The Craftiness of Christ
From Mel Gibson's 'Passion' and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy, Ed. Jorge Gracia, Open Court Publishers, 2004. In this collection of essays, 20 philosophers with widely varying religious and philosophical backgrounds examine important issues raised by Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.
The Passion of the Christ is a work of art. This means that it utilizes a medium to convey a vision of some serious aspect of the human condition. The medium in the case of a film has several levels: the roll of celluloid that can be produced, maintained or destroyed like any other physical object; the visual and auditory images that appear to the viewer; and the events represented by means of those images. It is a mistake, often repeated, to take the events presented as what the film is about. That might be true of a strict documentary, if there is such a thing. But even a “home video” is not just about the events recorded, but about the life, the “happy family,” and so on, which is seen through the events.
The events depicted in The Passion are those of the agonies, torture, and death of Jesus Christ. Those events are depicted in a certain way by the one who created the film, Mel Gibson, in an effort to project his vision of the human condition. This is just the sort of thing an artist does. The events selected, and how they are presented, determine which vision of the human condition is, or can be, shared by the artist and the viewer. Although the interchange between the artist and the viewer is very intricate, subject to many influences and liable to misfire, in the ideal case the viewer would “pick up” the vision which the artist had in creating, and which he has successfully embodied in the work of art. Then the viewer would, in a manner, experience the experience of the artist, and thereby have a new and more profound grasp of what the artist “sees.”
In the case of The Passion, the vision is one of human redemption according to one traditional Christian understanding. This involves two parts: the condition of human lostness and evil, and the act or process by which deliverance from that condition is made possible. The first part in turn has two elements: the appalling evil actually present in human life, and the effort of Satan to keep humanity from escaping its disastrous condition. The second part, the act or process of redemption, goes precisely contrary to anything that might be imagined from the human point of view, with its regard for power and its acceptance of the evil that is always “required” to make human power work. It is an act that allows corrupt humanity, ruled by Satan through its most exalted institutions, to have its way to the utmost extent, to do its “damnedest,” without moving a finger to resist it.
The felt absence of God from the scene of the crucifixion in the movie—“Why hast Thou forsaken me”—is the ultimate point of “non-resistance.” And the prayer for the forgiveness of the immediate perpetrators of such an evil and injustice—because they “know not what they do”—indicates the complete hopelessness of those in the grip of evil. Together, by contrast, the acts and words of Christ affirm the presence of another world—the world of truth and not power, of the kingdom of God—from which redemption and deliverance from overwhelming evil into goodness is possible.
Critics of The Passion have complained about the extent of the violence inflicted upon Christ, as presented in the film. The unrelenting bruising and beating and suffering shown has been rejected as unnecessary, and as undesirable for the viewer. I suspect that these critics come close to missing the entire point of the film, which is the nature of human redemption. Nowadays human redemption is not thought to amount to much, and what little there is to it can be dealt with by education and counseling, and perhaps a law here and there, or some improvement in living conditions. Gibson certainly is much closer to the core of traditional Christian teaching in his vision of the human heart and its world as a reservoir of unlimited capacity to hurt and to harm.
Those currently regarded as “in the know” about human life, with their remedies, have to turn a blind eye to the actual course of human events. Up to today, multitudes of human beings are tortured, slaughtered, and starved on a daily basis by those who have the power to do so, and lying, cheating, stealing, and sanctimonious hardness of heart are routine in societies which, nevertheless, take themselves to be “better” than others. Through the medium of the events of Christ’s Passion, portrayed as an unceasing stream of wonton violence upon Jesus, tearing his body to shreds, the film communicates a vision of human evil that is off the scale of human capacity to deal with it.
Indeed, as the word ‘evil’ has tried to edge its way back into public discourse in recent years, the academic mind in particular finds itself threatened, precisely because the word suggests something that is beyond any human remedy. It is an affront to human pride to think that there is something about our condition that we could not fix—given the desire to fix it, and enough time to tinker with it. The Passion, by contrast, presents a humanity that takes delight in hurting people, that does not even want to “fix it,” and a humanity that chooses to implement its will through permitting or perpetrating deeds of the most heinous quality. The unremitting violence depicted in the film is highly effective in forcefully presenting a vision of this aspect of the human condition.
Satan is essential to this vision. Perhaps this is what the contemporary academic mindset senses. His presence accounts for the seemingly unlimited extent of human wrongdoing. He has humanity in his grasp through the ideas and arrangements he has developed throughout history, and he wants to keep them there. His tools are gratification of desire, impressive appearance, and physical force. Recall how he tempts Jesus to use these in the three temptations of Jesus in chapter 4 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Satan’s focus in the film is upon Jesus, the one who, alone, can break his grip on the human world, devoted as it is to power and deceit, and can deliver human beings from the mire of sin and evil in which they flounder.
