As The Passion of the Christ plays to near-record crowds, numerous critics and moviegoers report the film to be a transforming experience. Although many find themselves forced to turn away from the violence on screen, they say the blood-soaked depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion has an important purpose. We must be reminded of the enormous sacrifice that Christ has made for all of us.
In responding this way to the film, the audience is getting the message those responsible for the film intended. Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus, explains: “We’re all culpable in the death of Christ. My sins put him up there. Yours did. That’s what this story is about.” When Diane Sawyer asked the film’s director and cowriter, Mel Gibson, who killed Jesus, he replied, “The big answer is, we all did. I’ll be the first in the culpability stakes here.” And as if to leave no doubt that this is his considered view, Gibson’s only on-screen appearance in the film is in the form of the hands that drive the nails into Jesus’ body.
It is frightening that so evil a message could receive so welcome a reception.
When charges of anti-Semitism, denied by the producers, surrounded the film before its opening, there was outrage from many circles. But when the principals behind the film tell us openly that its message is that not only Jews but all men are implicated in the death of Jesus, the voices of moral outrage fall silent. (In what follows I leave aside the question of how successfully the film conveys its intended message.)
So, let us ask some questions no one is asking. Why is it immoral to ascribe guilt to all Jews, but not immoral to ascribe guilt to all mankind? How can anyone know, without first considering our specific choices and actions, that you or I are guilty? How can you or I be responsible for the death of a man killed some two thousand years ago? To make any sense of the accusation, one must recognize that one is here dealing with, albeit in a more sophisticated form, the same collectivist mentality as the racist’s. For the anti-Semite, to be Jewish is to be evil. For the devout Christian, to be human is to be evil.
The denunciation of man as a creature befouled by, in the words of St. Augustine, a “radical canker in the mind and will,” infuses the Christian tradition. Every essential attribute and virtue of man is attacked.
To possess an inquisitive mind, a mind eager to explore the world and gain knowledge, is to commit the first sin. Remember the story of Eve? To painstakingly study nature and unlock her laws, thereby paving the way for man’s mastery of his world, is to court imprisonment and torture. Ask Galileo or a scientist studying human cloning. To concern oneself with producing the wealth and material goods life requires, is to invite condemnations of “greed” and “materialism.” Read Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” To cherish the pleasures that the earth and one’s own body afford, including one’s sexual capacity, is to be denounced as “selfish” and even depraved. Consult the Puritans or the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. To take pride in one’s curiosity, in one’s growing knowledge of the world, in one’s successful actions in it, in the resulting joy and pleasure these bring — this is branded by all as the height of sin.
On this anti-man approach, to remain alive is to sin. To fully purge oneself, one must die. Only such an account of man can begin to explain the charge of collective guilt for the death of Christ, whose undeserved suffering at man’s vicious hands is, somehow, supposed to help alleviate our innately “sinful” nature.
If the anti-Semitic view of the Jewish race as inherently corrupt is irrational and evil, how much more irrational and evil is this view of the human race?
Will The Passion itself play a major role in spreading this conception of man’s nature? Of course not. But the audiences and acclaim the film is enjoying speak to just how prevalent this conception has already become. If there is an idea behind the film worth opposing, it is this, its intended message. Teach man to regard himself as a loathsome, despicable being, and he becomes ripe for any mystical dictator, who will wield the whip that is supposed to make man atone for his “transgressions.” Deprive man of self-esteem, teach him to spit in his face, and one paves the way for another Dark Ages.
But to oppose this conception of human nature, one must first come to understand that man — man at his best, man the rational, productive, selfish achiever — is a noble being.