The world is abuzz about “The Passion of the Christ.” I admit, I didn’t want to see it. I couldn’t make it through “The Pianist” or “Gladiator.” How could I endure two hours of torture–on the screen and in my gut? But when popular culture is talking about your story, you better know what is being said.
The movie is graphic and repulsive, generally following the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus. It includes some interesting plot twists and stylized visual metaphors, which make it more than merely a reenactment. So it’s a mixed bag.
More than anything else, “The Passion” invites the ageless question that has followed every oral or artistic retelling of the death of Jesus through the centuries: Why did Jesus die? How do we understand the purpose of his death?
While this may seem to be an important question only for current or prospective Christians, in fact, it is a key issue for any society whose majority religion is Christian. How Christians understand and apply their most elementary faith story has enormous implications for the rest of society, and for the world.
The movie opens with an Old Testament quote from Isaiah 53, “He was wounded for our transgressions.” This suggests the most popular understanding of Jesus’ death in our day: Jesus, the perfect one sent from God, is given as a substitute for human sin that God could not condone.
As Isaiah wrote, “by his bruises we are healed.” This is a fine, biblical picture for Jesus’ death.
That is, unless it becomes the only picture. Alone, the substitution image creates problems. Is what happens a kind of swap with the devil–Jesus in exchange for humanity? Or is it a way to allow God to stand the sight of us? Does someone really have to die? If God is God, why couldn’t God change the rules? And what happens to those who aren’t persuaded by this particular picture of God and Jesus?
This picture for Jesus’ death, on which “The Passion” focuses its energies, doesn’t speak to many people today, especially those outside the church. There’s too much baggage. Too broad a cultural chasm.
The good news is that in God’s extravagance, there are other pictures that point to meanings of Jesus’ death. For example, the political meaning. This view requires unpacking what Jesus said and did, something “The Passion” doesn’t have (or take) time to explore. Jesus conveys the depth of God’s love for every facet of our lives, not just our souls, but our well-being. Threatened by Jesus’ message of inclusive love and advocacy for the powerless, as well as his criticisms of the religious establishment (which happened to be Jewish in Jesus’ context, but might be Baptist in our day), the political and religious leaders executed him to silence his message. (Easter, then, is about God’s vindication of his message.)
Close to this is another picture: in dying Jesus overcomes the “powers and principalities of this present darkness,” in the words of Paul–that is, all that oppresses, obscures and obliterates God’s intentions for humanity. In his death, as brutal and public as it was, the futility of violence is exposed once and for all.
Another view of Jesus’ death is that it shows us the way to live as God’s children–sacrificially, laying down our lives for others, advocating for God’s intention for the world, no matter the consequences. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said. This view sees Jesus’ death, and Jesus himself, as the way to be followed with our lives, not merely to be believed with our heads.
These major meanings of Jesus’ death, when held together, create a composite picture that has depth and breadth. They tell the whole story. “The Passion of the Christ” paints but one facet of this composite, in vivid color. But in omitting the other facets “The Passion” ends up being a rendition that is fairly one-dimensional and only minimally helpful.
Still, I am grateful that everyone is talking about the death of Jesus. Now, if only the church will provide some faithful renditions of the other important meanings of Jesus’ death, in word and in deed.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.