Frei Betto on Mel Gibson’s film

/ 6 May 2004

Frei Betto, a Brazilian theologian and novelist, has written a powerful essay on the ways in which Mel Gibson’s film perverts the witness of Christ. It’s available in the original Portuguese on the web, but fortunately for those of us who can not read Portuguese, the listserv has translated it into English:

Frei Betto

Mel Gibson shows in his film “The Passion” a Jesus lacerated by the most atrocious sufferings. The scenes are shocking, or as Geraldo Magela, cardinal of Salvador says, “cruel”.

¿What’s behind this painful approach to Jesus’ Passion? Above all else, it's a marketing move. Those who know about marketing are aware of the two ingredients that go into any successful recipe: sex and/or violence. The pendulum in our unconscious keeps us constantly alert to something that no other living creature knows: we are born and we will die. This form of entertainment reinforces those polarities and brings the generation of life and sexuality together to produce pornography; while death, the extinction of life, means violence. The use of these two ingredients keeps the masses spellbound.

Mel Gibson started off from a theological approach which was very popular in the Church's past : we have offended God so much with our sins that only the death of his Son by torture can redeem us from such an offense. The Father gives his Son over to death, so his blood can satisfy his thirst for revenge against Man. By dying on the cross, Jesus washes the sins of mankind.

It is necessary to put Jesus’ death in context, in a society where the law prescribed the rescue of slave prisoners, to understand this morbid play in which God makes God suffer and be killed, to understand Gibson’s mistaken approach. The center of Jesus’ life is not his suffering and his death, but his Resurrection, which is unique. Without it, as the Apostle Paul said, our faith would be in vain. And the most important thing in Jesus’ life is not how much he suffered, but how much and how he loved, the way only God loves. I have met prisoners who suffered more than Jesus did at the hands of their torturers. But none of them loved as He did; He never made a gesture lacking in love, so therefore, he didn’t know sin.

The Word did not become incarnate to suffer. He became incarnate to love and to bring light. His love has nothing to do with the complacency that reduces love to a mere feeling. To love and to be truthful to oneself and to others are two sides of the same coin. And to practice justice and make everything so “that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10: 10). That’s why Jesus died, victim of an unjust system. He died as a political prisoner, condemned to death using the instrument adopted by Roman power: the cross. He died because of our sins, as the injustice we practice creates structures that ensure abundant life for a few and condemn most people to an early death.

Mel’s Christ is bitter. He is the expression of our lack of love and God’s lack of love. But God is love, and he never stops loving us. This dimension of the passion –now it makes sense to love somebody passionately- is what the film lacks. Mel offers us a wreck. The Gospel, fortunately, offer us the way, the truth and the life, God’s unconditional love, showing us in Jesus the path to happiness, to such an extent that He says: "I have told you this so my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete " (Jn 15: 11).