I finally saw The Passion of the Christ this week. I watched it at work with the A-level Religious Studies students. They like me were moved to tears and beyond. (Tip for any teacher out there: show the film at 9 in the morning, that’ll wake up any students still yawning their way into the day).
Whilst agreeing with much of what Zizek says about Gibson’s film in his brilliant essay Passion in the Era of Decaffeinated Belief, I think that he doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Zizek is right to challenge the smug and lazy culturalist consensus that religious conviction is inherently pathological and dangerous. But he is wrong to suggest that what is most important about Passion is belief. Gibson’s Gnostic vision – which is simply Christ’s ethical Example rescued from the institutionalized religion that has systematically distorted it in his name – makes the two traditional supports of religious belief irrelevant. Astonishingly, The Passion of the Christ demonstrates that neither Revelation nor Tradition are important for those seeking to become-Christ(ian). What matters is not so much whether the events described in the film really happened – and there is no reason to doubt that that something resembling them did – but the life-practice which the Christ story narrates.
Life as parable.
Let’s dismiss first of all the idea that the film is anti-semitic. Certainly, the first half of the film threatens to invite this interpretation. In the run-up to Jesus’ arrest, the film appears to depict the Jewish religious authorities as near-subhuman monsters, while the Roman imperial powers are viewed sympathetically, as benign and puzzled observers of a distasteful local conflict amongst the people they have colonized. (In this respect, Gibson appears to buy into the anti-Jewish narrative retrospectively imposed by the RCC once it had come to its concordat with the Roman Empire and was keen to excuse its new Masters of any responsibility for the crucifixion).
But once the notorious beating scene happens, the film goes through an intensive threshold. Here, the Roman soldiers are seen to be gratuitiously cruel psychopaths, whose excessive zeal in punishing Jesus exceeds any ‘duty’. It is clear by now that The Passion has no ethnic axe to grind: it is about the stupidity and cruelty of the human species, but more importantly, about an escape route from the otherwise meaningless and nihilistic cycle of abuse begetting abuse that is human History.
The Gnostic flashes that surface in the Gospels are given full weight in Gibson’s film. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. But Gibson refuses to give any comfort to those life-deniers and body-haters that Nietzsche rightly exoriates in his many attacks on Christianity. There is little supernatural or transcendent dimension to The Passion‘s vision. If Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, Gibson gives us few reasons to assume that this kingdom will be the Platonic heaven of which those tired of the body dream.
The World which Christ rejects is the World of lies, the consensual hallucination of established power and authority. By contrast, Christ’s Kingdom only subsists whenever there is an Affectionate Collectivity. In other words, it exists not as some deferred supernatural reward, but in the Ethical actions of those, who in becoming-Christ, keep his spirit alive. Again, it is important to stress that this spirit is not some metaphysical substance, but a strictly material abstract machine that can be instantiated only through actions and practices. Loving God and loving others more than yourself are preconditions for dissolving your ego and gaining deliverance from the Hell of Self.
What, from one perspective, is the utter humiliation and degradation of Jesus’s body is on the other a coldly ruthless vision of the body liberated from the ‘wisdom and limits of the organism’.
Christ’s Example is simply this: it is better to die than to pass on abuse virus or to in any way vindicate the idiot vacuity and stupidity of the World of authority.
Power depends upon the weakness of the organism. When authority is seriously challenged, when its tolerance is tested to the limit, it has the ultimate recourse of torture. The slow, graphic scenes of mindless physical degradation in The Passion of the Christ are necessary for revealing the horrors to which Jesus’ organism was subject. It is made clear that he could have escaped the excruciating agony simply by renouncing his Truth and by assenting to the Authority of the World. Christ’s Example insists: better to let the organism be tortured to death (‘If thine own eye offend thee, pluck it out’) than to bow, bent-headed, to Authority.
This is what is perhaps most astonishing about Gibson’s film. Far from being a statement of Catholic bigotry, it can only be read as an anti-authoritarian AND THEREFORE anti-Catholic film. For the Pharisees of two millennia ago, puffed up in their absurd finery, substitute the child-abuser apologists of today’s gilt-laden, guilt-ridden Vatican. Against all the odds, against two thousand years of cover-ups and dissimulation, The Passion of the Christ recovers the original Christ, the anti-Wordly but not otherwordly Christ of Liberation Theology: the Gnostic herald of Apocalypse Now.