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William e. Alberts
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The Passion of the Christ-Makers Recreating Jesus
T he current stirring of religiosity is not about “the passion of the Christ,” but about the passion of the Christ-makers—those who have recreated Jesus in the image of their own need for certainty, security, rightness, power over others, and domination. It is especially about correct theological belief and not about just, ethical behavior; about having the right belief, not doing the right thing; about a personal, other-worldly destination, not about an interpersonal journey with others—unless they are like- minded; about believing in Jesus, not doing what he believed in.
To the Christ-makers, Jesus died for the sins of the world, and whoever believes in his sacrificial act of atonement, as the only Son of God, will not perish but inherit eternal life. Thus, may an otherwise hell-bent humanity escape the eternal damnation of an otherwise loving God.
centrality to Christianity of belief, and of such a belief in Jesus,
is the enthusiastically received message of Mel Gibson’s
Passion of the Christ
. From the film’s biblical introduction—(“He
was wounded for our transgressions,” Isaiah 53:5a) through
the almost movie-long violent scourging (that would have killed
Jesus many times over), to the piercing of his side with a spear
after he was already dead—comes the resounding message of vicarious
suffering for everyone’s inherently sinful human condition
and that accepting him as one’s personal savior is the key
to everlasting life.
What Jesus actually believed in—and died for—is effectively, if not intentionally, obscured by the passion of the Christ-makers. He did not die for a theological abstraction, i.e., for “the sins of the world,” but because of the sins being committed against his Jewish world. He died to liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire, which had violated their national sovereignty, occupied their country, and crucified thousands of Jewish “insurgents” and bystanders—for whom belief in a Messiah was grounded in the political realities of Jewish nationalism, freedom, justice, and peace.
The anti-Semitism of The Passion of t he Christ is seen in its distortion of historical reality; in its portrayal of brutal Roman administrator Pontius Pilate as agonizingly sympathetic to a would-be liberator of Jews from Roman domination; in Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’s death, even though he had the power of life and death over Jesus (John 19:10).
The ahistorical violence the film does to Jewish reality is also seen in a “whole battalion”-backed, yet uneasy, Pilate giving in to the “will” of subjugated, powerless priests, elders of the people, and other Jews who repeatedly cried out, “Crucify him” (Mark 15:12-16). Portraying the Roman empire in such a favorable light, in New Testament books written 50 to 100 years after the fact, may have advanced the evangelizing of Romans by the early followers of Jesus; but it cast a horrible curse on the Jewish people by putting into the mouths of their oppressed descendents, “His (Jesus’s) blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).
The argument that The Passion of t he Christ is true to the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion does not make it any less anti-Semitic. The New Testament has been used not only to justify anti-Semitism, but also the enslavement of black people (Ephesians 6:5ff), patriarchy’s subjugation of women (Ephesians 5:22ff), physical and spiritual violence against gay and lesbian persons (Romans 1:26, 27), and world domination in Jesus’s name. Enter President Bush.
When asked during the 2000 presidential campaign, “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?” George W. Bush replied, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” When asked later how Jesus changed his heart, Bush responded, “When you accept Christ as a savior, it changes your heart, it changes your life” (“60 Minutes II,” April 14, 2004).
President Bush’s belief-centered faith in Christ apparently provides him with the spiritual blinders needed to remain oblivious to the behavior of the U.S. and his own administration’s behavior.
To violate another country’s national sovereignty and impose “freedom” on its people and call it an historic spreading of “democracy” in the Middle East, is to turn reality inside out. Here behavior defies belief. Never mind reality—the overwhelming evidence against “mission accomplished”; the warning of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, “a major Arab ally,” who “said yesterday that hatred of Americans in the Arab world is stronger than ever because of the war in Iraq” ( Boston Globe , April 21, 2004). That hatred intensified with revelations of the torture, desecration, and murder of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel, though President Bush has tried to dissociate his Administration from the culture of abuse its pre-meditated war policy and his “bring ‘em on” mentality have fostered. But the far greater abuse is the U.S. invading and occupying Iraq in the first place.
President Bush is “staying the course”: not guided by reality, but by his “strong belief that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world but the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in the world” (news conference, April 13, 2004). In the violent wake of “staying the course” have come pre-emptive war-supporting, evangelizing carpetbaggers, carrying Bibles and water, calling Islam an “evil” religion, ( St. Petersburg Times , April 20, 2003), and intent on converting Muslims to Christ.
The interpretation of history by the passion of the Christ-makers does violence to the reality of oppressed people—Jewish and Iraqi—and obscures what Jesus was really about. He was not about dying for the sins of the world so that believers could inherit eternal life, but about setting at liberty the Jews, who were oppressed in his world (Luke 4:18). In fact, he emphasized an often overlooked way to eternal life: by behavior, not by belief. When a lawyer tested him by asking, “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus confirmed that the two greatest commandments were the way: love of God and one’s neighbor as oneself (Luke 10:25-28). When tested further to define who one’s neighbor was, Jesus said any person stripped of life and in need of a Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
Jesus used the very institution of religion, the sabbath, to emphasize the sacred worth of every human being: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The democratic spirit of these words should be the foundation of Christian organizations and might also help guide the mission statements of political, economic, and social institutions as well.
In teaching love of one’s neighbor as oneself and in intervening on behalf of his oppressed Jewish neighbors, Jesus set an example for the behavior of those who would follow his pathway to eternal life. It is here that the dynamic of belief may come into play.
It is much easier to worship what Jesus did than to do what he worshipped. It is safer to believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world than to join in seeking to rid the world of political, corporate, and military sins that deny neighbors’ their birthright of freedom and fulfillment.
Institutionalized religion often immortalizes its saints in order to immobilize them. A way to neutralize the threat posed by the example of prophets and patriots is to turn their liberation movement into a monument and worship it. Vicarious identification with their struggles may be substituted for involvement in similar ethical struggles today. The stature is found in the statue. The right is remembered in the rite. The power is in the prayer. The radical footstep is encased in a freedom trail. The ethic is observed as a memory and avoided as a model.
Belief in Christ as one’s personal savior can also invite a narcissism that encourages self-centeredness rather than identification with one’s neighbors. Such narcissism may even reinforce obliviousness to the neglect or unjust treatment of neighbors by the government, for example, in our name. The aim of belief is certainly to affirm, comfort, and empower—but not at the expense of one’s neighbor.
Religion is about behavior not belief—just as the truth is reflected in what one does. Religion is about setting people free, not imposing sectarian or political beliefs on them. It’s about empowering people, not gaining power over them. It’s about people’s inalienable right to believe as they choose and be who they are. It’s about honoring people in calling them by their own name, in experiencing their reality not interpreting it. It’s about loving one’s neighbor as oneself—here and on any Jericho road.
Rev. William E. Alberts is hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, Newton, MA. He is both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister. He has written essays and articles on racism, war, politics, and religion.
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