By Adam J. Pearson
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I fittingly watched The Passion of the Christ (2004) for the first time on a Good Friday, the day on which Christians remember the crucifixion of the man they regard as the Son of God, their Savior, and the Light and Way to eternal life. There is so much that could be said about this powerful film. What I find most striking about The Passion of the Christ is the way it depicts both the utter cruelty and despicable violence of which humans are capable and the heights of compassion and virtue that we can achieve.
On the one hand, depictions of cruelty and brutal vice are abundant in this film, as they are in the Biblical account of the last days of Yeshua. We note the cruelty of the high priest, Caiaphas, who is not content with the brutal torture of Yeshua and rouses a whole crowd to demand crucifixion. We see the way Romans and Jews alike beat Yeshua without compassion, mercy, or restraint. We observe how they often mock him and laugh in his face as they thrash and strike him. We are struck by the malice, the attachment to hierarchies of power (expressed in the high priests), the cruelty, the brutality, the lack of compassion and care, that lies in diametric opposition of Yeshua’s message of love in these exemplars of moral ugliness.
On the other hand, depictions of moving virtue shine throughout the film. We are touched by the gratefulness and compassion of Mary Magdalen and Mary, mother of Yeshua. We hear the rising cry of protest from a Jewish high priest that the case against Yeshua is unfounded. We note Pontius Pilate’s strong resistance to the cry for Yeshua’s execution. We witness the compassion and support from many Jews along the roadside as Yeshua makes his way to Golgotha. And, most of all, we are shown how Yeshua still prays for those who persecute him even after the nails are hammered through his hands and feet and he is suffering on the cross. Movingly, at this moment of supreme suffering, he prays: “forgive them Father, they know not what they do.”
In this iconic gesture, we can discern nobility, endurance, compassion, and profoundly forgiving love. At the extremity of his existence, Yeshua’s message about “loving thy enemy” was tested. Where many would have gone against their own teachings, Yeshua practiced them, lived up to them, exemplified them. This is the virtuous greatness of which we are capable, a greatness that counterbalances all of the rotten, destructive, cruel, and vicious behavior that we have the potential to develop.
Some have claimed that the film is anti-Semitic. On the one hand, there are depictions of many Jews who are utterly merciless, without compassion, and downright cruel in the film. However, this is not all that we see. We witness Jews like the one that helped Yeshua carry his cross defending him, risking his own life to call for the Romans to stop beating Yeshua, and expressing real care. We see Jews like the high priest who resisted Caiaphas’ brutal call for merciless violence. We hear the passionate voices of Jews who speak out for justice in the film. And we see countless supporters of Yeshua who cry for him along the roadside and cry out for him to be treated with some dignity and care as he makes his way to his crucifixion. Given this balanced presentation, I don’t see much justification for the anti-Semitic charge in the film.
The film’s theme is not the ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ of the Jewish people, but of humanity as a whole. The film, like the teachings of Yeshua in the Biblical account, turns our attention to the nature of human existence itself, regardless of one’s cultural affiliation. It forces us to look upon the awe-inspiring horror and cruelty and the beautiful heights of compassion, forgiveness, and kindness that lie within the human heart.
As we look upon these twin potentials within us, we find ourselves confronting the question of which we will develop, which we will live. Will we fuel the fires of cruelty, malice, unkindness, selfishness at the expense of others, and dualistic violence? Or will we cultivate compassion, kindness, understanding, insight, justice, and openness to the needs, suffering, and interests of others?
My suggestion is that we do not need a moral rule to tell us which to choose. We do not need a commandment. All we need to do is to look, for ourselves, at the effects of these two pathways of action, these two inner potentials. We can look, for ourselves, at what happens when these two paths are chosen, when people live these inner beauties and inner uglinesses. And we can choose based on our own direct experience and insights. What is important, however, is that we do make this investigation and do choose. The twin potentials in The Passion of the Christ are the twin potentials within us; they represent different ways of living and different ways of being. Which will we choose?