Satan knows Jesus to be the only truly radical person to enter human history; for Jesus, if undiverted, will refuse to use evil to defeat evil, and will set afoot a new order that does not employ the devices by which evil persons try to secure themselves and get their way. Satan’s project was to stop Jesus from getting to his redemptive act of crucifixion. From the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life, he had tried to destroy him or to deflect him. Now, in the final hours before the cross, Satan tries to break Jesus down by pressuring him with the hopelessness, in human terms (“No man. No man.”), of what Jesus is attempting. After the crucifixion and death scenes, Satan’s final appearance in the film shows his total exasperation and despair at having failed to keep Christ from doing the one thing that would open the doors to deliverance of human beings from the grasp of evil by demonstrating the power of good over evil.
Gibson’s film is an amazing recovery of an understanding of Satan’s role in human life, and in the “Passion,” that has been almost totally lost from view in recent centuries. The bland or banal presence of evil among human beings is forcibly expressed in the face, words, and actions of the person who plays Satan. It is particularly effective in the striking figure of this person carrying a grotesque and contented human being in its arms through the crowd around the scene of the seemingly endless beating of Jesus. The look of self-satisfaction on the face of the dwarf in Satan’s arms expresses the fact that Satan has humanity under his direction, and is using them, in their deluded condition, to torture Jesus. His aim is to see Jesus die in the beating—only the intervention of Pilate’s man avoids this in the film—or to provoke Jesus into asserting his miraculous powers against those who are harming him. In either case, the progression toward the cross, and the effectual insertion of the radical act of redemption into world history, would be prevented, and Satan would continue his rule. The wretched outcome of that rule for humans is seen in the film from its effects on human character, on human government (sacred and secular), in the plucking out of the eye of the unrepentant thief, and in the horrific progression of Judas toward his own tree and his suicide. But Jesus and God have a strategy to break down the rule of Satan.
At one point in the film, on the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows, Jesus actually embraces his cross, saying, “I am your servant, Father.” Simon of Cyrene, who has been forced to help him, is astonished that he would do this. But embracing the cross is the central moment in the wisdom of Christ concerning human redemption, and it finds its place in many forms of early and later Christian practice. It symbolizes a radical strategy in bringing humans back to God from their bondage to Satan and the “world.” Embracing the cross with Jesus is to be our salvation. It is to release ourselves into the realm of God, into God’s care, and to stop trying to work the human system of power and desire to get what we want.
This understanding of the human need freely to release ourselves into the realm of God, and to abandon our efforts to rule ourselves, makes clear the wisdom of Christ in embracing the cross. That need could only be redemptively met in a way that makes its satisfaction available to human beings world-wide, and without regard to their particular circumstances. Only by Jesus Christ publicly suffering and dying in circumstances of the worst kind—imposed by a range of different kinds of people, especially Romans and Jews—and then living on beyond all that in the power and goodness of God, could he open the possibility of a good and righteous life to everyone in the world.
Thus one might suspect that the very language, “the Passion,” is misleading as to the nature of the events involved in Jesus’ crucifixion. The phrase is often understood to simply mean “the suffering” of Christ. It conveys the idea of passivity, of something being done to someone who is totally at the mercy of surrounding people or events. Jesus is thus often presented in the Garden of Gethsemane as cowering in the face of upcoming death, as begging God to allow him to live, and as unable to do anything about what was being done to him, a helpless rag tossed about by the dogs of hell. He was, in short, a pathetic victim.
But in the light of who, on the Christian reading, he really was and is, we would err badly if we were to describe his torture and death simply as “the Passion.” Suffer he certainly did. But it is Jesus himself who was in charge of events and people involved in the story. He “played” them—not exactly like a piano, for the people involved still had their choices to make—to achieve his end of blowing open a carefully prepared but tiny cultural enclave of redemption and stepping upon the stage of world history, where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point in his career: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion], will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) We need to see clearly the profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal.
