The Gospel of the Cross Confronts the Powers: Mark’s Passion Narrative

Chapter in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters. Edited by Simon Barow and J. Bartley, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, pp. 61-73. 7 pp.

The most concise thing I can say about my reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is: I loved the book,but hated the movie. There is much to be perplexed and/or enraged about in Gibson’s cinematic version of the trial and execution of Jesus. And there is plenty to deconstruct concerning the film-maker and his psyche, not least his fascination for Braveheart-type victim-heroes who suffer injustice and indignity, but ultimately wreak righteous and intensely violent payback on their adversaries. But the public issue most stimulated by the film has been whether or not it would rekindle old and persistent embers of anti-Semitism, and that is far more important to address than Gibson and his theology.

More than any of his particular characterisations, the thing that makes Gibson’s work a potential tool for anti-Semitism is the structure of his story as a whole. He has chosen to make an account of a political trial and execution without ever bothering to explain why that confrontation occurred. The inevitable result of narrating the death of Jesus without narrating his life is that the credulous viewer is forced to surmise that Jesus must have been a nice guy who was killed for no good reason by mean, spiteful people. And if in addition the theological assumption (as is the case for Gibson) is that the main purpose of Jesus’ life was for him to die ‘for our sins’, then someone had to do the dirty deed of killing him. Why not scapegoat ‘the Jews’ as a whole? It makes a perfect rationale for Christian super-cessionism.

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