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Presented March 7, 2004, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
I have to beg your indulgence for speaking this morning on the Mel Gibson movie. I know most of you are not interested in this and probably have heard too much about it already. I know from talking to you the members of my congregation about it that most of you have simply said: "I don't have any interest in seeing that movie." I really respect that reaction. However, this movie and its reception within our culture is a major event that needs to be reflected upon ethically and theologically. It's not just the numbers, the people, the money. It's not just the fact that so many Americans saw the movie that on the very first night it netted 23 million dollars or the fact that it will probably become the biggest money making film of all time. This movie is a major event in the religious history of the United States. A big part of the reason that this movie is such a big hit and is all the rage and has already seen by so many people is that it has been marketed and advanced through the churches in this country. Huge Evangelical churches with thousands of members have had special screenings for their congregations. And it's not just evangelical or conservative Catholic churches that are advancing this film. Mainstream Christian denominations have also received promotional materials on the film. We even received a brochure about this movie here at our church. Now I'm not here as your minister telling you to see this wonderful movie about God's love for us, but that is exactly what is happening all across this Christian land. Ministers of all denominations are encouraging their congregations to see the film, and their congregations are responding. All of Christian America is flooding to this film to experience the crucifixion the way it really was.
I want to tell you straight out my own reaction to the film. I had read so much about it before I saw it that I didn't really expect to like it. But seeing it for me was really a surprising experience. I disliked this movie at least ten times more than I was expecting to. I came out of the theatre thinking to myself how much I hated every single second of that movie, which is what I was thinking when I greeted my students in the lobby, most of whom were so moved by this beautiful movie that they were in tears. And they looked at me seeking confirmation; their teary eyes seemed to say to me "Wasn't that amazing, Dr. Manning?" I wasn't going to say a word. I thought to myself: I have got to get the heck out of here.
I am not a good person to speak dispassionately about this film. As a person who decided to be a liberal theologian in 7th grade and who has since also become a Holocaust scholar, I disagree so passionately with the theology of this film that I am completely unable to put that aside in myself and sit there watching the film and appreciate other aspects, think about the cinematography, or the acting. I'm far too upset as a theologian to sit there dispassionately and say: "well, that scene was done artfully."
I want to talk about the theology of the film, Mel Gibson's theology, this theology that is within this film being advanced by so many priests and ministers throughout this great Christian country of ours. Let me say at the outset that Mel Gibson didn't invent this theology; it has a long history within the history of Catholicism. This film presents to our entire country and soon to the entire world what could be considered a pre-modern theology based on the saving power of the wounds, the suffering, and the blood of Christ, who is considered an innocent sacrifice for our sins.
One should not doubt Mel Gibson's sincerity. He is a true believer in this pre-modern form of Catholic spirituality based on the saving power of the blood and the wounds of Jesus. He has said that he experienced this first-hand. In his mid-30s he was battling alcoholism and depression and was suicidal. This is when he returned to the very conservative, pre-Vatican II, pre-modern Catholicism of his youth. The wounds of Christ saved him at this point in his life. "I had to use the Passion of Christ and his wounds to heal my wounds" he has said.
So the blood of Jesus and his suffering, his healing wounds, are at the center of Mel Gibson's spirituality as they always have been in this type of Catholic spirituality. Hence when Gibson makes a Jesus movie he doesn't make it about the entire life of Jesus but he makes it about Jesus' last few hours, his suffering, what has always been called in the history of Christian theology his "Passion." Now I was fully expecting the movie to show Jesus suffering, but I wasn't prepared for how much suffering Jesus was going to endure in this movie, how much of the movie would be taken up with Jesus suffering, and that the movie would invent new ways for Jesus to suffer. It seems to most people if you just stuck with what the Gospels actually say that Jesus endured that would be quite enough. But with this type of spirituality no amount of Jesus suffering is too much. This is why at the very beginning of the movie after he is arrested Jesus is bound and chained up and walking with the soldiers on his way to Pontius Pilate's house and the soldiers just for kicks throw Jesus over a wall but he is chained up so the chains prevent him from landing and he is suspended over the wall, left hanging in a way similar to a common torture technique of the Gestapo. Now this suffering, this wounding, which happens so early in the film, completely surprises the viewer familiar with the Gospels because there's no mention of this event in any of the Gospels. This was simply made up to get us to see the wounds and the suffering sooner and to see more of them. We very early on get the point that the wounds of Jesus are what this film is about, and what the theology in the film is about.
