Jesus at Midnight: Gibson's Portrayal of a Christianity of Death

From: "Answers to questions on Judaism posed by Oxford students to their Rabbi" []
Date: Tuesday, March 2, 2004 10:04:39 -0500

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Jesus at Midnight
The Passion's portrayal of Christianity as a cult of death

I finally went to see The Passion the other day. The movie ended and the audience walked slowly outside in stony silence. Everyone seemed somewhat meditative and contemplative, that is, everyone except me. I was too busy ducking behind my jacket, paranoically focused on my resemblance to the murderous Rabbis portrayed in the film. “Man,” I thought to myself, “surely the people who are walking out are going to think that I was the one who did it.” From behind the safety of my jacket I asked an African-American woman walking alongside me – tears in her eyes – what she thought of the film. She responded, “It rips you apart inside. It made me think. But you probably wouldn’t understand.” She was referring – innocently – to the fact that I was wearing a yarmulke and had a rabbi’s beard, and perhaps could simply not fathom the impact that the death of Jesus makes on Christians.

Maybe she was right, that I cannot understand, because I personally found the film to be a gross defamation – not just of the Jews who were portrayed as having demonically demanded the death of Christ – but especially of Christianity which is portrayed as a religion of blood, gore, and death, rather than of blessing, love, and life. The pagan religious cults of the ancient world were focused almost entirely on death. Ancient Egypt, with its pyramids as Temples of death, its worship of the god Hades, and its mass embalming of mummies, saw the purpose of life as gaining entry into the afterlife. Tom Cruise’s film The Last Samurai accurately portrays how Shintoism in Japan emphasized a good death over a good life. Similarly, modern-day Islam, with its emphasis on the heavenly rewards for martyrdom is about gaining eternal paradise not by one’s actions while living but by one’s actions in dying. In Hinduism, death is so central a facet that up until about 100 years ago when a man died they put his living widow on the funeral pyre with him.

Judaism, and its daughter religion Christianity, were a radical departure from the earlier cults of death. Both emphasized the idea of moral and righteous action on this earth. Both were based on the Hebrew scriptures’ demand for moral and righteous action and the need to perfect the earth in G-d’s name. Even in the New Testament, the passion of Christ occupies at most a chapter or two in each of the gospels, while the life of Jesus is spelled out over about ten times that number.

Judaism and Christianity must therefore be supremely careful not to emulate their pagan predecessors and become religions that put the focus on death rather than on life. I have often criticized strands within modern Judaism for using the holocaust, rather than the Bible, the Spanish Inquisition rather than the Sabbath, the pogroms rather than Passover, to engender Jewish commitment. Jewish children are often taught courses on anti-Semitism to inculcate Jewish identity. They often learn far more about how Jews were burned at the stake for their faith rather than how Abraham’s faith in G-d burned with a fiery intensity. The message of Jewish history becomes that while the Greeks philosophized, the Romans ruled, and the Italians painted, all the Jews ever did was die.

In the wake of September 11th, Judaism and Christianity now find themselves heavily at odds and under attack from forces within Islam. In a world where so many are being encouraged to die in the name of G-d, it behooves Judeo-Christianity to inspire the faithful to live in the name of G-d.

This is something that Mel Gibson, in his wearisome, monotonous, and numbing depiction of endless blood and gore, fails at utterly.

There are two ways to understand Christianity. One is as a religion of life, the other is as a religion of death. The former focuses on emulating how Jesus lived, the latter hones in exclusively on how he died. The former looks at the incomparable ethical teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, the latter focuses on the horrors of the crucifixion on the cross. The Christianity of life concentrates on what Jesus taught his disciples about living virtuously, the Christianity of death distills the Christian message into the single maxim that Jesus died for mankind’s sins. The Christianity of life emphasizes the idea of personal accountability in our relationship with G-d, the Christianity of death emphasizes that reposing faith in Jesus is all that is needed in order to gain salvation.

It is clear where Mel Gibson’s convictions lie. In this insulting film, he virtually ignores the entire life of Jesus, preferring instead to tell us that what made Jesus special was not that he lived righteously and meekly, but that he died bloodily. Many critics have already panned the film for its excessive violence. For me, the violence became so intense that I began to think that Mel Gibson’s intention was to make Jesus into a Jewish-mother-stereotype whose principal message to her children is a guilt trip: “There, now do you see how much I’ve suffered on your behalf. Now, are you finally going to love me?” Perhaps it is not surprising that Mel Gibson has focused on this aspect, given that he has told many interviewers he came back to Christianity after being so miserable about his life that he wanted to kill himself. Death seems to be a large part of his personal pantheon. But that does not explain why so many Christian groups would play into the stereotypes of Christianity being a religion of death rather than of life by promoting The Passion as an evangelism tool.

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German orthodoxy, responded to vicious Christian attacks on Judaism by delineating the differences between the two faiths. Christianity, he argued, inculcated the feeling of absolute dependence on a Higher Power, and aimed at showing man his impotence, his frailty, his weakness, his death, and his decay. He is shown the bestial forces which overwhelm him so that he will clamor for the higher power that, through ‘faith’, will save him from their fetters. Christianity, he argued, shows man the nocturnal spirit of passion and evil in his own breast so that he becomes frightened of himself and, in the horror of night, seeks salvation at the altar of Christ. For this reason, said Hirsch, Christianity likes to build its temples over the tombs of death, celebrates its holy mysteries preferably at night, and its fervent prayers are a cry of distress from the power of the ‘evil’ in the world and in one’s own heart. Christianity, in Hirsc h's view, ties man to the Divine by passiveness, by the fear of human existence.

My reverence for Rabbi Hirsch notwithstanding, it seems that he was exposed to a Christianity that was perhaps prevalent in Germany but radically different to the life-affirming joy of the evangelical community that is so strong in the United States today. The Christianity that even I as a Jew so love and admire today is about raising children who practice chastity and love G-d, sending missionaries around the world to fight poverty and disease, giving considerable charitable contributions to the poor and d own-trodden, strengthening the institution of marriage and family, and supporting Israel through its harassment at the hands of enemies intent on its destruction.

So where did the great Rabbi Hirsch receive so a dark vision of Christianity? No doubt, it came from tortures souls like Mel Gibson who emphasize the death of Christ to the exclusion of all else. What other conclusion than that Christianity is a religion of the deep night can be garnered from Mel’s blood-and-gore flick where Jesus is butchered and bloodied almost passively, as if he were a character in televised professional wrestling.

But whatever dark demons are haunting Mel’s soul, the question returns: Why would evangelical and Catholic groups, who love their faith and wish to see it strengthened, get behind this film as a means by which to promote the gospel? Is that really what they want the world to know, not that Jesus lived an inspirational life by which the faithful should be roused, but that Jesus died a horrible death for which the faithful should feel responsible?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the London Times Preacher of the Year 2000, is the best-selling author of 14 books. Named by Talkers magazine as one of American’s 100 most important talk-radio hosts, his newest book is 'The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age' (HarperCollins).

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