Michael Miner unwittingly threw down the gauntlet in his March 5 [Hot Type] column on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. A writer in the New York Times had identified "a battle between secular humanists and true believers" over the movie. Mr. Miner comments that "only occasionally is there the ardor of faith answering faith" in the debate. He's correct, and it's a shame, because there is a solid secular-humanist case to be made in defense of this film.
Like Mr. Miner, I have chosen not to see this film. I can watch space aliens pop out of people, Freddy Krueger dice Lolita/os and Orcs catapult decapitated heads over castle walls and never think twice. The stylized violence of Leone or Woo doesn't disturb me. Graphic depictions of man's inhumanity to man does. In the past I have encountered films with such depictions because I had been told they were important works and I should see them. Schindler's List, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Star 80, The Killing Fields, The Deer Hunter, What's Love Got to Do With It are all very good films that left me haunted with images I wished I hadn't seen long after the film was over. In the eye, a second; in the mind, a lifetime. I no longer feel compelled to stuff disturbing images into my tenuously balanced little psyche for the sake of either art or spiritual growth, thank you very much.
However, I can see how secular humanists who choose to confront these images could gain insight from doing so. By calling the movie The Passion of the Christ as opposed to The Passion of Jesus, Gibson flat out declares he's exploring myth. Jesus was a historical person. "The Christ" is a living icon. Emerson, Jung, and Campbell, among others, have demonstrated how the story of "the Christ" can be valid for informing our spiritual growth and movement through life. For example, I do not believe in Jesus' resurrection. I do believe in the Resurrection, because I have experienced it in my life. Most recently, the Resurrection has been a source of comfort and hope in grieving the death of my partner. The story of the Resurrection gives me a reference for what I'm experiencing.
By focusing on the scourging of the Christ, Mel Gibson contemplates a dark and ugly chapter of the story. Great and valuable myths almost universally have dark and ugly parts. The darkness and the ugliness are inherent elements of their value in helping us create references for our lives. There is a lot of darkness and ugliness in life. I saw that horrific full-color picture from the movie in the Tribune's Tempo section and thought, "I've had days like that." Focusing only on the Christ's teachings, miracles, or Resurrection while ignoring horrors like the scourging or the Slaughter of the Innocents is like Disney sanitizing the Brothers Grimm.
The Passion could be read as metaphor for our lives when facing death. "The Christ," the god/man, chooses to live through the pain and humiliation. He does not run away. The repetitive lash mirrors repetitive doses of toxic chemo or HIV drugs that cause open sores in your mouth and burning in your hands and feet. "The Christ" is stripped before a jeering crowd, not unlike an elderly person who has become incontinent. A nail tearing into a palm as graphic representation of reaching the point when you realize that there will be no more remissions, that you are inescapably experiencing your death.
A meditation on the Christ's torture can be transformative for igniting compassion ("with passion," as Campbell liked to point out) for those who have also suffered this all too common human experience. As 21st-century Americans, we represent a small portion of history's humans who have not lived with torture or under the threat of torture. There are a lot of people living in the world and in our own metropolitan area today who survived torture in Nazi Germany, in Japanese or Vietnamese prison of war camps, in Pol Pot's Cambodia, Pinochet's Chile, Milosevic's Serbia, Hussein's Iraq, in Guatemala, El Salvador, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Soviet Russia, Jakarta, etc, etc, ad nauseam. Someone somewhere is being tortured right now. And we can't let ourselves off the hook. Former police commander Jon Burge tortured people, and the state in the form of the Chicago Police Department affirmed his actions by promoting and shielding him. If The Passion of the Christ creates compassion in its viewers, spurs them to act to end torture, then it deserves the label masterwork that many Christian critics and viewers have given it.
The Christ's passion can also be seen as illustrative of how those who bring truth and progressive ideas into the world will be treated by religious hierarchy. There has been much debate about the movie promoting anti-Semitism. Semitism connotes an "us/them" relationship that did not exist between the historical Jesus and the historical Caiaphas. The us/them relationship is between roles of "the Christ" and "the High Priest." The Passion story could serve as a metaphor for survivors of Catholic clergy abuse who, after they brought their truth into the world, were demonized and abused by the church's high priests and lawyers. The high priests of the Methodist Church put the Reverend Greg Dell of Broadway United Methodist Church on trial for blessing a gay couple's union ceremony. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From the Birmingham Jail" is a passionate response to the high priests of his day. A high priest is a high priest, whether s/he is a high priest of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Universal Unitarianism, Shintoism, ad nauseam.
These are all theologically valid reasons for secular humanists to experience this film and derive deep spiritual meaning from it. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that most of us secular humanists will derive greater pleasure from the film because, based on the pictures and clips I've seen, The Passion of the Christ gives credence to one of the great scriptures of existentialism. The book of Jean-Paul, chapter No Exit, verse final: Hell is other people.