According to this theology, since we are healed by meditating on the significance of Jesus' wounds, you cannot meditate on these wounds enough or too much. This is why the scourging scene, where Jesus is beaten and whipped by the Roman soldiers, is so long and so gruesome. Though this is barely mentioned in the Gospels, and though the norm at the time would be 39 lashes, Gibson has Jesus savagely struck more than 100 times, and not just with a whip but with a metal spiked club that tears his flesh away. The point again is not fidelity to the scriptures but the kind of license spirituality gives itself in making its point that we are healed by contemplating his wounds. Even so, this part of the film is, I would argue, heretical. Jesus, the Church has always insisted, has to be understood as fully human so he has to be fully human in the extent to which he can endure beating and still be alive. Jesus as superhero who can take ten times more beatings than would kill any other human being is not acceptable orthodoxy. It compromises Jesus' full humanity. Now if you want to see a human being beaten and beaten and beaten beyond any human's ability to endure it, then this is the film for you. However, we shouldn't miss the point: contemplating his wounds heals our wounds. This theology centered so much around the blood and the wounds of Christ sees Jesus as the innocent Son who offered his life up to the Father to pay for our sins. This is sometimes referred to as sacrificial theology and should be thought of in terms of the Trinity. The loving Son willingly wins forgiveness for us from the Father whose anger for our sin must be satisfied. The sacrifice of the Son to the Father takes place within the Godhead, with the Trinity. God the Father accepts the sacrifice made to Him by God the Son. Now I know how you feel about this sacrificial view of the incarnation. William Ellery Channing, a great Unitarian intellectual and preacher of the last century, perhaps said most elegantly when he said this type of Christian theology with its angry Father God satisfied by the sacrifice of the Son gives us a "God whom we would not love if we could and ought not love if we would." But I do want to say a few things about this sacrificial theology.
First, and this is very important, there could not be a version of Catholic theology that is less representative of Franciscanism at Quincy University than this Mel Gibson reactionary Catholic theology. I want you to know that this is not the spirituality of Fr. Bill Burton, or Fr. Joe Zimmerman, or Fr. Ralph, or Father J.J. Father JJ, my much admired predecessor in the philosophy department and the philosopher after whom I named my beloved dog JJ, has spent some 40 years passionately teaching about the incarnation and passionately rejecting this sacrifical theology and trying to get our students and everybody else to see that in the incarnation the loving Father wanted deeper intimacy with his human creations and that is why God incarnated Himself in Jesus the human, to experience more deeply all of our human experiences. Now JJ articulates a completely different incarnational theology than the sacrificial one that this film proffers and one much more representative of our Franciscan charism at our university. This movie takes our students and everyone else in a very different direction spiritually, in a direction we as a Franciscan school do not want to endorse and indeed must challenge.
Another thing that is important to say about Mel Gibson's sacrificial theology is that it pays very little attention to the actual historical Jesus, to what Jesus actually said and did while on the earth. Most of post-Vatican II Catholic theology and most Protestant theology since Schleiermacher try to base itself in the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. That Jesus lived as a poor person, that he welcomed sinners and outcasts into his company, that he treated women as equals, that he lived without material possessions and without power and authority, or that he preached in such a way as to rebel against both the political and the religious status quo of his own day are essential in order for us to understand just how God the Father is revealed through God the Son. For liberation theology, for example, that God's son is poor and powerless reveals God's preferential option for the poor, that God is on the side of the poor and the powerless. For political theology, it is important that the Son of God does not wield political power but is one of the weak ones snuffed out by the political power of his time. All of these other ways of interpreting the incarnation and of doing theology since Vatican II are entirely missing from and inconsequential to a pre-modern sacrifical theology like Mel Gibson's. In fact, the branch of reactionary Catholicism Mel Gibson and his father endorse renounces Vatican II and refuses to recognize the authority of any pope since Pius XII. It is obvious that what is going on in this film is that Gibson is restoring to us old time religion, good old-fashioned sacrificial theology. Gibson is giving back to our country and he's giving Catholicism back its good old sacrificial theology which ruled the day before the liberals and the Marxists and the feminists took over with all their new-fangled readings of scripture and new ways of doing theology. Liberation theologians and political theologians and feminist theologians and post-Holocaust theologians are something like money changers in the temple to Mel Gibson, and with this film he is trying to chase them out, and every Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist or UCC minister or every Catholic priest who thinks about encouraging his or her congregation to see this film ought to be aware of that.
