Biblical Studies & Life

 

Movie Review: The Passion of the Christ

Yung Suk Kim

The Passion of the Christ (movie) reflects Mel Gibson’s Jesus -- his passion for a "Western" Jesus, who comes to die and is punished instead of "me." The movie begins with a quote from Isaiah's Suffering Servant Song: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). [In fact, within the literary context of Isaiah, the figure of the suffering servant does not refer to an individual but to Israel.] Taking the theme of the suffering servant and applying to Jesus, Gibson colors his "Jesus" with "substitutionary death" (the so-called penal substitution theory) with much violence in the movie. The movie is full of unnecessary, exaggerated torture with little information about the cause of Jesus' death in a historical sense. For me, the movie turns very disappointing because of the needless violence without raising the historical question of why Jesus was killed. Why is there so much violence to Jesus? Bluntly, the question is: Who brought Jesus to death? I just felt throughout the movie that there should not be another Jesus, who receives enormous torturing and injustice caused by the evil doers. Let us get straight on the cause of Jesus' death. In fact, if Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God (basileia theou) had been successful or his mission had been accepted by the people in his time, he would not have been killed. All the gospel stories present the cause of Jesus' death as the culmination of what he said, did, and acted. In other words, his message and deeds were dangerous for some people. That is why he was opposed and executed by those who resent his message. Jesus' passion for God's love and justice got him killed.

In our world today too, there are many sufferings, unjust or needless. I believe that God does not want our torturing. Jesus is a type of the most vicious and unjust suffering and death. This way of reading of Jesus' death is certainly plausible and one important avenue to look at the history and meaning of the event. In fact, the cause of Jesus' death could be constructed in many different ways, as the Four Gospels themselves in the New Testament testify. In Luke, Jesus' work as a prophet provokes enemies' anger. Jesus dies as a martyr, not as salvific atonement or substitutionary death at all; his radical message of justice and egalitarianism led to the cross. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus' death, somewhat difficult for Jesus himself too, is pictured as good sacrifice for "others." Here caution is that sacrifice of Jesus does not automatically mean penal substitutionary death of Jesus. On one hand, meaning of Jesus' death can be constructed in the context of different communities behind the gospels. On the other hand, apart from the later communities' meaning of Jesus' death, cause of Jesus' death can be constructed in a more historical sense, which means analyzing all aspects of life in the world ranging from politics to economy to religion. If we continue to discuss about the cause and meaning of Jesus' death, we will be faced with the question of "we should do" today.

As for me, the biggest problem of the Gibson's movie seems to condone the social, political evil of violence and injustice, and be blind to the massive power of evil evident in such atrocious, unspeakable torturing and murdering under the cover of a divine plan.

The cost of this movie is too high in the sense that people do not reflect on such a power of evil -- in the form of violence, in the form of politics, in the form of daily lives of ordinary people. The movie's impression was that "the more violence on Jesus, the holier Jesus is, and the more thankful Christians feel because "our sins are paid back." But again, in other contexts that I put here, the message of the movie turns different in one hundred eighty degrees turn, “There should not be another Jesus of unjust suffering and death in this world.” Such atrocious, senseless violence and suffering must disappear in our world.

Other comments: We should acknowledge that this movie is not a historical movie in the sense of what really happened but a theological story, directed and interpreted by Gibson who follows a specific understanding or the meaning of Jesus' death. If someone too quickly responds to this movie as if this were a history per se, he or she evidently does not distinguish between history and theology.

Lastly, even this theological story, with a vicious or violent role of the Jews and the Romans, should not be related to all Jews in history. Of course, there were not all Jews involved in accusations against Jesus. There were good and faithful people like Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, disciples, and many nameless women who followed Jesus. Also, we cannot simply equate Jewish ancestors with Jewish people today and in history. So if any person does not distinguish between individuals and community, and between the past and the present, that person brings in impending dangers of inviting another Hitler to emerge on the scene. I reject such a naïve thinking or attitude of the historicization of the gospel story. As a whole, this movie must be viewed critically and/or with multiple dimensions of the texts involving Jesus’ life and death.