What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…The Passion of the Christ

Posted: March 9, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This is the first of occasional articles on what George Mason experts have to say about a current topic. These are personal opinions and do not reflect an endorsement by George Mason University.

Marc Gopin
Marc Gopin

“[Mel] Gibson has regrettably made a career out of invoking rage and justifying excessive violence as a result of the violation of the innocent. That in essence was the message of his film, Braveheart, and an important theme in his other films,” says Marc Gopin, faculty member in the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. “How are we to believe in the case of this new film that the essential message is not one of rage but of forgiveness, as he has said in interviews, when he has broken all barriers of cinematic violence by making the bloodiest re-enactment of the Passion in theatrical history?

“If thousands of Jews had not been killed in the last 2,000 years because they were collectively held responsible for the death of Jesus,” he continues, “then I would say that Gibson is just a director who is out of step with present Catholic and Protestant theology that exonerates Jews from collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. But he makes this film just as one of the biggest wounds of history between Jews and Christians is only beginning to heal, and that is irresponsible. Sensitive Catholics and Protestants, leaders as well as lay people, have strenuously moved their doctrine away from the exclusive blame of the Jewish people for Jesus’s death,” he says.

“Haters of Jews will use the scenes of the movie in which the Jewish rabbis and mobs are singled out as bloodthirsty to strengthen their hateful case, the same scenes in which the Roman leadership is exonerated. This is unfortunate because Gibson could have brought alive the period more in its actual historical diversity, with dozens of Jewish sects struggling over their future in a terrible situation of poverty and imperial tyranny, a world in which the roads were literally lined with crucifixion victims. This divisive world was a result in part of Jewish failures of the time, but mostly due to the imposition of a Roman imperial world without human rights. What Gibson misses is that many of the rabbis of the time also had strong criticism of some corrupt and violent priestly families who occasionally controlled the Temple in Jerusalem, but such subtlety and diversity of actors is nowhere to be found in this film, only the eliciting of intense rage against Jewish priests and rabbis as a whole who spurred on the crucifixion. That over-simplification and demonization led to endless brutality in previous centuries,” he says.

Gopin adds that it is conceivable that the film may lead to soul searching at the popular level and more honest conversations between Jews and Christians about shared values and what their religions really stand for. “But it seems clear to me that Gibson delivers a religious message only through unspeakable torture. If he means what he says about being a disciple of Christian forgiveness, then he needs to move beyond gratuitous violence in his art form. As an analyst of religion and conflict, I think that Gibson took a great opportunity to offer a film with a universal message about an extraordinary figure in history, Jesus of Nazareth, and he botched the message by capitalizing on violence and simplistic divisions of the world’s peoples into cosmic categories of good and evil. I sincerely hope that Gibson will move his considerable talents in film towards creativity that relies less on the box-office crutch of rage and violence. I think he is capable of it, but he has to face some hard questions about himself and his work thus far,” he concludes.

Peter Brunette
Peter Brunette

Peter Brunette, professor of English and director of the Film and Media Studies Program, offers another view: “While I respect the fact that many Christians find Mel Gibson’s new film a powerfully spiritual experience, to my mind it is, frankly, deeply sick. It is by far the most violent movie I have ever seen in my film-watching career, and well deserves its R rating. I have read that it is creating paroxysms of guilt and despair in young people who watch it. For all intents and purposes, it is a film about a man being tortured to death for two hours. This is simultaneously horrifying and boring to watch, and I alternated between looking away and looking at my watch.

“I was raised a Catholic, and most of my education took place in Catholic institutions. At these places, I learned that Christ’s message was one of hope, redemption, salvation, and, above all, love. I saw none of these things in this movie.”

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