Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion,” is stirring considerable interest. Pre-release publicity has focused on concerns that the movie may spark an increase in anti-Semitism—especially in Europe. There, for centuries, Jews have been demonized as “Christ killers.” Blaming the Jews exclusively for Jesus’ death is not only bad history, but also bad theology. The New Testament makes it pretty clear that all of us share in the blame. In fact, that is where Gibson puts himself in the movie—as a Roman executioner.
I have other concerns. The film, with its single focus on the death of Jesus, plays into a theological way of thinking that has had tremendous influence among evangelicals. In an effort to win converts to the faith, evangelicals preach the death and resurrection of Jesus almost to the exclusion of the rest of his life and teaching. The failure to include Jesus’ message as part of the meaning of his presence in the world is a modern Christian heresy I call the “separation of Jesus from life.”
As with all heresy, it begins with a statement of truth. Evangelicals confess that Jesus “died for the sins of the world.” Their message about this has always been straight to the point: If you want to go to heaven when you die, you must accept Jesus who died for you.
But Jesus had more on his mind than just getting people into heaven. In his opening sermon Jesus told his audience that God had called him to “preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Judging from the conduct of Jesus’ life, he seems to have meant these words literally.
As it turns out, many evangelicals do not take these words literally. They tell us Jesus wasn’t really talking about economics or social issues; he was talking about “spiritual poverty, spiritual captivity, and spiritual oppression.”
This explains how a new Southern Baptist publication called Discovering the Biblical Jesus can completely skip over the Sermon on the Mount. The study doesn’t even have Jesus’ commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The basic thrust of the publication is that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and died for our sins. The character of his life, his teaching and social vision is simply not there.
Separating Jesus from life means that Christians look to him to be their savior but not their mentor. Without Jesus to tell us how to live or whom to love, or how to spend our money, we are free to shape the content of our lives from our culture, or our family, or from our national history. We only need Jesus to die so we can go to heaven.
But Jesus did not just die for us, he also died “because” of us. Jesus was delivered to the cross because he stirred hatred and fear among powerful people. He was crucified because he condemned religious leaders who promoted and practiced self serving piety. Jesus was also crucified because he threatened the guardians of economic privilege with his insistence that the real business of community was to care for “the least of these.”
By making the last day of Jesus’ life the only day that really matters, as Gibson’s movie and much evangelical preaching seems to do, we miss the words. Jesus’ words have the power to set the oppressed free—both spiritual oppression and the other kind.
Maybe we should let Spielberg take a shot at it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.