As I write this column, the newspapers are reporting that Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" grossed an astonishing $117 million in its first week. Many, including my own son, have found it "moving," "powerful" and "thought provoking."
I didn't see the movie that first weekend because I was attending a conference on issues affecting rural communities and churches across the country, listening to the crucifixion stories of families losing farms and ranches, of rural communities emptying out, of immigrant farm workers being exploited. While these stories may display considerably less blood than the movie, the pain inflicted on families and communities is no less profound. Would that these "passion stories" generate as much interest and alarm as the Gibson movie.
Much has been written about the dangers of anti-Semitism. Some words were edited out of the English subtitles, though I wish Gibson had been less grudging in his response to legitimate concerns, more sensitive to the painful history of violence provoked by the portrayal of Jews in the New Testament.
After the release, concern turned to the searing violence of the film. The violence clearly evokes sympathy for Jesus and, for many, a profound awareness of the cost of God's love in our redemption. But as the body of Jesus is relentlessly flayed and battered, there is the temptation to identify solely with the victim Jesus, to grow angry at his tormentors and thus to seek to fi x blame. And therein lies the danger not only of anti- Semitism, but of missing a crucial theological point.
At the cross, we are not asked to identify ourselves with the innocent, suffering Jesus; we are pressed to see ourselves among those who crucify Jesus and thus be confronted with our daily complicity in evil.
That complicity is both pervasive and insidiously subtle, which is why I prefer films like "Mystic River" that deal with sin and redemption in more nuanced ways. Our fingerprints on the nails are easy to overlook, but they are there. Holy Week presses us to see that we, too, are the violators, a reality easy to miss when the portrait of those who crucify Jesus is so barbaric that we cannot possibly identify our own complicity.
Some years ago, I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, titled "Shoah," which included the expected scenes of horror. But for me, the most disturbing portrait of evil was in the benign face of an elderly man who had worked for the German state railroad. His job was to issue tickets to Jews forced onto cattle cars for transport to the gas chambers. This bewildered-looking man couldn't comprehend that his bureaucratic job had anything to do with the horror of the Holocaust. He didn't shoot Jews or toss them in the ovens. He just issued tickets.
You and I don't flay the skin off Jesus. But we do issue tickets. Our complicity in evil is real and often profoundly undramatic. Until we face the reality, the Passion is little more than a tragic movie, and we will miss the truth of our own profound need for the redemption of Easter.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is the UCC's general minister and president.