By Audrey Stallsmith
I haven’t seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ yet, though I probably will soon. Our local family-friendly theater plans to run, over the Easter season, one of the few R-rated movies it has ever shown.
So I can only comment on the controversies that have always surrounded the Pathos (Suffering) of the Christ as it is portrayed in scripture. I tend to be skeptical when modern intellectuals think they know more about what happened during a certain time period than the people do who lived through it. Even if the Gospels were not written immediately after Jesus’ life, they were certainly written much closer to it than we are today.
The Apostles may not have had any love for the chief priests, but they certainly had no affection for the Romans either. And, in my opinion, the Crucifixion account makes the Gentiles look as bad as--if not worse than--the Jews.
The Jews believed that Jesus was a blasphemer and, under their law, blasphemy was punishable by death. So they could feel at least some justification for demanding his execution. The Roman governor, on the other hand, had no excuse except political expediency.
I suspect it was Pilate’s aversion to being pressured that initially made him dig in his heels. His wife’s warning may also have played a part. But, whereas most of the Jews involved seem to have actively hated Jesus, the emotionally uninvolved Pilate made his decision in very cold blood.
In murder cases, those who act in the heat of passion are always granted more leniency than those who were fully aware of what they were doing. The fact that Pilate was reluctant does not exonerate him. Rather, the opposite.
It proves that he knew Jesus’ crucifixion was wrong, but he allowed it to happen anyway. The Roman soldiers who mocked Jesus could have had no personal animus against him either. They apparently just enjoyed tormenting prisoners.
As for the violence in the film, Roman crucifixion was a brutal business, designed to degrade its victims in every way possible. But many of we Christians have heard about it for so long that we have become accustomed to the idea.
Dorothy Sayers observed, "It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all." Perhaps Gibson wanted to jolt us into a real understanding of what our sins cost Christ.
Most of the people involved in His death purported not to believe that Jesus was divine. But the extremity of their reactions suggests there must have been some subconscious lashing out at Deity involved--that the mob chanting, "Crucify him," was really screaming for God’s blood.
Christ had not preached a relaxing of standards, as some had probably hoped he would. Though disdaining legalistic rules, he had actually stiffened moral demands. Unlike Moses He allowed only one excuse for divorce, he made hatred virtually equivalent to murder, and his very sinlessness accused all who came into contact with him.
It especially inflamed those who were proud of their religiosity. They had made following rules their life’s work, only to have Jesus tell them it wasn’t enough.
In Come to the Party, Karl Olsson gives a description of the prodigal’s older brother that could probably also apply to many of the chief priests and Pharisees. "Insecure, self-hating, compulsive, unblessed, he tries to earn his gifts. He has no freedom to ask anything of his father. . .He cannot oppose his father, argue with him. . .can’t go away, can’t risk because he can’t handle failure. . .nor can he admit failure. . .be loved and love. . .dance wildly. . ."
Those chief priests and Pharisees had been stung to fury when Jesus compared them to corrupt husbandmen who kill the Owner’s Son in their attempt to rob the Owner of his due. But I suspect there was a strong undercurrent of, "You have always demanded too much from us!" in their venom. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the Crucifixion as "the last desperate storming of the gate of paradise. And under the flaming sword (the Cross) mankind dies. But Christ lives."
One of the things everybody seems to agree on is that Gibson’s movie elicits an emotional response. In many it will probably be the same angry one we’ve directed at our Creator for centuries. "If You’re really God, You could have prevented this." As the song goes, "He could have called ten thousand angels"--and mopped up the Pavement with the whole Roman army.
But He knew his death was necessary. Soren Kierkegaard writes in his Journals, "The difference between a man who faces death for the sake of an idea and an imitator who goes in search of martyrdom is that, while the former expresses his ideas most fully in death, it is the strange feeling of bitterness which comes from failure that the latter really enjoys. . ."
In other words, the imitator’s death can be seen as a fatalistic act of defiance. But, although Christ’s death may have looked like a senseless state-sponsored lynching at the time, it was actually a choice with an eternal idea behind it.
What the chief priests and Pharisees do not seem to have grasped is that God is always willing to give us what He requires from us--right down to our value. "Christ," C. S. Lewis notes in The World’s Last Night, "died for men precisely because men are not worth dying for; to make them worth it." In The Problem of Pain, he adds, "God has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, I the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense."
He must have. We don’t often consider how painful life here must often have been to Christ even before His final days. Yet, we have been told repeatedly that God cannot endure sin. And God in the flesh had to observe it all around Him every day. Observe it and refrain from burning it up, as His natural inclination would demand. It can only have been physically and mentally excruciating.
On the other hand, his joys must have been much larger than ours too. G. K. Chesterton writes that, "A great man is not a man so strong that he feels less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more. . . Sensibility is the definition of life." How much more sensitive must the Son of God have been!
That incessant battering to which he would have been subjected rose to its almost unbearable crescendo at the Crucifixion when Jesus apparently lost contact with His Source for a time. To fully identify with man, Christ had to experience what it felt like to be cut off from His Father. I would guess that the physical pain he endured didn’t begin to compare to the spiritual agony.
"’My God, my God, what have I done to turn your back on me?’ His scream of anguish echoed down the hill. And it seemed I heard the misery, the sickness and the sin of every man who ever lived or ever will." (Don Francisco). Now none of us can say that God doesn’t understand what it’s like.
It’s much harder to fend him off too. In Unspoken Sermons George MacDonald points out that after the crucifixion God, by means of his Holy Spirit, "was henceforth inside and beneath them, as well as around and above them."
We might think it would have been wiser of him to keep his distance and dignity instead of descending into our mess with us. If a mere human were planning this sort of thing, he would at least arrange that his death be civilized and relatively painless--something like Socrates’, for example.
But God has never operated like that. When He loves and when He acts, He does so wholeheartedly and without reservations. He proved He could take the worst we could dish out--and come back for more.
"It is the optimist," Chesterton concluded in Seven Suspects, "rather than the pessimist who finally finds the cross waiting for him at the end of his own road. It is the thing that remains when all is said, like the payment after the feast. . ."
Before the feast might be a more accurate description. Christ has already paid for the party. We can hang around outside in the darkness, grumbling, like the prodigal’s older brother. Or we can admit our failure, accept a Father’s love we never deserved, and dance. That last choice sounds like the most fun to me!