February 10, 2004

Bill Cork and Pen have both been worrying lately about the violence in Mel Gibson's upcoming movie The Passion. Pen wonders, "Do we really need to 'sex up' the Crucifixion with more violence?"

Like most people, I haven't actually seen this movie, but I was interested in an article Bill linked to by a Westmont prof (no, not that one!) who had seen the movie. He points out that the Gospels themselves are pretty laconic on the details of the violence, and adds an important detail:

Gibson's preoccupation with Christ's shed blood and agony threatens to distract us from another crucial dimension of his death. Survey any Roman legion in the reign of Tiberius and they'll probably say that crucifixion was as much about shame as it was about pain. Ask Paul about the scandal at the heart of his Gospel and he'll point, not to whips and nails, but to the sheer embarrassment and absurd foolishness of a crucified savior. Hebrews says Christ "endured the cross, disregarding its shame" (Heb 12:2; cf. 6:6). So the cross was not only about cruelty but also about degradation and defilement, exclusion and ridicule, which is why, by the way, it proved such an obstacle to early Christian preaching.

I think one thing that divides us moderns from our premodern brethren is this ratio of physical vs. social pain. Back in the days before modern medicine, everyone basically became enured to a level of physical suffering that we can hardly imagine. If you read a novel even from as recently as the 19th century this is apparent: people get diseases that lay them up for weeks with delirium, infections and gouts that kill them slowly, childbirths without drugs that were often fatal, dentistry and amputations without anesthesia, etc. So in some sense it's understandable that the punishments were more brutal, if everyone was used to a certain level of pain to begin with.

But at the same time, social slights and insults to one's honor were generally taken a lot more seriously. Again as recently as the 19th century, it was fairly common to settle these things with duels. Moreover, I remember from my media-law course that libel laws used to disregard the question of whether what you said about the person was true or false; in fact, if it was true it was seen as even more inadvisable to say it, because it might lead to violence. Allen Brill has written before about the ancient shame/honor code as it related to men, and how Jesus went against it. I suspect it was fueled not just by machismo, but by the fact that in clan-based societies where most people lived and died in the same village, one little takedown in your social status would likely never be forgotten, and would take your family and friends with you. (Think junior high school, but even worse.)

As Fisk says, it's hard to convey that aspect of the Jesus story because it's so alien to us. As desensitized as modern Americans may be to violent entertainment, we still don't have a Coliseum for watching bloody death as an amusement. So our first reaction upon seeing a crucified man, or a man walking along with his cross on his back, would likely not be, "Sheesh! What a loser!" But, apparently, the reaction of the day would have been something like that. Maybe something approaching an analogy would be our own forms of real-life humiliation as entertainment, like Joe Millionaire. Fisk sees such trash TV as a sign that we don't understand shame, but actually, maybe people enjoy them precisely because they do. A crucifixion, one imagines, would have inspired that same schadenfreude.

Does Gibson get that about the crucifixion? Since I haven't seen the movie I can't really tell, but the early signs are not encouraging. I think one problematic attitude I've sometimes run into about the sufferings of Jesus is that, far from humiliating him, they made him one bad-ass dude for enduring so much. If Bill is right that Gibson "wanted to exaggerate the violence to show that only the divine Jesus could withstand it," it sounds like he's thinking along those lines. As I've said before, the element of victory in the Jesus story should not be downplayed, but that element isn't in this part of the story. If we are to believe Jesus experienced true human suffering, humiliation is a crucial part of that. Especially in that culture.

Posted by Camassia at February 10, 2004 02:32 PM | TrackBack

It is my hunch that Gibson's motive in making The Passion so very bloody and violent is to give his audience the opportunity--even though only emotionally and vicariously--to suffer along with Christ. To the extent that we all crucify Christ over and over again when we sin--often so very casually--we should be made more aware of what it is we are doing. Maybe Gibson's film is meant to be one means toward that end.

Posted by: Rob on February 10, 2004 04:32 PM

My first thought is that Jesus would not have been particularly susceptible to shame, except insofar as His crucifixion would hinder those He loved from believing in Him.

You're right, I think, that the shame of crucifixion was a significant social factor, but if the movie tells a narrower story, I'm not sure how much shame need be shown. (Especially in a commercial movie for a culture desensitized to shame and oversensitized to pain. When I watch a samurai movie, I have to grant in my mind that honor motivates the characters the way they say it does; I don't feel the shame.)

Posted by: Tom on February 11, 2004 05:52 AM

Excellent post, I think you're right on target. I tend to think the crown of thorns (i.e. the mocking of God) the most devastating part of the Crucifixion, perhaps because I have little concept of pain.

As for Joe Millionaire, I just read in the paper that a study showed that people who are the most class conscious are the most likely to be reality TV viewers - in other words, they want to see others humiliated so they can feel better than them. Schadenfreude all the way.

Posted by: TSO on February 11, 2004 07:39 AM

If Bill is right that Gibson "wanted to exaggerate the violence to show that only the divine Jesus could withstand it," it sounds like he's thinking along those lines.

I went looking for this in Bill's blog, so I could read more, but didn't find it. No matter. It caught my attention and reminded me of something:

In college, I knew a young man, Robert, whom I would describe as a passionate, searching fundamentalist Christian. He was constantly looking for justification of his budding faith.

