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A Passion for death or for life -- the choice is ours

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Wednesday, March 10th, 2004 — It seems as if everyone has something to say about Mel Gibson's Passion, so I will throw my hat into the ring as well.

My overwhelming response to this movie is, "Why?"

Why does Gibson go so far over the top in his portrayal of Jesus' Passion, meaning his suffering? Does he think that the louder he (Gibson) screams, the better we'll hear? Instead, I for one just kept wondering where he got his ideas. No amount of staging can ever touch the real thing -- and none of us knows exactly what that was. The only way to connect with the Passion is in a moment of quiet reflection.

And why does Gibson want to contain the essence of Christianity within the Passion, regardless of how important it might be to reflect on that event? Early in the film, Mary the mother of Jesus wakes up startled, suspecting danger. She and her companion find their courage in reciting the opening prayer of the Jewish Passover ritual: "Why is this night any different from any other night?" And the response: "Because once we were slaves and we are no longer."

For Christians, the recollection of Jesus' Passion is meant to offer the same kind of assurance. The Passion is not the end. It is the beginning, the crossing over to freedom. All of Gibson's special effects and excesses might have been better used in the service of this message, rather than serving Jesus' death.

Finally, why does Gibson give us powerful, graced moments of eye contact between Jesus and his mother, the soldiers, the High Priests and others only to set them aside as if they are incidental to (Gibson's) Jesus' real work of suffering?

In my experience in directing women in their spiritual journeys, I have found that we all come too easily to guilt and unworthiness. Those graced moments of unconditional love are harder to hear, but they open onto freedom. The gospels do not diminish life, they expand it. Gibson's movie, like other Passion Plays, reinforces the wrong side of the coin.

There was a curious juxtaposition that framed this movie for me. The first words spoken after the theater lights were dimmed were: "I would like to ask each of you what you value so highly that you are willing to die for it." There was no image, only this commanding, probing voice. Good question, I thought. This is what the Passion is about. Then the voice continued along with the images -- and it wasn't The Passion. It was the preview for a different movie.

Gibson's film provided the exclamation point for those words. It brought me eye to eye with this man Jesus who would not compromise the truth of his life. Jesus had plenty of opportunities to say, "Just kidding!" But he didn't. He couldn't. He valued his message so highly that he was willing to die for it.

That is not the same thing as saying he died for or because of anyone's sins, or that his death should somehow be understood as an act of appeasement to a bloodthirsty God.

It also completely begs the question to ask, "Whose fault is it?" It is more important to wonder what Jesus valued so highly. What can we learn from all this? Gibson sidesteps the passion of Jesus' life that ultimately and inevitably led to his death.

As I watched this movie, I could not help wondering what I value that might cause me to suffer even a little. My life seems so simple. Nobody threatens my beliefs. I don't know what I would do if someone did. How easily would I cave in?

Thomas Merton, a monk and modern-day mystic, wrote a book called, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander." For him there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. One does not just "stand by" and live at the same time. \ To be really alive is to stand up and be counted, even when there is some pain involved. It is to come eye to eye with another and to respond. It is to live with passion, to choose life over death. Someone should tell Gibson that Jesus' Resurrection -- his enduring life and spirit -- is the important part, no matter how one chooses to imagine that.

What am I willing to live for? Gibson hints at what this was for Jesus, but his life is incidental in the movie. It is sacrificed to a surreal death.