As Christians observe Passion Week this year, American viewers are confronted with two dramatic renderings of shed blood.
On TV screens, of past days, there are the dismembered U.S. civilian bodies strung up on a bridge in Fallujah, showing the festering wound of war and occupation in Iraq that daily sucks in Iraqi and American lives.
On the movie screens, of course, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, showing the last 12 hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, as he is captured, scourged and hung on a cross at Golgotha. 1 in 10 Americans, reportedly, have seen the film.
These screened events about the shedding of blood are very different in numerous ways. Yet, they both portray dramatic suffering that occasions overwrought emotional states in viewers that detracts from reflection on the imperial forces providing the context, and often the cause, of the blood-letting.
In America, public outrage over the Fallujah images easily spills over into talk of retaliation. In Fallujah, this apparently means ratcheting up U.S. soldiers to punish Iraqis. American outrage over jarring scenes of death from Iraq often blocks intelligent debate, allowing occupiers to become only recyclers of blood feuds.
When the Fallujah events broke, many Americans were beginning to ponder how the Iraq war was long desired by Bush, and by his “neoconservative” administrators (Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others). Richard Clarke, Bush’s own former counter-terrorism expert, bore dramatic testimony of this before the committee investigating September 11, and his recent book, Against All Enemies, drives home the point.
Past U.S. governments have often played the imperialist card, but the empire-building of today has outrun any effective “war on terrorism,” made Americans less safe, and demanded of them a sacrifice of civil liberties for nearly unending imperial war. (For those wishing an introduction to U.S. as empire today, Chalmers Johnson’s book, Sorrows of Empire, is one good start.)
Tied to their television screens and to their outrage over images of dying Americans and Iraqis, chances are that the sorrows of American empire-building will remain forgotten.
On the screens of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ there is a similar forgetting of empire, this time of the Roman setting crucial for understanding Jesus’ execution. As historian Paula Fredriksen noted, the fact that Jesus was publicly executed by crucifixion “can only mean that Rome wanted him dead.” Rome frequently used crucifixion as a political deterrent. Gibson insufficiently focuses the imperial politics of Jesus’ death.
First, he sets up Christ’s passion as primarily a work of Jewish scheming. In this, it is an anti-Semitic film. The film’s devotees retort that it is the Romans who are portrayed as so brutal to Jesus. Yes, and there is also a scene where the film’s devil-figure is shown walking amid Roman torturers. But the bulk of the devil’s work is imaged in scenes of Jewish leaders arresting Jesus in the garden, providing blood money to Judas, and approvingly standing watch at the scourging. These images were key elements of the post-medieval Christian passion-plays, which, as Fredriksen notes, were “dress rehearsals for Shoah” and holocaust.
Gibson images the Romans largely as roguish soldiers, mostly instrumental to Jewish planning. Or, Roman officials are as Pilate is portrayed: well-meaning, vacillating rulers under control of Jewish design. As Len Weltenshier observed in The New Republic, “You would think Rome was a colony of Judea.”
This foregrounding of Jewish agency in killing Jesus has the function of masking the imperial dynamics that gave Jesus’ life, message and death their full meaning. The movie fails to show the many ways that Jesus’ teachings on love and prophetic justice positioned him outside acceptable lines of Rome’s imperial, political milieu.
But Gibson has a second way of aiding in the forgetting of empire. He keeps viewers steeped in a visualized brutality that emotionally distracts from political and historical themes. Many, today, mistake this jarring viciousness on screen for strong doses of “reality” or “history.” If he wanted reality, though, Gibson might also have shown the sexual abuse that often went with Roman imperial crucifixion, or the final devouring of the body by dogs at the cross, a final, dishonoring fate of so many of the crucified. And are we to suppose that Jesus was in every moment an agonizing, stoic figure, not also a real screaming, whimpering, breaking torture victim?
In place of “reality” and “history,” Gibson actually idealizes bloodletting, from Mary’s loving use of linens to daub at the scourged Jesus’ blood around the whipping stone, to a later scene of a Roman soldier falling to his knees for a showering of blood and water from Jesus’ punctured side. This reverence reminds of pietist, Count Von Zinzendorf, and his wish to make a bed in the savior’s wounds. Such piety is alive today, especially when Christians make Jesus’ historical suffering into an event of bloodletting for their own personal journeys from guilt to salvation. “Now I know how horribly Jesus suffered for me,” said one moviegoer.
Michael Novak also recasts Jesus imperial execution as personal meditation. Novak had argued in 2003 at the Vatican that the U.S. invasion of Iraq (which later involved sacrificing thousands of innocent Iraqi civilian lives) was a “just war.” After viewing The Passion, he wrote in The Weekly Standard: “I wanted to weep, and to be silent, and to commune with my God, on whom my sins had heaped such afflictions.”
Novak’s comment suggests how Gibson’s anti-Semitic shifting of focus from imperial Roman history to Jewish plotting, together with overwrought Christian fascination with Jesus’ shedding of blood, can enable viewers to absolve themselves of a need to attend to the imperial settings of war and execution – in Jesus’ time, or their own.
It should be noted, too, that the same film that circulates Christian anti-Semitism against Jews, also disables effective Arab critique of the exploitative policies of Israel. Arabs’ and others’ critique of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, or of Israel’s alliance with the Bush regime’s imperial interests in Iraq today, needs to foreground a critique of empire. To have that critique of empire displaced by anti-Semitism against Jews in general, instead of focused against particular imperial formations like the Israeli-US axis of power, ultimately derails Arab peoples’ own aspirations for liberation.
How convenient for American imperial politicians today, that Christians (and also elements in Arab nations today) lose themselves in a movie’s bloody, anti-Semitic show about the one man Jesus, while the brutal sufferings of the many (some 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians, thousands of Iraqi soldiers, 600 U.S. soldier men and women, more than 3,000 maimed U.S. military personnel) are revealed as the cost of imperial occupation in Iraq.
Who will look behind the bloodletting of screened violence in Iraq, to challenge the power plays of American neocons who stay ready to sacrifice Iraqis and Americans on the altar of U.S. empire?
Who among Christians in these violent times will look behind Gibson’s anti-Semitic screen, see through his fascination with sacrifice, to remember empire – and so resist it in the way of their Jesus, executed on a Roman cross?
Mark Lewis Taylor (email@example.com) is professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent book is 'The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America' (Fortress Press, 2001).