In one of our classes there was another student, Ali, a gentle, 30-ish Kurdish man, who had escaped from Turkey, where he had been imprisoned and brutally tortured for his political activities. He was also an artist, and for emotional therapy, he drew sketches of himself being tortured. I can tell you it was very hard to look at his drawings. (Amnesty International actually used them in a traveling exhibition to help raise awareness about torture.)

Robert spent a lot of time with Ali. Ali once confided in me that Robert was trying to turn him into a Christian. (Ali was a devout atheist, and alienated from Islam by his religious upbringing. (Two words: Recovering Catholic.)) But worse than that, Robert would ask Ali to explain what he had suffered under torture.

As an artist, Ali could express his experience in drawings, but it was very difficult for him to actually describe it with words. By the bent of his young friend's questions, Ali figured out that what Robert wanted from him was evidence that the kind of torture Jesus suffered was the ultimate: the worst, most agonizing kind of physical torture a person could endure.

Robert was a nice kid, but I found myself disgusted with his naiveté and blind zeal in his search for evidence that Jesus suffered the worst that could be suffered. Robert seemed centered on his own need for this evidence, completely oblivious to the pain he was causing Ali.

Is Mel trying to assert the same thing Robert was searching for? Is Mel driven to assert that Jesus' suffering and humiliation was the absolute worst that the human frame can endure? Ali didn't seem to think of agony and humiliation in degrees. It was all horror. All one big, evil horror. This competition for the ultimate--what is that? A male thing? An rugged individualist thing? A stunted childhood thing? A make a gazillion bucks thing?

Posted by: Dash on February 11, 2004 07:57 AM

That's a moving story and an interesting theory. But I still think that the only person's level of suffering that Gibson wants you to compare the suffering of Christ to is yours.

Posted by: Rob on February 11, 2004 08:34 AM

Well, trying to mindread Mel Gibson at this point is inadvisable and probably impossible. I don't actually care hugely what he thinks, it's just this discussion reminded me of a tendency that I have seen, that Dash's story nails quite well, of interest in the Crucifixion overlapping with a sort of boyish fascination with violence and how much a man can endure. Tom raises an interesting point about whether Jesus himself actually could have experienced shame; I don't know, that's in the whole how-human-was-he area that I don't pretend to really understand. The point I was making was more about perception: I think some people see Jesus as kind of like the samurai that Tom mentions, a brave soldier enduring torture and death for his cause. Which he was, but the important difference is that samurais put death before dishonor, whereas Jesus put himself through death and dishonor. That's an important distinction, I think.

Posted by: Camassia on February 11, 2004 08:50 AM

By the way, the post where Bill said that was here.

Posted by: Camassia on February 11, 2004 09:32 AM

Oh, I didn't mean to suggest Jesus was incapable of feeling shame. "Shameless" isn't, as far as I know, one of the traditional predicates of the Son of God.

I meant that, of all the things He experienced in the days before and the day of His crucifixion, shame was among the least of His concerns. "Well, this is degrading" isn't one of the Seven Words from the Cross.

...come to think of it, though, "Behold thy son," is one of the Seven Words, which might reflect (among many things) an awareness of the shame of being a widow whose only son was crucified by the Romans. Might giving Mary a new son be a way of covering her shame?

Posted by: Tom on February 11, 2004 10:38 AM

Interesting discussion, Camassia. Since none of us was around when crucifixion and scourging were commonly used by the Romans, can we really judge whether Gibson's film exaggerates the gore? I imagine that the gospel writers were laconic about the details of death by crucifixion because their audiences were all too familiar with them.

I'm not sure if it matters much to my faith whether Jesus suffered more from physical pain or humiliation. I expect it was both. Also, I imagine that the worst pain for Jesus was being abandoned by the Father: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" Because "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our account."

I haven't seen the movie yet, but perhaps Gibson was trying to use a more authentic depiction of Jesus' physical sufferings to symbolize the truth of his suffering in becoming sin for us.

Posted by: Lee Anne Millinger on February 11, 2004 12:15 PM

Man has always scapegoated, picking an outcast on whom society can inflict their rage. Jesus is more scapegoat more than a Samurai.

A crude measure probably proving little, but "pain" is mentioned 19 times in the NT and variants of "shame" 39 times.

Hebrews 12:2: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Posted by: tso on February 11, 2004 12:42 PM

I have never been an admirer of Mel Gibson. He is a right-winger, I am not. I don't think I've ever seen any of his movies, so I can't judge his merits as an actor, or as a director. But, from what I've read about this movie, he made it to express his religion, more so than to make money. From what I've read about the decisions he's made in the scripting and filming of this movie, he is being most serious. I don't have the perception that talk about Samurai and manly endurance of torture are germane to what Gibson is attempting to portray. I don't think that the violence depicted in this film is either gratuitous or designed to titillate. I think it's meant to affect the viewer in a way that will promote the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. I could be wrong, but I hope that I'm not.

Posted by: Rob on February 11, 2004 03:38 PM

Dear Camassia,

These are wonderful observations. Thanks so much for sharing them. I've read them several times over the last several days and then thought, "Why don't I say how much they meant to me?" Sorry for taking so long to say thank you.



Posted by: Steven Riddle on February 13, 2004 07:29 AM

Ah! There it is! God bless AKMA! Take a look at his March 12 entry in which he manages to combine a critique of the violence in The Passion with an explanation of Mel's take on Substitutional Atonement!

Posted by: Dash on March 12, 2004 07:33 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?