THE DEATH of Jesus occupies a central place in the life of Christian communities around the world.
Two billion adherents of the fastest-growing religion in the world wrangle about almost everything under the sun, but they all converge at the foot of the cross and struggle to discern the meaning of one of the most confounding stories ever told. This historic event comes into focus year after year with the season of Lent, and so the decision to release Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25) fits snugly into the liturgical calendar of Western churches and promises to deliver a huge audience.
The Gibson production has become a heated issue, and the mass media have all too often framed the debate as a battle that pits Jews against Christians. Momentous theological issues underlie the overheated rhetoric and the commercial hype. The way that Christians read and interpret the story of the Crucifixion profoundly influences the ways in which Christians read and interpret the world around them. The story is not buried in an ancient archive, but animates people who live with the sign of the cross etched into their hearts and who translate their beliefs into action.
In a society where attitudes and values are shaped, for better and for worse, by religious traditions, everyone has a stake in understanding what Gibson makes of the Crucifixion, and what in turn the Gibson film would make of us - Christians and Jews, believers and skeptics, here and in lands where our gaze rarely travels.
Crucifixion was a horrific form of execution that the Roman Imperium reserved for the dregs of society and the most malicious offenders of the civic order. This punishment was performed as a public spectacle that ratified the shame of the victim. The spiritual character of Christian communities was forged in the encounter with the scandalous fact that Jesus met his death on the cross.
As Luke Timothy Johnson, the eminent New Testament scholar, has noted, the struggle to come to terms with a crucified Messiah is reflected in the paradoxical language of the early church, which strives to articulate how blessing can come through one cursed (Galatians 3:6-14); freedom through a slave (Galatians 5:1); wealth through one made poor (2 Corinthians 8:9); wisdom through such obvious foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:25); strength through weakness (2 Corinthians 13:4); and life for all through one man's death (Romans 5:12-21).
The Crucifixion has never conveyed one meaning or provided a self-evident answer to its religious and political significance for Christians or for the world at large. Instead, the history of Christianity bears eloquent testimony to this: The death of Jesus poses a question that continues to unseat the certitudes and conventions of those who follow in the footsteps of the holy man from Nazareth.
The tensions about the meaning of the Crucifixion within and among Christian communities are reflected in the remarkable range of artistic portrayals that have evolved over the centuries. Representations of the cross demonstrate that Gibson's gruesome chronicle of torture is not nearly as original as many contemporary critics understandably bemoan. While the Crucifixion was once depicted through stylized conventions and symbolic formulas, a transformation in the 13th and 14th centuries brought the public face to face with the excruciating details of the body in pain.
The grotesque and grisly horror no doubt served to reassure Christians devastated by the Black Death that they were not alone in their affliction and that hope resides on the other side of ruin and to inspire Christians to examine their sins and to transform guilt into gratitude through the conviction that God's love can traverse any distance and redeem any sin.
Yet, the same portrayals of Crucifixion that have prompted Christians over the centuries to examine themselves and to repent of their complicity in the world's evil also have served a more noxious purpose: Wherever the gaze of Christians fell, they were reminded that the Jews were enemies of Christ, and therefore enemies of the church. These depictions, which extend from the New Testament to the stained glass to the altarpiece, provided a justification for hatred. The violence of Jesus' death coupled with the church's teachings of contempt for Judaism incited the Christian faithful to horrific acts of violence, making Good Friday the most dangerous day in the year for the Jewish community.
Wherever the crusading spirit flourished, the bloody invasions of believers were conducted under the banner of the Crucifixion. The price of this Christian zealotry is written in the blood that drenches European soil and much of the Middle East.
Mel Gibson's rendition of the suffering and death of Jesus needs to be read against this horizon of catastrophe. While the film's commercial success might be measured by box office sales, its religious value requires different criteria.
In a world that lives under the shadow of Auschwitz, Christians are obliged to be self-critical about any contemporary retelling of the Christian story, precisely because there is no religiously neutral art, nor is there religious art devoid of political implications.
In assessing The Passion of the Christ, every viewer is obligated to ask: Does the film split the world in two - victimized good guys over and against demonic bad guys - or does it lead to a self-critical assessment of the ways in which we are entangled in political and religious systems of oppression?
Does the film transfix the audience, leaving it in the thrall of the sufferings of Jesus, and concentrating hope in promises beyond the grave, or does it inspire compassionate engagement with the afflicted and advance the quest for dignity and justice in the here and now?
Does the film authenticate a missionizing campaign to convert the world, or does it contest every religious and political impulse that seeks to eliminate divergent points of view?
And finally, Christians live under a special obligation. They must answer the question: What is the commanding voice from Gibson's cross?
This much we know from our anguished past: Those who are willing to die for their religious beliefs are all too often willing to kill for them. Those who think evil is concentrated in their enemies consistently manage to find a warrant for holy war, and they will venture to distant lands to eliminate the opposition.
People with a mandate to make the world over in their own image know that sacrifices are required. Because Christianity is the dominant religion in America, the ways in which Christians understand the meaning of the Crucifixion will profoundly influence the direction in which American armies march and the extent to which they will suffer.
Gibson has demonstrated that he knows how to wield the sword. What remains to be seen is how the edge cuts, where the blood flows, and if it will end.
Christopher M. Leighton is the executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore. Rosann M. Catalano is the Roman Catholic staff scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore.