Apr 5, 2004: Libertarians and the Passion for Christ

The cinematic-cultural phenomenon called The Passion of the Christ has finally landed on the shores of Asia. Thousands, including your correspondent, waited along the Pacific coast for its arrival, or else watched pirated copies in the comfort of their homes. Somewhat curiously, the film has been of no small interest to libertarian websites, most notably LewRockwell.com, which has, for the most part, taken extreme pains to defend it. The lead article of last weekend’s edition was full of nothing but praise for Gibson’s effort (see “Passion for the Truth“), and Strike-the-Root.com has begun publishing a six-part series of essays seeking to link The Passion and the cause of liberty (see “The Passion of Liberty“). But, to date, although correctly rejecting the claims of anti-Semitism and gratuitous violence, the libertarian advocates of the movie have ignored the more substantive attacks and failed to recognize the deeper significance of the events depicted.

Certainly, we must affirm that there is nothing noticeably anti-Semitic in the film. Indeed, not unlike the pointless attacks on The Last Temptation of Christ, this unfounded criticism probably made viewers more sympathetic to the movie than they would otherwise have been. Even were Gibson to come out of the closet as a raving anti-Semite, there is nothing in the film that encourages such sentiments or even grants them quarter. On the contrary, The Passion seems uninterested in making any point at all about anti-Semitism, except for one or two instances in which anti-Semitism on the part of the savage Roman soldiers is depicted in an altogether unfavorable light.

One is certainly conscious that there are Romans and Jews, but there is no attempt to identify or draw upon the particular characteristics of any race or culture. The physical setting is palpable: the strange costume of the Sanhedrin, the familiar Roman garb, the unintelligible Aramaic and the occasionally recognizable Latin, and the dust. But, the overwhelming sense is that a common humanity is being depicted. Had the notorious quote, “Let his blood be upon us and our children”, been included, the “us” would have undoubtedly been understood to be in reference to mankind and not just the Jews. Moreover, the scene in which Jesus is tried and convicted by the Sanhedrin does not depict this as a judgment of the Jewish community historically and traditionally constituted. Rather, it is depicted as an altogether summary trial in which the defenders of the accused are cynically and forcefully excluded from the deliberation and which uses the cover of religious orthodoxy to suppress a growing Jewish cult.

The same may be said for the charge of gratuitous violence. Not only was it not gratuitous, but after years of witnessing countless gallons of blood being spilt on television and cinema screens, it seemed, dare we say, conservative. Insofar as the audience understands, as the vast majority most certainly did even before watching the movie, that the violence Jesus is subjected to is willfully surrendered to and is necessary, according to Christianity, for the redemption of sin, the brutality of the sequences are of equal necessity. Watching the agonizing torture of an innocent man cannot be nearly as harmful as watching the thousands of lives regularly and gleefully exterminated in the countless other blockbuster movies.

It is unfortunate that these charges have been made and given such wide circulation, because they both unfairly stain the reputation of the film and then make it appear more commendable than it actually would have been had such falsehoods not been spoken. For if the movie is neither anti-Semitic nor gratuitous, it is excessively inhumane. Without attempting a proper artistic criticism of the film, the characters in the movie, from Jesus to the deranged revelers at his trial, are one-dimensional and inaccessible. It is this stylized one-dimensional depiction of the characters that opens the door to charges worse than anti-Semitism and gratuitous violence, namely that there is a dangerous and general inhumanity that nourishes a desire for vengeance. In short, the film inspires, in its way, hate.

At the beginning of the film, Jesus is shown in the grip of fear and self-doubt. By the end, he has passed from Stoic to willing martyr to forgiving and loving son of God. But, for all of the vivid outward depictions, the devil with worms crawling from his nose and snakes from his feet, and the brutality of Jesus’s torture and crucifixion, as well as the flashbacks to happier times or his teachings which offset these traumatic events, the character Jesus remains an empty vessel.

Neither his fear nor his love are captured, and one suspects that these have been lost somewhere in the cracks between the ancient formulation that Jesus was completely human and completely divine. In a tradition that draws a very clear line of separation between the human and the divine, the paradox is never resolved and when presented on film, leaves viewers unmoved by the central character, however much they are moved by events which they have already invested with their own meaning. The real resolution to this paradox is the liberal one, that man is god, the principle which has been growing within and out from Christianity as surely as Christianity grew within and out from Judaism.

Leaving that uncomfortable idea aside, however, and to return to consideration to the particulars of the movie, one tends to feel more empathetic to characters who are, strangely, the most distant from Jesus, particularly Pilate’s wife and Judas Iscariot. Feelings of guilt and cosmic weakness are simply more accessible and compelling than the heroic sacrifices of Jesus and Mary or the savageries of those on the opposite extreme, those who torment Jesus, the conniving and power-obsessed Roman and Jewish leaders, the howling mobs, and the sadistic executioners. Mankind, as it is, as we know it in ourselves, is not represented in this film.

A film about Judas promises to be much more rewarding than any that can be made about Jesus of Nazareth. We venture to say that Gibson’s film fails to meet the one simple test of art, that of catharsis. Catharsis can only be achieved through experiencing finiteness and overcoming it. There is simply no way of depicting a Jesus who is truly aware of finiteness, unless he is stripped of his perfection.

Insofar as the film sees the world in terms of good guys and bad guys and those who inexplicably cross over, it is inhumane. And, insofar as it is inhumane, insofar as it depicts individuals as simply good or simply evil, it encourages hate and vengefulness. This is as much within Christianity, unfortunately, as it is within Gibson’s movie. According to Scripture, Jesus says of Judas, “It would be better for him if he had not been born”, and the impression given by the film and the Bible is that the torment of suicide was his just reward. This sentiment is more plainly displayed, perhaps, in the crucifixion scene, in which the jesting thief is attacked by the crow while on his way to inevitable perdition. Not content with the punishment meted out by man, God feels the need to add his two cents, too. The message is not that of love, rather it is that one should be discriminating in whom one selects for torture. Not that all men are in need of mercy, just the “good” ones. If this is the case, then the fundamental historical dynamic of rooting out the evil around us rather than that within us will remain, and we will be condemned to continual war and the scourges of mutual hate and coercion. This is the worldview that has taken us to war in Iraq and given us the “statism” about which libertarians so often bemoan.

If Christianity has been imperfect in its application of love and mercy, nevertheless it has been a great leap forward and would have been even greater if we were more capable of practicing it. The philosophy of love and mercy and the example of Jesus are lessons which should be recognized by all, particularly the libertarian admirers of The Passion. Too often, however, the libertarians resemble the Zealots of Jesus’s time, those who were obsessed about undermining and replacing the Roman tyranny of their day rather than creating the conditions for lasting change and peace. Instead of raging against the tyrants of the hour, who will soon enough be replaced by yet newer tyrants, we ought to be at work establishing the new order. The diatribes against “statism” and its current excesses and follies will achieve little in terms of real change if they cannot address the root cause of the coercive state, hate. Were we to echo Jesus’s words on the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, rather than ridiculing and condemning the “statists”, we would probably be much more closer to our dream of a free society than we are at present.

April 5, 2004

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