The Long View 2004-02-27: The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

I have found the last couple of months of John J. Reilly's writings a slog. There was a hell of a lot of warmongering about Iraq, and ignorant speculation about weapons of mass destruction. I slog through it because I remember it, and I was part of it. Public opinion has decisively turned against the Iraq War, but at the time, it was decisively for it. We should all remember that.

It is with immense relief that I can return to John's reflections on religion and culture.


The Passion of the Christ: The Real Issue

My initial account of the film is here. I am taking up the matter again because I finally figured out why the film is so disturbing.

As a preliminary matter, let me note that I take the point of the February 25 entry of the Easterblog that the account of the scourging of Jesus in The Passion goes far beyond Scripture. As the Easterblog entry remarks, the event may have happened like that, but the Gospel accounts have far more to say about the carrying of the cross to Golgotha and the actual Crucifixion. The odd thing is that I did not notice the additions.

Why have I always pictured these events as blindingly brutal? The short answer is the traditional Catholic devotion, The Stations of the Cross. This little ceremony treats the details of the passion story one by one, blow by blow. However, the Stations of the Cross begin with the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. So why was I not in the least surprised by that horrible scourging sequence in the film? I have no explanation.

Something I do have an explanation for is why the film disturbs Christians who find it rings true as history (a class into which I fall, though I recognize that the history here is not everything Leopold von Ranke might wish). The level of suffering that Jesus experiences in this film makes it entirely plausible that He is suffering the punishment merited by the whole world. The problem is that actually seeing Him do so confronts us with Dostoevsky's Paradox.

This is the puzzle by which Utilitarianism stands or falls: if the whole world could be saved by murdering a single baby, would it be ethical to murder the baby? Jesus, of course, is not quite in the position of a baby: it's a point of doctrine that the Crucifixion was voluntary. Still, is it right to benefit from a sacrifice like this, even if the sacrifice is voluntary? To put it viscerally: do you really want a piece of this horror show?

This is far from being a new thought. Les Murray grappled with just this question in his novel, Fredy Neptune, which is about Everything Bad That Happened from 1914 to 1945. I have it reviewed here, but this is the relevant part:

Fredy is an ordinary Catholic. He even goes to confession once or twice in the novel; the descriptions are models of how it should be done. What worries him is not the existence, but the sanity of God. Fredy knows from his own experience that the only way to survive a beating is to pretend he is being hurt, since even a very cruel human being will eventually recoil from inflicting pain. God, however, does not. Whatever His purposes may be in allowing suffering in the world, they override every other consideration. Fredy's numbness is a way of dealing, not with his own suffering, but with the suffering of the victims.

Fredy's solution to the problem is to forgive the victims. Forgive the trapped Turkish troops being strafed day after day, forgive the Jews in the concentration camps, forgive his own mother in Dresden. Fredy also forgives God, who in Christian theology will never cease to suffer for our sins.

Forgiveness often implies a measure of superiority. When we say that to know all is to forgive all, we often mean that the forgiver manages to expand his perspective to include the more limited perspective of the forgiven. However, that need not be the case. The guilty can be said to forgive those who justly punish them; in that case, forgiveness is a matter of coming up to the forgiven's level. In dealing with God, the latter is more likely to apply.

Ambrose Bierce once defined birth as "the first and greatest of catastrophes." As was so often the case, his dark heart felt a fundamental issue. The fundamental question of theodicy is not, "Why does God allow evil?" but "Why did God create the world at all?" Ethicists have dealt with this question at length, of course, but it has special implications for Christian theology. In the doctrine of the Trinity, Christ the Second Person is the moment of the Godhead through Whom the world is created. This creation is eternal; in the Incarnation, we see it in time. In asking whether we can accept the Atonement, we are asking whether we accept our own existence.

You can say "no," you know. That's the scary part. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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