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Christian Like Me

I’m one of those Christians whom the mainstream media is choosing not to query about a) the flapdoodle surrounding The Passion of the Christ and b) same-sex marriage.

The religious right seems to have some kind of stranglehold on the media. And so when somebody wants to publicize what Christians think of Mel Gibson and his opus or the mayor of New Paltz and his nerve, it’s never a progressive Christian who gets the phone call.

So, somehow when Christians get in the limelight, I find myself cringing.

The reports on the block-booking of theaters for early screenings of The Passion of the Christ garnered headlines, as conservative Christians talked about what a mighty witness this movie would be.

And even National Public Radio, seeking a Christian cleric’s opinion on same-sex marriages, went to an Episcopal priest in Plano, Texas, who, predictably, defended heterosexual marriage as sacred and biblically based. Then he went on to say that it’s better for a child to be raised by a single parent than two of the same gender, a statement that, as a single parent, I find both incredibly arrogant and ignorant.

It’s a credit to Metroland—and truly one of the ways in which it is progressive—that its editor and publisher has, for over a decade, given a voice to a writer who, from time to time, speaks for the lively strand of socially active and theologically liberal Christians who otherwise get grouped in with the now-predictable agenda of the Christian right.

But, man, it gets lonely.

For example, as a pastor, particularly one whose first name could pass as a man’s, I was deluged with advance press for The Passion of the Christ. I got a calendar of how to build up excitement leading to the day of the film’s release. I got a DVD featuring interviews with a manic Mel Gibson, a burdened-looking James Cavaziel and an annoyingly enthusiastic evangelical pastor.

I was encouraged to order posters and invitations to distribute in my neighborhood. I was encouraged to work with other pastors to block-book a theater and use the whole event as a tool for outreach to the—gotta love the word—unchurched.

I was supposed to believe, sight unseen, that Mel Gibson had got it right, had somehow unlocked the mystery of what the crucifixion means and therefore, with his movie, would be winning souls for Christ.

Well, for starters, that “winning souls for Christ” language is about as far from the tradition in which a great many Christians stand as can be.

And while Mel Gibson may have managed to make of Jesus’ death an orgy of torment, without the need for scholars on his staff to actually advise him about the historicity of what he was portraying, I’m not going to encourage the people of Grace, the congregation I serve, to check their brains at the door—of the theater or of the sanctuary.

And checking their brains at the door is exactly what the average viewer is being invited to do, bulldozed by advance press and the testimonials of scrub-faced (male) preachers making all kinds of claims—that this is about what sinners really deserved, but Jesus got instead or that Jesus’ pain was the worst pain any being has ever experienced or that somehow, even though the gospel of John does, in fact, scapegoat the Jews, The Passion of the Christ is in no way anti-Jewish.

All this voicing-over by evangelical Christians about what the movie is supposed to do obscures the fact that lots and lots of Christians are offended by this movie: offended by implicit anti-Semitism, offended by its brutality, offended by its director who is lining his pockets nicely with this film, who espouses a form of Roman Catholicism that rejects the reforms of Vatican II, who—without input from biblical scholars—makes the claim that this is really how crucifixion happened and, in interviews and press materials, glibly reduces the crucifixion to a single, guilt-inducing message: that Jesus died for me and you.

Well, not all Christians will line up behind that brand of Christianity. Only you’d never know it based on reading the firestorm of print and broadcast coverage this movie has occasioned.

If you want to read an insightful view that more reflects what many Christians would say, given the opportunity to speak about this film, go to The New Yorker. David Denby—whose religious affiliation, if any, is unknown to me—rightly critiques the movie as, in some ways, anti-Christian as well as anti-Semitic.

Denby labels it anti-Christian in the sense that it reduces the entirety of the life of Jesus to a gore-fest that overlooks Jesus’ teaching of radical love, which got him into hot water in the first place.

Furthermore, Denby calls it anti- Christian for overlooking the social ills Jesus called people to address and instead makes Jesus’ suffering a matter of individual culpability. Gibson’s claims that, in fact, it’s not the Jews who bear responsibility for the crucifixion, it’s me and you, reduces sin to something individual, almost manageable (if I were just a better person!). It doesn’t go near the idea of corporate or social sin—things that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking can have a quick fix if only we’ll go to church more: pollution, exploitation of workers, economic injustices, poverty.

And of course, to the extent that the movie is anti-Semitic, it is also anti- Christian. The reforms of Vatican II explicitly condemned the historic teaching—with its terrible and repeated persecutions—of Jewish culpability in the death of Christ. Protestant denominations followed suit.

I could go on. In fact, I want to go on. Not just about Mel Gibson’s movie, but about how and why many Christians support same-sex marriage, about how the terms “liberal” and “atheist” are not synonymous, about why progressive Christians worry when there is a threat to the separation of church and state.

I could go on. I’m just out of room, not steam.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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