As we look through the Gospels we see that Jesus very purposively turned away from “opportunities” to be a political or military leader or a king, or to leave Palestine and be a teacher in the larger world of the Roman empire. (See the passage just cited.) With his incredible power and attractiveness, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross had he wished to do so. He could have founded the ultimate welfare state, producing wine and food by a mere word. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18) This was what “the Father” wanted him to do, and the Father loves and honors him for doing it. (Philippians 2:5-11)
Exercises in imagining another path for Jesus besides a bloody crucifixion are not entirely lacking. We have The Last Temptation of Christ, the book and the movie, and now The Da Vinci Code, the book and movie soon to be. Now try to imagine yourself loving, worshipping, giving up your life for such a person as the Jesus of those books. Imagine a great civilization formed around him. Imagine, if you can, the saints and martyrs that have formed the core of Christian believers throughout the ages living and dying as they did for that“Jesus.” Imagine the multitudes now dying for Christ in many places throughout our world doing that. For that matter, try to imagine the authors, Nikos Kazantzakis or Dan Brown, laying down their lives in devotion or in death for the Jesus they present in their writings. But of course multitudes of remarkable and unremarkable human beings have given and will give everything to and for the Christ of Mel Gibson’s The Passion. One has to think that Jesus really knew what he was doing.
No one can understand the events of the “passion” unless they see them in the light of the kingdom of God, “the kingdom of the heavens,” and thereby in the light of what God intends to bring out of human life and human history. Most any New Testament scholar will tell you that Jesus’ life and message was all about “the kingdom.” What they usually miss, however, is exactly what Jesus did and said about the kingdom. Simply, by his acts and words he invited anyone at all, no matter who or what they were, to live in the kingdom of God now, by trusting—relying on, putting their confidence in—him. The events of his “passion” and afterward, as traditionally understood, demonstrated to his followers and other observers that what Jesus said about the kingdom and its availability is true. To live through and beyond torture and the cross in resurrection life shows the presence of a world of God among men.
In the simplest possible terms, the kingdom of God is God in action. It is the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done. Jesus is a reformulation and embodiment of the message about God and his kingdom that runs through the history of the Jewish people recorded in the Bible. Jesus said: “Seek above all to live within the kingdom rule of God, and to have the kind of goodness he has, and all else you need will be provided with it.” (Matthew 6:33 paraphrase) The Psalmist said simply and concretely, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23) In one of the historical books of the Old Testament a prophet is quoted as saying: “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” (2nd Chronicles 16:9) This is what Jesus knew as he went through his sufferings and death. In that knowledge he simultaneously wrote across the pages of human history the depth of human meanness and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s love and power.
It was knowledge of the presence and unfailing availability of God to those who trust him that led Jesus to say all the beautiful things (largely already recorded in the Psalms) which we wistfully acknowledge, but hardly believe to be true: all of those things about birds and flowers being in the care of God, of course, and about how we need never be anxious or afraid, no matter what comes, even crucifixion. The basic idea is that this world—with all its evil, pushed to the limit in what Jesus went through going toward and on the cross—is a perfectly good and safe place for anyone to be, no matter the circumstances, if they have only placed their lives in the hands of Jesus and his Father. We never have to do what we know to be wrong, and we never need be afraid. And Jesus practiced what he preached, even as he was tortured and killed. And so have multitudes of his followers.
But the kingdom of God is not overwhelmingly obvious, to say the least. It is something one must seek, and therefore something we must want. Isaiah, the prophet, exclaims that “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” (45:15) He was the one who gave us the concept of deus absconditus, the hidden God, now deeply interwoven into Christian tradition. And why would God hide himself? Because God loves us, he wants to be known to us. That is the way of love. But because we, in our rebellion against him, are hardened in our insistence on having our own “kingdom,” he must hide from us to allow us to hide from him and to pretend we, individually and corporately, are in charge of our life. He is such a great and magnificent being that, if he did not hide from us, we could not hide from him. He allows us the pretense of being our own god because that is what we want, what we choose. Pushed to the limit, this choice results in the terrible evils of which we have proven capable.
Only the hiddenness of God, then, allows people to define themselves. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) had a point, though not the one he thought. He said that since there is no God, man has no nature. Man must therefore make of himself whatever he is to be. This view is logically incoherent, strictly speaking. Something with no nature cannot do anything. (Yes! Yes! I know. Something more can be said for Sartre here.) The Renaissance humanist Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494) perhaps came closer to the truth. His view was that in man God had produced a creature that had the responsibility of becoming what he is to become by the choices he makes. God allows, indeed requires, that we choose to act on the basis of our desires, and that we freely decide what we will live for. What we choose in selecting among our desires for fulfillment determines what kinds of persons we become. What we decide to seek in life is the key to our character, and further determines what our character will be. God, like persons in general, wants to be wanted, and tries not to be manifestly present where he is not wanted. He is unwilling to impose himself on anyone if and as long as that can be avoided.