We post-Vatican II liberal, modern and even postmodern money changers better wake up and get back there and take back the temple because the last thing our country and our world-already torn between the western secular materialism and Islamic fundamentalism-needs is a revival of that old time sacrificial theology. The logic of that theology ultimately falls back upon that thing, that way of resolving problems which is, as Rene Girard reminds us, as old as the world itself: violence. Ultimately, in the theology of sacrifice an angry Father God must be satisfied and He demands the sacrifice of the life of the completely innocent Son. The Father God falls back as humans do on violence as the solution. Even if the loving Father shows us all how much He loves us by letting his Son be tortured and murdered, He is still finding His solution in violence. Either way, the God depicted in sacrificial theology still resorts to violence as His solution, thereby showing Himself human, all too human.
I strongly suspect that within the still troubled and disquieted soul of Mel Gibson there's plenty of the angry Father God demanding satisfaction for all that sin of ours. There is one scene in the movie that is most horrible and perhaps speaks volumes about the violence within Mel Gibson's sacrificial theology. You will remember that two others are crucified along with Jesus. They are called thieves though the word could also be translated as insurrectionists. One recognizes who Jesus is and asks to come into his kingdom but the other does not, preoccupied as he must have been with his own torments on his own cross. In Mel Gibson's movie, at the moment that this thief or insurrectionist dying on the cross fails to recognize Jesus, a huge black crow perches on his head and proceeds to gouge his eyes out. The message is clear: the option God always has at the ready is violence.
We liberal money changers as we get ready to get back into the temple, we liberals, we feminists, we radical political theologians, we post-Holocaust theologians, we might take this opportunity to realize that if we have among us something like a common denominator it might just be that we share a desire to refashion our concept of the divine so that it is purified of all violence, removed as far as possible of any hint of violence. We desperately need to give ourselves a purely nonviolent God in order to purify ourselves and our world, to make our world and our inner selves less violent, and to make violence something other than a solution so near to us.
That all too human tendency to have violence so near as a solution was recently perfectly expressed by Mel Gibson himself. When a New York movie critic panned Gibson's movie and said it was anti-Semitic, Gibson responded that he would like to eat his liver and kill his dog, and when Diane Sawyer asked him about that in the interview he said with a scary smirk that he regretted saying that because he would never kill anyone's dog. Mel Gibson is obviously a very passionate and committed Christian. Given that, why, when he is upset or angry, does he respond spontaneously in such a violent way? Why does he find violence so near to him as his solution?
That human tendency to see violence as the solution is, as Rene Girard says, both as old as the world and what we are always trying to hide from ourselves. In Girard's very different interpretation of the crucifixion story, to him the suffering that human beings inflict upon a perfectly innocent Jesus forces us to confront how violent we are. To Girard, when we blame the Crucifixion on the Jews, on the Jews then living or all Jews living since, all we are doing is making other people the scapegoat and avoiding what the Crucifixion forces us to confront: our human tendency toward violence. And to Girard, when we say that the Crucifixion was God's plan, that God the Father demanded the violent death of the Son, all we are doing is making God the scapegoat, placing the blame for human violence upon God, and once again hiding from ourselves the full extent of our own violent human nature.
Girard gives us a very different way to interpret the death of Christ, one diametrically opposed to the one offered to us now by Mel Gibson, the one widely recommended by Christians ministers and priests of all types, many of whom should know better. Girard's work on violence and religion is thirty years old. Is it too much to hope that by now there are plenty of ministers and priests out there who are familiar with it and can give to the good Christians in the pews this new wine in the old wineskins even as Mel Gibson gives us all the oldest wine in the oldest wineskin? Evidently it is. Despite the good intellectual labors of Girard and feminist theologians and political theologians and liberation theologians, it appears at this moment that the person who has the most influence in shaping the theology of Christians in America is named Mel Gibson. And as our good friend Father Bill might say, that ain't good.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.