'Passion' rekindles debate over meaning of the crucifixion

If Mel Gibson succeeds in his religious mission, then those who watch the brutal scourging of Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ" will come away with a deeper love and appreciation for the man he depicts dying for their sins.

But as the controversial film opens on Ash Wednesday, which for millions ushers in the penitential 40-day season of Lent, there are signs that it may do something else as well: rekindle debate about the meaning of that ultimate sacrifice.

No event is so central to Christians as the crucifixion and resurrection of their Savior. And no film in recent years has been so centered on that event and so publicized.

"You've never seen anyone in a movie suffer so much," says John Dominic Crossan, a leading Jesus scholar. "This raises something about the heart of Christianity in a way that no other movie ever has."

Church groups, which thronged to highly publicized screenings of the movie before Wednesday's official opening, have in many cases found its portrayal inspiring as well as stomach-churning. But other believers are concerned that amid its blood and brutality, the movie may veer from the true meaning of that decisive moment and its implications for Christian life today.

For one thing, some say that the movie's narrow focus pushes into the background his earlier ministry and later resurrection, which provide context - theological or historical - for why he died and what that death accomplished.

The gospels "did not linger over the details of his suffering," Frederica Mathewes-Green, a Christian scholar, writes as part of an online "Passion" debate on the religious-news website Beliefnet. "It would be as odd as welcoming home a wounded soldier, and instead of focusing on the victory he won, dwelling on the exact moment the bayonet pierced his stomach...."

The film graphically dramatizes what happened in the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, drawing on gospel accounts. Viewers feel Jesus' pain in being betrayed, falsely charged, mocked, whipped and flogged into a bloody heap until it seems a miracle that he survived long enough to face the cross. The rendering exalts him as the Lamb of God, whose innocent suffering would atone for the world's sins. At the end, images of an open tomb and resplendent sunshine hint at resurrection.

Few who consider themselves followers of Christ would argue against the notion that Jesus' mission was to save sinners. But some worry that a fixation on suffering - including perhaps in this film - may foster an unfortunate piety of imitation. "I've seen people let themselves get crushed because they believe judgment is God's alone," and tolerate circumstances like domestic violence, says the Rev. John Hughes, pastor of First Parish Church, United Church of Christ in Manchester-By-The-Sea, Mass. "You could mislead somebody ... into leading a life that is not only not redemptive but is destructive."

In classical Christian doctrine, only the perfect Savior could accomplish the atonement by taking the world's sins upon himself. Gibson, a Roman Catholic, frames the movie as an orthodox witness by showing the prophecy of Isaiah 53:5 at the outset: "He was wounded for our transgressions, [and] by his wounds we are healed."

"It's a wake-up call for a whole lot of Christians in name only and have no idea what Jesus, founder of the church, went through," says scholar Craig Evans, author of "Jesus and the Ossuaries" (Baylor University Press, 2003). In his view, Gibson's theology is sound. "What's going to shake up a lot of conservative Christians is the humanity of Jesus, but that's part of who he is - human and divine - and I give Mel Gibson credit for showing that humanity in a Jesus who's scared."

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.

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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