There is a moment early in the viewing of The Passion of the Christ when covering ones eyes becomes an ongoing option. What lives in the memory of that moment is human savagery. It is that nerve ending that is tantalized, not the awakened heart that inspires discipleship from those who believe in Jesus or from devotees to other great teachers and prophets.
The truly faithful respond to this profound calling with works of charity and justice. At Repairers of the Breach we witness this in the interfaith network of persons involved in our sanctuary and resource center for the homeless on [Milwaukee's] Vliet Street. Our family includes a whole gamut of volunteers : Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Quakers, Baha'i and Unitarians : for whom social conscience and faith are indistinguishable.
The pieces missing from Gibson's portrait of Jesus are about what would inspire even 21st century Christians to make radical revisions to their lives. Instead Gibson has created a cinematic bridge-to-nowhere that omits Jesus' imperative that his followers "carry his cross." Ironically, the "real" Jesus would be trampled to death in theater lobbies by Christians rushing to buy their tickets, just as a homeless "Holy Family" would be brusquely escorted from shopping malls by security guards at Christmas. For the "real" Jesus is the least of the least, and his calling through the ages has been to live his compassion and reverse injustice.
The screen delivers, like fresh meat served to ravenous wolves, scene after scene of violence for the sake of violence. Rather than glorifying the life of Jesus, violence is glorified. Moviegoers are given no clue as to how the story connects with meaning. Churches are sending their youth to the film to invest in their religious formation; but those adolescents will have trouble differentiating this movie from others in which blood and gore prevail. They will struggle to find the basic sacred themes of resurrection and salvation lost to images of torture taken to extremes.
The lasting symbol of this movie is not the blood-smeared savior's face imprinted on a linen towel, but the imprint of dead presidents on green paper. Gibson has used the life of Jesus to create a box-office success in a new category: sacred horror flick. Those who see it are left in a state of shock. Of the millions of churchgoers paying to see it, few will make the leap from Gibson's special effects to the spiritual depths of being human.
Indeed some of the pew-sitters in the theater audience are parents who balance trips to Disney World with family hours of volunteering at meal programs. Some do prioritize social conscience in how they organize their lives. But the majority, consciously or unconsciously, nurture their children to have status quo appetites for sadistic entertainment rather than teaching them how to abhor violence and create a more humane world.
The majority who see Gibson's film are in denial about homelessness and may even join in their societal rejection and criminalization. Some are people who blame the mothers of the young boys who beat Charlie Young to death in Milwaukee's central city, rather than asking what they could do to help. Among them are suburban wives who check into domestic violence shelters on evenings when the Green Bay Packers lose. Among them are people who are blind to the children in Milwaukee County whose cries become whimpers when they are beaten; to the abused elderly with broken ribs and other hidden fractures; to men and women brutalized by their mates; to homeless people who face rape, beatings and murder on the streets; to teens whose absolute survival includes participation in dangerous crimes and shootouts.
As the old saying goes, "If you love him, why not serve him?" In the Gospels, Jesus says that if you really want to see his face, just look at the disabled, the impoverished, the homeless, the imprisoned, the outcast : and then do something about it. Local Christian people by numbers alone could direct public policy, drive philanthropy, open channels of opportunity and stand in solidarity until this Wisconsin landscape we share is populated entirely by people of hope. This could be done if Christians would "carry the cross" : a relevant point that this movie failed to communicate.
Is the Christian church in America so lacking in spiritual imagination that people believe they are having a vivid religious experience when they see this movie? If anyone wants to put suffering in a spiritual perspective, don't go to this movie. Just drive a few miles and witness it in its many forms among people living right here.
Mel Gibson's movie does not merit the status of divine revelation. God help us if pastors and priests defer to this movie as a means to jump-start a dying church. Let them instead tie the teachings of Jesus to a message of how Christians can make a difference in today's world. As true shepherds, let the ordained steer their parishioners away from paranoia and fear into compassion, away from television and movie-addicted lifestyles into service to humanity.