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'Passion' rekindles debate over meaning of the crucifixion

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Gibson's film is bringing to light the fact that Christians vary somewhat in answering the theological question: Why did Jesus die? Answers have varied for decades, if not centuries, but in the glow of a major Hollywood picture, their implications for the lives of Jesus' 2 billion followers worldwide have received fresh attention.

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Traditionalists generally hold that Jesus died to fulfill prophecy about the Messiah. According to Isaiah, he would be a suffering servant whose sinlessness made it possible for him to be a perfect sacrificial offering.

This doctrine has for centuries inspired Christians to practice imitative acts of self-sacrifice, whether as martyrs in the teeth of Roman lions or as civil rights protesters being hosed by police in Alabama. But some fear the doctrine may at times have also fed into a passive complacency among Christians who owe Jesus a more courageous form of discipleship.

"To say, 'It's our sins that put Jesus on the cross' - that is such a betrayal of Jesus," says Borg, author of 12 books on the historical Jesus and professor of the New Testament at Oregon State University. "Jesus was willing to be executed because of his passion for God's justice, for the kingdom of God which was not the kingdom of Caesar."

Mr. Borg is among those critiquing "The Passion" for focusing solely on the last 12 hours of Jesus' life and therefore omitting almost everything from his ministry that provoked authorities to crucify him. Viewers get deprived, these critics say, of a key message: being faithful means speaking truth to power, as Jesus did, and that means suffering dire consequences.

"He died because he took on the injustice which is the normalcy of civilization," says Dr. Crossan, author of "Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Antisemitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995). "When you speak out to injustice [without] an armed revolution, you die alone."

To suggest, however, that following Jesus requires a self-endangering sort of public defiance could be as harmful as a discipleship that allows evil to flourish unchecked, says Mr. Hughes. He remembers Christian practitioners of "liberation theology" who in the 1960s confronted Latin American despots and died doing so. "It made people act foolishly," he asserts.

In the United Church of Christ, Hughes has moderated meetings where candidates for ordination must defend the social implications of their atonement theories. "There might be much better ways to accomplish your goals than to say things that could get you killed."

Ongoing theological discussion

In recent years, some pastors and theologians have ventured alternatives to views that the crucifixion saved humanity by appeasing an angry, even bloodthirsty God. "It makes you say, 'thank you, Jesus.' But what about God?" asks Dr. Crossan. "Would you like to meet this God in a dark alley?"

Hughes has seen candidates for ordination, for instance, building upon the thought of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to argue that sinful humans, not God, put Jesus on the cross, yet God somehow worked through that act to impart a saving grace to humanity.

One thing is clear: Gibson's film is stoking a discussion that will surely continue among Christians - how people the 21st century can best follow a man who in the first century suffered and died on a cross.

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