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

The Passion as Redemptive Non-violence

by Robbert Veen

Assistant professor of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics, Mennonite Seminary, Free University of Amsterdam

An essential part of our Mennonite peace witness is the attempt to denounce the romantic and mythical expression of "redemptive" violence in our cultures. Should we therefore condemn Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ as an example of that myth?

The Myth

The myth of redemptive violence features the white, (nearly always) male hero, who goes through a satisfying depth of suffering (satisfying the beholder who can identify with the villain) but in the end destroys the forces of evil. The myth lies deeply ingrained in our western consciousness.

Of course, such a hero does not learn from his enemies, does not try to win them over, is not interested in the motives of their enmity, and certainly does not expect their conversion. In short he redeems everybody apart from his enemy.

That end justifies all means. The hero's violence, even if excessive, is shown to be justified (as punitive righteousness or moral revenge or in service of the equally "white" and most often female or feminized victim) by the aesthetic strategies of sound and color and the narrative deployment of the simple moral schematic of bad guys and good guys. Good guys are always right, and bad guys are wrong about everything, including themselves.

Interestingly, the same mythical pattern also contains rules for the depiction of its violent acts. The illegitimate violence of the enemies is more often than not shown enigmatically, by verbal references or rumor. It is made more frightening by its obscurity, and is more active as a threat than as a deed– precisely by not showing it in its graphic detail. I remember an example from a movie whose name I have fortunately forgotten. Terrorists threaten to destroy a city with a nuclear bomb, but are prevented from doing so in the end by an air strike that destroys forty of them, including the entire bird population of an island. The good guy's violence was justified, because it always is. The public display of justified violence is the prerogative of the redeeming hero. Rambo's retaliatory strikes are public displays of valor and ingenuity whereas his enemies work in the dark.

The Movie

Such an analysis of how violence is portrayed by our culture is part and parcel of our Mennonite diagnostic arsenal. Liberation from these idols is a prerequisite to the embrace of the non-violent resistance of Christ, who in life and death expresses God's self-sacrificing love that forgives enemies and brings peace. So we must ask whether The Passion is an example of this myth or not.

I thought I went quite well prepared to see this movie. I was informed by German Bible scholars about its failure to be truthful because Gibson had combined a harmony of the gospels with Catholic legend instead of relying on historical reconstruction. I was warned also by Protestant theologians about its Catholic bias and by Jewish critics of its basic anti-Judaism. And I had been made aware by Mennonite friends of its complicity with the myth of redeeming violence. There was even some ridicule in the press about the errors in Jesus' Aramaic and the erroneous mixing of Hebrew and Jesus' mother tongue. (I cannot fully judge the first allegation, but found the second one to be wrong: the Hebrew in question was a legitimate part of the Passover ritual.) These errors and biases were furthermore attributed to some personal megalomaniacal inclination by its director, whose father was allegedly a fanatical Roman Catholic. The Jesus of Mel Gibson would be a "macho" who underwent everything the Romans could throw at him with contempt. With an ultimate "I can take it and more" in his eyes he would actually be provoking the soldiers to even greater cruelty. Mel Gibson had finally put his own ultimate hero on stage. This Jesus would be nothing more than the ultimate portrayal of the kind of heroism-through-suffering that Mel Gibson's movies are about. And, of course, if you could take its "theology" seriously, it still would be an exercise in the "Anselmian" doctrine that makes a warrior-like God to be actually in need of violence in order to liberate us from our guilt.

There were, my son and I included, just six people in the theater. It was a Thursday evening. I tried to follow the Aramaic for about fifteen minutes, enjoying the subtle differences between Peter's Galilean pronunciation and that of the others. The violence until then seemed to correspond with the critical essays I had read–excessive and for its own sake. I had to laugh for a moment when we came to the scene where Jesus is thrown from a bridge, remembering the critic who had argued that this detail was not from the gospels but from Catholic legend. It seemed a clumsy scene. But then I became totally absorbed by what I saw.

The Message

What did I see? The realism of the violence in The Passion is shocking indeed. I never have felt such horror or such anger at the portrayal or report of violence since I first saw pictures of Holocaust victims. But the realism was not shocking because it was "pornographic," as one critic would have it who called it an "orgy of violence." The violence I saw was neither titillating nor arousing. It never appealed; it was never "justified." It was shameful rather, the exact opposite of redeeming violence. It was impossible to identify with the victim because the massive realism left no room for that. There was no possibility for a controlled empathy with Jesus. The only way to be "within" was to identify with those who saw part of Jesus' descent to the cross from the margin of events. In those rare instances where you could see eye contact between Jesus and some passerby, Mel Gibson had given us some room for identification, for the tranquility of some "position" from which the rest could be a spectacle. Only in those instances was it "just" a movie. Aside from these moments, the movie, because of this stylized realism, or its realistic iconography, was more an emotional roller-coaster in which I found myself being swept away without reprieve.

For me this proximity of the imagery became the clue to the emotional impact of the movie. It depicts horror and cruelty in a way that leaves its viewer without the possibility of distancing him- or herself from it. It is as raw as it can get in Technicolor. The instinct to set oneself at a distance however is part of the mechanics of our culture to make the depiction of violence palatable to a viewer. The stylization of violence into an aesthetic spectacle makes us simply forget that the reality it refers to actually hurts and kills. The realism of The Passion prevents us from ever forgetting that by simply going to the extreme in showing us what flogging and beating and humiliating really are. They are after all hurtful and shameful acts in the real, physical world. They destroy distance. Violence is an absolute form of proximity. It violates by destroying the possibility of distance, in other words: it attacks the core of our freedom. Words and pictures represent always an interpretation of reality and therefore allow for distance and respect. Yet in this secondary, distanced world of words and pictures the structure of myth can also reign and draw its illusions. Violence can only really be shown, by preventing this mechanics of distance. Violence that is shown from a distance allows for justification. It is made acceptable as a means toward something else–that can also be shown at a distance.

