Reposted from Holy Week 2010.

John 18:1-19:42

During Lent of 2004 Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ, his controversial and enormously popular depiction of the last days of Jesus. Because it was Gibson’s movie (think Braveheart, Mad Max, Lethal Weapon), it was expected to be bloody, violent, and in-your-face intense. Gibson himself was clear about his intention to ratchet up the gore factor: “I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty,” he said in promotion interviews. “I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.”

Crucifixion in the ancient world was a gory spectacle. Since its purpose was to deter insurrection–to send a clear message to would-be political subversives–the brutality of this form of capital punishment was breathtaking. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus had a messed-up eye.

But it is interesting (and important) to ask why the biblical narratives do not dwell on the violence and the physical brutality. And it’s worth asking how our cinematic/cultural fascination with blood and carnage and general gruesomeness has shaped our understanding of the cross and of suffering and salvation.

Gibson was also quoted in interviews as saying that, in making The Passion of the Christ, he “wanted to be true to the gospels.” But the passion narratives in each of the four gospels are strikingly spare in their accounts of Jesus’ physical suffering and death. The synoptics say simply that “having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified. When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” Just a few verses later Jesus is dead.

If Gibson really wanted “to be true to the gospels,” he would have focused more on the people, the crowds especially, who are integral to the Passion story. He would have explored Jesus’ Holy Week dealings with both the powerful and the poor. The scourging and the crucifying wouldn’t have taken up much screen time.

So why is it that the New Testament handles the details of Jesus’ physical pain and suffering with a kind of no-fuss minimalism? It’s not, as many commentators have pointed out, because they thought such details unimportant. Clearly, the whole gospel story builds toward Jesus’  confrontation with the powers in Jerusalem. It’s not because the writers were squeamish about blood or because they were embarrassed by the way Jesus died. The apostle Paul boasts unapologetically in the cross of Christ.

Rather, the gospel writers seemed to sense that to fixate on the bloody details would risk endorsing a false view of what the cross of Christ accomplishes–a false view that goes something like this: An angry, offended deity demanded payment for humanity’s great debt of sin, and so Jesus had to suffer–really suffer, violently suffer–in order to appease God’s wrath and pay the debt in full.

Unfortunately, various versions of this idea have taken hold through the centuries and we’ve yet to fully shake them. We’ve all heard them in one form or another.

But they miss the mark, for the crucifixion is not the act of a wrathful Father piling condemnation on the innocent, victimized Son. As Miroslav Volf puts it, “Jesus is not a third party inserted between God and humanity to take care of human sin. He is the God who was wronged . . . God placed human sin upon God.”

“God placed human sin upon God.”

In Christ, writes the Apostle Paul, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Note carefully that it’s not: Christ was reconciling an angry God to a sinful world. It’s not even that Christ was reconciling a sinful world to a loving God. Rather: God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself. As Volf says, “the One who was offended bears the burden of the offense.”

Our response to this truth, then–this gift–is profound gratitude. But when the brutality of Jesus’ death is unduly emphasized (exploited)–when our gaze lingers too long upon the messed-up eye or the bloodied brow–we are distracted from gratitude and are drawn instead into cheap voyeurism and sentimentality.

Frederica Matthewes-Green puts it this way: “It would be as odd as welcoming home a wounded soldier, and instead of focusing on the victory he won, dwelling on the exact moment the bayonet pierced the stomach, how it felt and what it looked like. A soldier might well feel annoyed with such attention to his weakness rather than his strength.”

“This is the sense we pick up in the Gospels,” Matthewes-Green goes on to say. “Jesus’ suffering is rendered in the briefest terms, as if drawing about it a veil of modesty. What’s important is not that Jesus suffered for us, but that Jesus suffered for us.”

The blood and gore in a film like The Passion of the Christ manipulate emotions and stir up misplaced pity. We can end up feeling so sorry for the beaten-up Jesus–poor guy–that we miss the point: in walking the way of suffering, Jesus compels us to do the same.