one of his many trips away from the table, the Christians addressed the subject of the film’s purported anti-Semitism. “It’s not anti-Semitic,” they agreed. Now it was my turn to speak up.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I read an interesting article about that. This article said that there are things every Christian needs to understand about Jews who go to see that movie, and things every Jew needs to understand about Christians who see that movie.
“What Christians need to understand,” I continued, “is that every Jew lives in mortal fear of being persecuted because he’s not Christian.”
This drew howls of protest. “That’s not true!” they proclaimed.
“Oh, yes it is,” I said. “I know it’s true. I was born Jewish. I don’t still consider myself Jewish, but I can tell you that every time I see a crucifix I tremble. I don’t think it’s because of anything in this environment today. I think it’s in my genes. I think it goes back to the Inquisition.”
There were a few moments of silence, and then an amazing thing happened. One by one they apologized to me. They apologized not for anything they had done to me. I understood them to be apologizing for what their ancestors had done to my ancestors.
When the lawyer returned to the table, he threatened to turn on his $450-an-hour billing clock if we didn’t change the subject from The Passion. It was clear that this highly polished Washington lawyer simply couldn’t handle that one topic. And we awkwardly changed the subject.
But in the meantime I had gotten a vivid lesson in the value of open, honest dialogue. And while I think Mel Gibson’s movie is bad and his theology is divisive, if indeed he has opened a dialogue, that dialogue will move people toward theologies that unite rather than divide – theologies that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And we can all shout hosanna about that.
Or at least we can sing number 123, Spirit of Life.
Copyright © 2004 Mel Harkrader Pine