by Jodie Lyon
John 19:30: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ ”
It was, as Jamie Calkin might put it, a BOLD MOVE. It was 2004, and my small group decided to go see “The Passion of the Christ.” Everybody who loved Jesus that year made plans to eat popcorn while watching Mel Gibson’s graphic depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. My parents’ tiny church even rented a bus to take congregants to a Sunday evening viewing. Sure, there were only 40 folks at mom and dad’s church on a typical Sunday, but the evangelical fervor over this film was high enough that even a church of that size could expect to fill an entire bus with eager moviegoers.
After a quick dinner at at a Mexican restaurant, my small group headed over to the theater. But when I got to the ticket counter, I bought a ticket to see “Love Actually” instead. Total rebel.
It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I knew I had no interest in watching an actor representing Jesus be beaten to a bloody pulp on a large screen. But my reluctance to sit through the bloodbath of a film wasn’t a popular one in my Christian community. My dad expressed sheer horror when I told him I had no desire to see the movie. He couldn’t comprehend it, and I thought I was going to have to help him pick his jaw up off the floor. My dad didn’t go to see movies generally, and he certainly didn’t see R-rated films, but this was a movie that no good Christian would miss. My decision to skip the movie was a potential signal of a lack of faith.
In reality, my choice to watch Hugh Grant and Colin Firth rather than Jim Caviezel was motivated by 1) the hotness of the former two (gotta be honest here) and, more importantly, 2) my frustration with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement upon which the movie was based.
I’d grown up with Mel Gibson’s framework for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross: God was angry with humans for our sin. This sin was deserving of God’s wrath and God’s punishment. In order to be “saved” and go to Heaven, humanity’s penalty for sin had to be paid and God’s wrath had to be appeased. Jesus took care of both obstacles on the cross-stepping in as a substitute for humankind, he endured the wrath and punishment for sin through the agony of flogging, crucifixion and death.
If this is your theological framework for understanding the death of Jesus, it makes sense to dramatically heighten the pain and brutality of the cross, as Mel Gibson did. Watching Jesus be beaten until his back is unrecognizable, we understand how serious our sin is and how angry God was at it. Seeing Jesus scream in unbearable pain, we feel overwhelming sorrow for how our sin caused the suffering of the innocent God-human. Viewed through the lens of substitutionary atonement, I appreciate what the film is doing. If you believe that Jesus took the wrath of God upon himself on the cross for your behalf, it’s only fitting that you force yourself to watch a representation of what this might have looked at played out in front of you in all its gory detail.
But by the time 2004 rolled around, I had left this atonement theory behind for ones that painted God in less negative terms. I hadn’t lessened my view of sin, but rather heightened my view of God. God does not need to beat anyone senseless to get rid of anger. God does not even have to punish sin. God is greater than you or I, and can forgive the unthinkable and love the unlovable without requiring payment or an outlet for rage. By the time Gibson’s movie was released, I had discovered that this atonement theory that I had been always been told was the Christian understanding of the cross was a fairly late development in the history of Christian thought. I had found the richness of the Christian theological tradition and its myriad views of Jesus’ death, including some contemporary and progressive visions of the cross.
These alternate theories would probably be considered suspect by many of Gibson’s viewers. It’s often claimed that progressive theology attempts to bring God down to human levels, that we “liberals” want to make God in our own image rather than “letting God be God.” While that can certainly be true in some cases, in this case I think progressive theology’s rejection of substitutionary atonement is precisely a refusal to bring God down to our level of pettiness. A being who needs retribution sounds a lot like us. A being that has to assuage anger by taking it out on someone sounds suspiciously like us. Ironically, the conservative theologies that love to tout the power and majesty of God are often the very ones that render God impotent, claiming that God is hamstrung by cosmic rules of justice or held hostage to volatile, pent-up emotions.
The crucifixion was brutal; there’s no getting around that, and Gibson (from what I’m told) succeeded in artistically portraying that brutality. But I personally think the brutality can’t be the main point. God’s love isn’t in the violence, it’s in spite of the violence, because the violence is what we do, not what God does. The cross represents our wrath that God patiently endures, not God’s wrath finally appeased. It is about God’s willingness to dwell with humanity in our suffering, rather than God’s burning desire to inflict suffering upon us. And that is love (actually).
Prayer: Emmanuel, God with us, may your presence in our suffering turn us from our violence and vengeance, and inspire us to self-sacrificial love for others. Amen.