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The Passion of the Christ: No One Said Violence Against Immigrants Was Obscene

We avoided seeing “The Passion,” not by choice but by life style. We have not been in a movie theater in a number of years, though we have dropped off our grandchildren with their mother, all of whom who live with us, a number of times, which helps the kids to keep up with the Joneses. It helps to bring them to normalcy and belonging as far as their peers are concerned, which is helpful since they are being raised in a different kind of environment than most children. We are surrounded by poor immigrants and Catholic Workers and lead sheltered lives.

The grandkids are Tolkien specialists and have been exposed to this profound religious writer, which can only be helpful. There is more violence than we are comfortable with, however in the Tolkien movies, even though it is often directed at orcs.

We were hesitant to see “The Passion of the Christ” after hearing about the violence, since our lives are filed with violence which we hate to face and refuse to integrate for fear of abandoning our work with immigrants altogether. We have our own bloody Jesus that can match anything Mel Gibson and the makeup artists can create–it is the blood of the immigrants. It is Jesus suffering in the poor.

The journey of the immigrant is the way of the Cross, where there are various stations of suffering along the way: crossing the Suchiate River at the border of Guatemala and Mexico, what happens after they arrive in Mexico, the crossing of the Rio Grande River, where violence overflows on both sides. Immigrants who die in the river or in the beastly hot desert don’t complete the way of the cross.

How often have we seen bloodied and black and blue faces of the robbed immigrant. How often have we seen people with busted jaws and broken teeth, eyes totally shut as bad as the Roman soldiers would do to Jesus. How often have we seen people with no nails in their feet–they had no feet because their legs were cut off when they jumped off a train, or with legs totally paralyzed by a gunshot in the back, when nails would not make a difference in dead legs.

How often we have seen immigrants full of knife wounds or opened up from the neck to below the navel because of the doctors’ fear of internal injuries. They have been attacked because thieves thought they were carrying all the money they had earned because they couldn’t get a bank account.

We have experienced the Passion of Jesus in his poor, but no movie reviewer has ever called these sufferings pornographic or obscene. They are obscene as hell!

The movie reviewers convinced us not to see The Passion. They said it was too violent, in fact, said it was obscene and pornographic.

Other reviewers said that the movie did not replicate the Gospels word for word and was not orthodox Catholic teaching, nor was Mel Gibson orthodox, for that matter. Some complained that it did not include the very latest in critical scholarship of the Bible.

Hollywood was upset and appeared to believe that it was unethical to make a film that would portray the Gospel as very serious and credible, with Christ as the victim of a cruel injustice. John Mallon has pointed out that there has never been a film portraying Jesus and the Gospels this way. Hollywood, “shocked” by the violence of this film, was actually shocked by the message of the film.

The more we were discouraged from seeing the movie, the more people kept talking about The Passion, especially among minorities: African-Americans and Hispanics. Many who spoke to us loved the film and were deeply moved.

They talked about The Passion openly and while on the job, even though they worked for the government. Apparently, they knew or have experienced the Passion in their lives and had to talk about it, even though they were violating Church and State.

The pressure was on. “Did we see The Passion?” Finally, our high school granddaughter insisted on seeing the movie and on a Sunday morning, we entered the passion play.

We approached the movie with some fear and trepidation-like going to a painful dental appointment. Were we masochists?

To beat it all, the movie theater was 45 minutes late in opening and getting started, so we were wasting valuable time at this location we should not have come to in the first place. We should have been at home working on the correspondence.

Our Reaction

We were quite surprised at our reaction. Suffering and violence, yes, but Mel Gibson merely took us through the Catholic devotion of the Way of the Cross, the fourteen stations, depicted on the walls of every Catholic church in the world. These stations are meditated upon during Lent in all Catholic churches. We were not surprised to see the film bring alive the five sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary: the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. There were a few additions from the imaginations of people who had meditated on the Passion over the centuries, which critics used to denigrate the film.

The frosting on the cake of this Catholic experience was the Blessed Mother, who kept showing up like she does in Catholicism and in Sacred Scripture. How can we explain Mother Mary? To those who don’t believe, no explanation is possible, to those who believe no explanation is necessary.

It took the movie to help us to realize how steeped in the Passion are our Catholic lives. The cross is omnipresent. If you think about it, everywhere you turn you see Jesus the Nazarene hanging on a tree–on the Cross. The cross can be found in every Catholic church, every Catholic home, and in every room of some institutions. Even some Catholic universities have crosses in their classrooms. It wasn’t too long ago that you could tell the difference between a Catholic church and a Protestant church by the cross on the top of the Catholic Church. Catholic prayers always begin with the Sign of the Cross. Even boxers begin their bouts with the sign.

Some wear a cross around their neck to show that they are ready to give their lives for others as Jesus did. This is what the cross means-to give and not to take, to give our lives. The cross as jewelry, however, can be gaudy and obscene.

The Jesus in The Passion certainly is more true to the Gospels than the Jesus as a playground supervisor that has emerged in catechetics since Vatican II.

Fr. Hugo, who gave the retreat Dorothy Day attended and promoted, reminded us, as did Mel Gibson, that the Cross has very serious implications for the life of every Christian:

“Radical Christianity is discovered only at the cross, but who desires to be crucified? Like Peter and the other apostles–before the coming of the Holy Spirit!–we all tend to prefer a Christianity without the cross, ‘air-foam Christianity,’ as it was satirized by Ed Willock inIntegrity magazine in an outrageous cartoon showing a contented Catholic snuggled down on a cross spread with that seductive cushioning. Many attempt a life of vigorous and dedicated action, while failing to realize that such action is authentically Christian and efficacious only when grafted to the Tree of Life on Calvary.”

Jesus gave his life for others, for each of us. Salvation is not only personal, but has implications for social responsibility. Jesus told us in Matthew 25 that on Judgment Day we would be judged on love, on whether we care for him and serve him in the poor.

We’d better get busy. Pray for us.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, May-June 2004.