Guilt and the Passion of the Christ

[From our own inner yearnings for justice] we conclude that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right conduct—in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness… [Which creates a problem…] For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation… On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an Absolute Goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an Absolute Goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that Goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow… —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 29-31, HarperCollins, 2001

There is a viciousness to the violence in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. This isn’t a film about Jesus. It is a psychological inkblot depiction of Gibson’s own personal guilt. —Chuck Graham, movie review, The Tucson Citizen, 25/feb/2004

The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, Rembrandt

The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, Rembrandt

Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ has touched a nerve, which according to some reports is exactly as he had hoped. The reviews and discussions about this important film are remarkably polarized: they seem split 50/50 between revulsion and praise, with very little middle ground. (As I write this, I plan to see the film but have not yet done so.)

Unlike your typical Epic Bible Movie Full of Wooden Dialogue and Those Old Sunday School Stories Your Grandmother Told You, The Passion of the Christ does not focus on the powerful Jesus who healed the blind, or the compassionate Jesus who blessed the poor, or the forgiving Jesus who saved the woman caught in adultery, or the humble Jesus who welcomed the little children, or the angry Jesus who drove away the money changers, or the triumphant Jesus who rose from the tomb.

No, The Passion of the Christ focuses on the final 12 hours of his life, a period in which we see a very monochromatic Jesus—a Jesus dipped in blood, writhing in agony, his life drip-dripping from his veins into the dust. This is not Jesus the victor, but Jesus the victim; Jesus the scapegoat; Jesus the ransom paid for our sins; Jesus on the altar beneath the knife of sacrifice.

This is Jesus taking upon his own body the penalty for our individual guilt, and guilt makes us very uncomfortable, especially when it’s in Technicolor.

I think the G-word is why so many people are upset about Mel Gibson’s movie. Post-moderns don’t do guilt. We’re relativists, not absolutists. We’re tolerant and flexible, not legalistic. And really, we’re not such bad people, are we? We’re good citizens, good neighbors, good employees; we have good hearts, good intentions, and good karma.

Our post-modern mantras are: nobody’s perfect; cut me some slack; give me a break; lighten up; what gives you the right to judge me? Guilt went out with Freud and whale-bone corsets.

This is the no-fault age. Janet Jackson was the “victim” of a “regrettable” and “unintentional” “wardrobe failure,” certainly nothing that either she or Justin Timberlake needed to feel guilty about. Guilt can be toxic to one’s self-esteem. Better that we should grow, move on, make a few jokes and “fuhgetaboutit.”

Isn’t religion about love? Isn’t God about forgiving and forgetting? Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?”

Which suggests this question: If God is a God of love and forgiveness, why did he allow his own son to die the horrible death that The Passion depicts? If God could provide a ram for Isaac, why not Jesus? Better yet, why not jump straight to the forgiveness part and dispense with the blood and gore of the cross? Back to C.S. Lewis:

If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. Or if you take `paying the penalty’, not in the sense of being punished, but in the more general sense… of `footing the bill’, then, of course, it is a matter of common experience that, when one person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.” —C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.56, HarperCollins, 2001

Our guilt is a much bigger deal than we would like to believe. We live in a universe created by a holy and righteous God, but we have soiled the place with our rebellion. It’s not that we’ve flicked a few gum wrappers out of the car window; we’ve been dumping our rotting garbage all over the highways and byways, often with great joy. It’s not that we’re occasionally imperfect; we’ve embarked on a life-long Club Med cruise dedicated to the pursuit of narcissistic self-interest.

We know there are consequences to behaving badly. We speed, we’re pulled, we pay a fine. These are the visible consequences of rebellion. The Christian doctrine of the crucifixion teaches us that there are unseen consequences as well. With every act of rebellion against God’s goodness—whether minor or terrible—we accumulate a debt of guilt. We have amassed a debt so great that we could never repay it—out of his generous love, God has paid it for us.

The Passion of the Christ is indeed a “psychological inkblot depiction of Mel Gibson’s own personal guilt,” but it is much more than that. The Cross happened because of Mel Gibson’s guilt, and C.S. Lewis’ guilt, and Janet Jackson’s guilt, and my guilt, and your guilt, and the guilt of the billions of sinful men and women just like us. A healthy sense of guilt can lead to a healthy humility about one’s proper place in God’s universe, as well as a healthy sense of gratitude to the one who paid our debt.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. No one can take my life from me. I lay down my life voluntarily. —John 10:11,18, NLT (Jesus speaking)

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many. —Matthew 20:26-28, NLT (Jesus speaking)

May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. —Ephesians 3:17,18, NLT (Paul speaking)

Jesus Christ placed himself in the hands of the Romans, arguably one of history’s most sadistic regimes, and submitted himself to the horrors of the cross because he loves us.

The cross is a coarse, ugly monument to our guilt. And yet, despite the brutality Jesus suffered on Golgotha, there is something beautiful in the mystery of The Passion of the Christ. There on that bloody cross God demonstrated the full extent of his love for you and me. There through the costly Passion of Jesus we freely received mercy and grace.

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