new Mennonite Life logo    June 2004     vol. 59 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

A Passion for Torture: Jesus, Mel Gibson, and Abu Ghraib

by Phil Stoltzfus

Philip E. Stoltzfus is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. From 1996 to 2000 he taught in the Bible and Religion department at Bethel College (KS).

How much was Jesus tortured? The gospels are not in agreement on the issue. The writer of Luke adopts the most minimal strategy--only one verse mentions torture: "Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him" (Luke 22:63, cf. Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; John 18:22). The other three gospel writers add to this a second verse, stating, in a later incident, that Pilate had Jesus "flogged" (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26; John 19:1). Mark and Matthew go still further to suggest a third scene: "They struck his head with a reed" (Mark 15:19, Matthew 27:30). As far as the textual evidence goes, though, that is the extent of it. Other New Testament traditions develop the concept of the shedding of Christ's blood as a sacrificial act (most explicitly, Hebrews 9-10). But the four canonical gospels are strikingly reserved in their matter-of-fact handling of blood, gore, and torture.

Not so for Mel Gibson. In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson imagines for us the most tortured and disfigured Jesus in the history of the Passion genre. Aside from flashbacks, there are exactly two scenes in the film in which James Caviezel, the actor playing Jesus, is able to see out of his right eye. The rest of the time, he's being slapped, spit upon, punched in the face, kicked, thrown in chains over a bridge, scourged with sticks, flayed with leather implements, tossed to the ground, struck by his own cross (an idea used in the 1990 film Jesus of Montreal), impaled with six-inch spikes, stretched until his shoulder is dislocated, and hideously speared in the side (many of these scenes inspired by the visions of 19th-century Catholic mystic Anne-Catherine Emmerich). Scarcely an inch of Caviezel's body is spared from the make-up artist's slasher techniques.

To be sure, the film is remarkably successful in evoking its intended aesthetic response: shock, horrific intensity, empathy. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography seduces the viewer with its dark, Caravaggio-inspired beauty. For those interested in Jesus' life and ministry, we're teased with several brief flashbacks, including allusions to themes of love and nonviolence found in Matthew and John, and a classic Last Supper pose in the vein of Warner Sallman's Head of Christ. The character of Judas gets a sympathetic hearing, and Mary Magdalene gains some airtime, both conventions previously explored in Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus' mother Mary strikes up numerous poignant poses, including one scene at the foot of the cross apparently designed as a mirror image of Michelangelo's Pietà. Gibson even throws in an intriguing political twist, suggesting that Pilate is fearful Caiaphas might instigate a violent rebellion.

Exegetically speaking, however, the film is a mess. While the use of Aramaic and Latin is a nice touch, the veneer of historicity it lends to the project is no more convincing than when Pier Paolo Pasolini did the same thing in his 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew. I am well aware that Pope John Paul II declared, after viewing the film, "It is as it was," and that Billy Graham later concurred, stating, "I feel as if I have actually been there." Yet, it is impossible for me to sort out precisely which history Gibson thinks the film is depicting. Bill Bright's 1979 classic Jesus film portrays only Luke's view, and Philip Saville's 2003 The Gospel of John goes so far in its screenplay as to slavishly follow the fourth gospel word-for-word.

Gibson, though, attempts to harmonize all four gospels, freely interspersing Johannine "I Am" sayings alongside Synoptic materials. With such a hermeneutical approach, subtleties such as Matthew's Jewishness, Luke's inclusiveness and social justice themes, and John's Logos Christology lose much of the punch they gain in their intended settings. Furthermore, Eucharistic images and visions of Satan that reflect decidedly post-Easter--not to mention medieval--ecclesiological trends and mystical spiritualities repeatedly invade the screenplay. The result of this exegetical agnosticism is a historically confusing and symbolically floundering attempt at biblical realism.

Theologically, one hardly knows where to start. I want to believe Gibson when he says his intention was to make a movie "with a tremendous message of faith, hope, love, forgiveness." To be sure, Jesus does not fight back, he forgives his enemies, and various characters such as the Galilean women, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, Claudia the wife of Pilate, and a number of soldiers seem to experience transformative--if fleeting--moments of grace along the way (the Emmerich visions, again, providing much of this non-biblical material). But the image of God lurking behind the story can only be described as one of unremitting wrath. "[B]y his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5) reads the text quoted at the outset of the film, and Gibson plays up the Anselmic image of a feudal, blood-letting God for all it's worth.

Gibson is certainly no stranger to the theme of the trial of the hero through torture and bloodshed, as witnessed, for example, in Lethal Weapon and Braveheart. But in The Passion of the Christ, the torture is theological. From Gethsemane through Golgotha, viewers are supposed to understand that God's will is being done through these events--a will that is freely chosen, or at least consented to, by Jesus himself. The dirty little secret of this film--unacknowledged and undisclosed--is that God himself wants Jesus beaten, wants Jesus killed. Pat Robertson's discussion of the film doesn't beat around the bush: "It wasn't the Jews. It wasn't the Romans… It was God Himself that brought this about. " God is the torturer.

Of course, one might argue, certain Romans and Jews had a hand in it, too. But the film depicts Pilate in a more complex and sympathetic fashion than even the creedal tradition ("suffered under Pontius Pilate") would suggest. Gibson's a-historical representative of the emperor agonizes over his decisions, discusses feelings with his wife, philosophizes on the nature of truth, and repeatedly attempts to release Jesus. On the other hand, the Jewish authorities, especially Caiaphas, seem to be saddled with more of the blame in this film. Gibson elects to depict their incitement of crowds and repeated calls for crucifixion in a disturbingly one-dimensional fashion, thus exacerbating the anti-Jewish--if not anti-Semitic--bias already latent in the 1st century gospel accounts. After a storm of controversy, he left in the worst verse, "His blood be on us and our children" (Matthew 27:25), but we hear it only in the Aramaic--the English subtitle explaining what the crowd is shouting, at that point, is suppressed. In the case of both the Romans and the Jews, then, Gibson fails to go deeper in illuminating the structural violence of the social setting of 1st century Palestine. The social forces behind the Roman Empire's racist and militaristic policy of torture as a means of control over its outlying provinces remain almost completely hidden in the background, or "forgotten," as Mark Lewis Taylor argues.