Many individuals have protested that they would believe in God if they had more evidence. It needs to be pointed out, however, that just believing that God exists is not the only issue. What kind of God are we talking about? And is it indeed true that they would then believe? How much more evidence would it take? And would they then be glad there is a God? Would they then believe because they wanted God, wanted it to be his world, wanted not to be God—the ultimate point of reference in their lives—themselves? Would they be prepared to love God? More than evidence is required to bring a person to that point. And is it completely clear that the “more evidence” called for is not already available to those who are willing to seek it? Does the evidence have to be presented in a way that the unbeliever cannot avoid it, cannot not be aware of it?
It would be a small victory for God, if he exists, to wring belief out of a human being, but is that an outcome worth pursuing for him? In the The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has the senior devil, Screwtape, say to his protégé, Wormwood:
You must have wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves. (Lewis 1962, pp. 46-48)
So we might say that God lets himself be known, for example, in the story and person of Jesus. He is available to those who really want him. “When you search for me,” the old prophet said, “you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) But he will not force himself upon you, not jump down your throat. And if you in your heart really want to be God yourself, you probably will not find him. You will find yourself.
The craftiness of Christ in taking the cross is of a piece with the hiddenness of God. The means he employed to secure the end he had in view left God hidden to all. His end was to bring out of human history a world-wide, non-ethnic community of human beings who have the character of God, expressed in Jesus himself and in agape love: a character spelled out in a many-sided way by the contents of the New Testament and the lives of the best of Christ-followers throughout the ages. Jesus accomplishes this objective by showing us how to return good for evil in a power beyond ourselves. That has to be something we freely want, however, and something we choose to develop the character for. The wisdom of the cross makes this possible.
Remarkably, even after his resurrection Jesus continued his low-profiled ways. The human mode would have been to pay a post-resurrection visit to Pilate, perhaps, and to say something like, “Now could we have that discussion about power and truth once again?” Or perhaps to swing by the High Priest’s house, or causally to drop in on the Sanhedrin in session. But no. That of course would have only been to give in to the temptations earlier posed to him by Satan. It would have been the “wisdom” of man, not the wisdom of God. Instead, “God raised him [Jesus] up on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:42) And then, of all things, he simply sent his bedraggled little friends out to the whole world to enlist students to him, promising his unseen presence with them. With nothing, to begin with, but his example, words and personal presence, they, to a striking extent, overcame a world of brutality routinely equal to that displayed in The Passion; often dying in the process, but also convincing multitudes of the vision and the ethical idealization incarnate in Jesus and his cross. All of this is simply a fact, as it is a fact that for the last two centuries or so historical force has been against this vision and idealization.
However, the philosophical problem of how to develop human beings into a character that will keep human life from being “poor, brutish, nasty and short,” to use the words of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), has not been solved. It was not solved in antiquity. The route of education and law, which Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) tried to lay down, proved to be ineffectual for human nature as it is. The Greeks finally had to invite the Romans in to stop their fratricides. The route of careful soul-management, which Stoic and Epicurean philosophers later retreated into, more or less conceded the world to evil, and concentrated on telling individuals how to make life in a hellish world bearable. It was into this scene of intellectual despair that the community of Christ came, after his death, with its message of hope for the terrible “City of Man.” This religious message was based on the presence of the “City of God” on earth now, taking all comers, and projecting them into a present and an everlasting future bright with hope. It was one of the cross combined with agape love: love first from God, seen in the cross, and then love filling human beings in all the dimensions of ordinary life. The message was an invitation to a love that “never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8) and from which nothing can ever separate us. (Romans 8:35-39)
The philosophical problem of how to develop moral character in human beings, so that they actually lead a moral life, has not been solved today. Indeed, though that problem was arguably the most important matter for moral thought in antiquity, it is now a problem that those known as the leading contemporary moral philosophers will hardly touch or try to relate to their theories. The main difficulty in solving it has always been that individuals and groups must start from a history of evil, and the way to overcome that history has, arguably, never been found outside of the pattern set by Christ and his people. Forgiveness has to be a massive reality in the heart of human affairs. This is available in Christ’s way of crucifixion. If there are other promising ways, of course, they should be fairly and thoroughly considered, and the generosity of Christ is such that, if we can find a better way than his, he would certainly be the first to tell us to take it.
Questions for Further Reflection
Do you think that the religious answer provided by Christ solves the philosophical problem of how to develop moral character in humans?
What do you think of the idea that Jesus was actually “in charge” of the events associated with his “passion”?
Now suppose that you are in the position of Jesus, and you have his objectives. What would you do differently?
Let’s suppose that Jesus responded to the taunts to come down from the cross by doing just that. How would the story go from that point up to the present?
Must God hide? How obvious would you like him to be?
Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
N. R. Hanson, What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays, ed. by Stephen Toulmin and Harry Woolf. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1972.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters., New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1962.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. by A. Robert Caponigri. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism. New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1947.
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.