The emotional impact of The Passion differs from the effect of other images of horror. It was not the same as the deep sense of horror that I felt when I saw the first images of the terrorists' attack on the twin towers on CNN. There I knew that what I saw was real but I had to make the conscious effort to imagine the pain and horror that were experienced by the victims. The absolute proximity of that violence had to be imagined, that is: represented by images and feelings that were conjured up by words and pictures that in themselves did not show me what was happening beyond the flames of a burning and collapsing building. No matter how hard you try, you cannot really feel it. Without the communicative bridge of style and representation, other people's feelings remain something beyond our reach. That is where art plays a vital role.

The realism in The Passion is shocking because it does not use distance to present a spectacle and does not leave it to the imagination to find images and feelings to fill in the blanks. It draws its viewers into an event without providing any means of looking at it dispassionately as a spectator.

It would have failed however if it had tried to do so with the means of other movies, like Saving Private Ryan and its more narrative realism. The Passion uses Christian iconography as a communicative superstructure to make us understand and feel the reality of Jesus' suffering and thereby it transcends a mere attempt at graphic portrayal. A "realistic" sequence of images, for example, will suddenly freeze into a still shot that corresponds with a painting. On the other hand it uses its realism in order to transform the icon (introduced from a tradition of Christian imagination as a semi-language) into something that we can emotionally grasp, at a level that we–in a world that is saturated by images–are not able to do in the manner a pre-modern culture still could.

In my view–quite literally in this case–the Catholic iconography is a way of communicating the meaning of the suffering as a theological event, and the realism is a means of communicating that meaning on the level of personal emotion. I consider that to be a great achievement. At my baptism a text was read from Galatians 2:20, "But in that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me." I have believed these words to be the cornerstone of our faith. Christ has given himself for me, has died on the cross–for me! But until now, I never really understood what this might mean in real terms. In Holland some non-Christian people summarized the movie by stating that it was wonderful that one man could die out of love for his friends. That message was apparently very well transmitted.

In theology we are accustomed to discuss the meaning of the cross in the same manner that others move pieces on a chessboard. Christ's suffering is part of a theological equation that we try to figure out. Is his suffering redemptive, and if so why? Is his death a means to redemption? If so, why? Or is his death that of a Jewish martyr–an "ordinary" death therefore–and do we expect everything from his teaching and example? We discuss it as if there is no reality behind such words in real history to be considered as well.

The Mennonite Angle

But what of the Mennonite diagnostic? In her presentation at the London Mennonite Center some weeks ago–a gathering with Yoder student J. Denny Weaver who wrote about the Non-Violent Atonement–Margot Kottelin-Longley from Finland reminded us that in early Mennonite history the real issue was not how Christ's death had redeemed us. The main focus was on the human depth of his suffering and for whom it was beneficial. The piety of the lay movements in the early sixteenth century was directed at the wounds of Jesus and the brutal reality of his suffering, the instruments of his pain and thereby on the debt of gratitude that we owed him and the unfathomable love that he showed his friends in dying for us.

Is there a connection? The iconography of the late Middle Ages was a means of combining narrative realism with a theological framework. Mel Gibson, I would suggest, is doing very much the same in the iconographical language of our time, that of motion pictures. He was able to do the work of a Sunday School teacher for a generation that seems beyond the reach of narrative. He has shown them perhaps the essence of the gospel for our time. Christ died for our sins, that is: because of the sinfulness of the Jewish establishment, of Roman politics and the lack of faith of some of his disciples all of which I, in my ordinary life, actually support. The life we lead in our modern nations makes us accomplices after the fact with those who brought Jesus to the Cross. That is what allows us to state the significance of his death. He died for our sins. That is, because through his death these powers are now unmasked and seen for what they really are so that I can live my life liberated from their illusive power. He died for our sins. That is, because of my acceptance of the innocence of Christ, God pardons my sins and puts me on the way of sanctification.

The movie helped me experience the reality behind these theological explanations. It helped me connect the statements with the event. That is why I think it promotes a message I am inclined to see as the core gospel of the Mennonite tradition, because it actually destroys the modern myth of redemptive violence. Violence in this movie does not redeem. Jesus' suffering is the ultimate demonstration of non-violent love that is persistent until the end. It actually shows God's verdict on human violence: that it finally, after it has done its worst and demonstrated its power as a spectacle of shame and horror, has accomplished nothing. (One interesting detail: those who ordered Jesus' death are not able to stand around and watch it. The actual murderers of Christ are unwilling to see the result of their plotting. And the Roman soldiers who do the flogging and killing have first reduced Christ to a mere object of their handicraft so in a sense they too do not see him. In the movie, it is only the believer who looks Christ in the eye, who can therefore see his suffering.)

The last scene of the movie, in which Jesus is resurrected, is a majestic understatement of God's final victory over the powers of violence: no iconography nor any realism needed. Its portrayal does not need to compete with the gripping imagery of the crucifixion. Here the image of a silent Jesus who leaves his grave unscathed works again like a simple word in a narrative. Here the distance is restored. I think this is entirely correct and not a flaw in the design of the movie as one critic would have it. The event of the resurrection can only be told, believed, lived and passed on in a living tradition as the non-violent message of communal redemption it really is. The understatement signifies a boundary for the imagination. Violence and cruelty have done all they could. They have made a spectacle out of themselves. They have failed. Now God begins.

I would suggest that we embrace this attempt of telling the story again to a new kind of audience with the means of our era and go on where Mel Gibson has left off. There is after all for us Mennonites still more to tell.