For Gibson, such deeper issues remain hidden precisely because they are theologically irrelevant. What matters is not the politics, but rather the grand scheme of salvation history by which, through the infliction of pain and suffering upon the hapless victim, the guilt of the world before an angry God --the sins of every one of us--can be assuaged. "Pain is the precursor to change, which is great," said Gibson in a February interview with Diane Sawyer. It is, then, through the infliction of pain on the child, and through the execution of the abused child, that the law of divine retributive justice can ultimately be meted out. And Gibson has, apparently, taken this theological viewpoint to heart. He expresses it himself in his personal relationships, as for example in his colorful response to New York Times columnist Frank Rich. Gibson said, "I want to kill him…I want his intestines on a stick…. I want to kill his dog."

But why? Why such a passion for violence? Why such a theology of torture? Why now?

According to political scientist Darius Rejali, in the early 20th century, the British Army developed a method of torture involving the "stress position" of forced standing. "Field Punishment No. 1" it was named--the soldiers dubbed it "the crucifixion." Later, in South Africa and Brazil, the prisoners undergoing this treatment would also be hooded to enhance sensory disorientation and humiliation. The Brazilians further added an electrical shock element, borrowed from the Americans and South Vietnamese.

In the year 2002, the Americans put the full range of "crucifixion" techniques and other so-called "no touch" forms of torture (such as those involving sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, the use of attack dogs, and the threat of drowning) into practice in Afghanistan, and by the fall of 2003, in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The fact of the policy-generated use of many of these forms of torture was recently unwittingly affirmed by General Geoffrey Miller, former chief of the Guantanamo prison and now prison commander in Iraq, when he stated, "We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees. We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations." The suspicious deaths of 37 prisoners while under U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq are currently under investigation.

So in 2003, at the very moment at which one of the most damaging series of incidents involving torture in our nation's history was being perpetrated and photographed, Gibson was filming and producing The Passion of the Christ. Just as prisoners were being placed into cruciform positions of forced standing, among other indignities, and apparently in some cases abused and tortured to the point of death, the most gratuitous and sadistic series of torture and execution scenes in Passion history was being created. In the former case, we watch in awe and horror as photos of detainees in various stages of sexual abuse are made public. In the latter case, we are led as voyeurs into the Garden, where we take in the slow motion kiss of Judas and Jesus, and gaze with the crowd upon the spectacle of a near-naked Detainee Jesus, moaning and writhing before us as his body is slashed and invaded.

Although not, of course, causally related, both Gibson and Abu Ghraib represent manifestations of the larger popular and administrative appetite for terror and gore--a veritable culture of violence and torture--in which we presently find ourselves. We entertain ourselves with torture. Torture captivates our imagination. We fight our wars using torture. We search for video clips of beheadings. And behind all of this, I argue, lies a dysfunctional and dangerous image of a God of Torture.

It might seem odd, at first, to connect our theology with what happened at Abu Ghraib and the other prisons. Perhaps the torture scandal is being exploited by those who merely want more ammunition for their attack upon the Christian faith. As reported in the Washington Post, however, the link between theology and torture, American-style, comes directly from the perpetrators themselves. The Islamic faith, according to Iraqi detainees, was labeled as "demonic" by American prison personnel, and prisoners were reportedly pressed to eat pork, drink liquor, and denounce Islam as a part of the "softening up" process prior to interrogation. Here is a section of the detainee account:

He said the soldiers told him that if he cooperated with interrogators they would release him in time for Ramadan. He said he did, but still was not released. He said one soldier continued to abuse him by striking his broken leg and forced him to curse Islam. "Because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion," he said. "They ordered me to thank Jesus that I'm alive."

The detainee said the soldiers handcuffed him to a bed.

"Do you believe in anything?" he said the soldier asked. "I said to him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, 'But I believe in torture and I will torture you.'"

The Muslim detainee must be made to suffer in order to be transformed. Through the process of torture, the prisoner is forced to identify with the torture of Jesus in order to reject Allah and accept Jesus. Such a process represents a spirituality of torture based upon grammatical, logical, and theological confusions and pathologies. It grows out of, and is dependent upon, a spirituality of power, of wealth, and of extreme arrogance.

Gibson is not responsible for this. But he is responsible for his art. And in this historical setting, he is engaging in an aesthetic experiment which is in danger of setting itself up as the poetry and mythology of empire. As potential poets of empire, we may find ourselves with the aesthetic responsibility, at times, of needing, for the sake of authenticity and integrity, to challenge the machinery of empire as opposed to simply greasing and divinizing it. Gibson, however, appears to be doing precisely the latter when he makes statements such as, "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic."

A theology of suffering and the cross, or even a theology of discipleship in which one is admonished to "take up their cross" (Mark 8:34) is, for the particular context in which we find ourselves, inappropriate. Our current experience is one in which members and representatives of our own community, indeed of our own faith, are perpetrating torture in our name. In times like these, to advocate for a spirituality of suffering and martyrdom--for a Zinzendorfian infatuation with the wounds of the victim--is to advocate for torture.

We need to find another way to think about and depict Christ's death. We need to find another Passion.