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One African-American's view of The Passion of the Christ

By Charity Dell
web posted March 22, 2004

Everyone viewing The Passion of the Christ sees this film through a unique "lens" -- our gender, religious upbringing -- or lack of it -- our ethnocultural heritage -- combined with the accumulated collection of our personal experiences, shape the "lens" through which we perceive cinematic art. As an African-American Christian viewer of Mel Gibson's film, I must share what I saw, heard and felt when I and a friend attended a matinee showing of The Passion of the Christ one recent Friday in Newark, New Jersey.

At the outset, everyone is drawn in to the movie's lot -- immediately, you are plunked down in the Garden of Gethsemane and are watching and praying, as it were, with Yeshua of Nazareth during His final hours. The theatre is completely quiet -- except for a few muted voices here and there quoting remembered scripture -- and people have neglected to bother with snack purchases and popcorn buckets.

The most riveting part of the film begins with the punishment of the young Jewish Rabbi at the hands of the Romans. Many of us literally flinched in the seats when Yeshua was caned and whipped -- and all around you were muffled, anguished cries of "Lord, have mercy!" and "Lord Jesus!" -- the classic gut-wrenching phrases black people use to express shock, outrage and extreme horror. Men wept and attempted to stifle their sobs -- one elderly black patron told me in the library in which I work that he "was not religious at all", but that, while watching this movie, he started crying and his stomach got sick, and he literally could not bear to watch the first nail driven into the hand of Jesus: "I just had to turn my head away!" But he stated that "the film was good", and that the movie "essentially told the truth."

Descendants of slaves fully understand why Gibson's cameras show the instruments of torture and repression -- whips and chains evoke powerful collective memories of the suffering of our African foremothers and forefathers here in this country at the hands of so-called "Christians." It wasn't so long ago that our great-grandparents literally bore the scars of slavery in their bodies -- and the infamous cat o'nine tails was also used on subjugated Africans by viscious, sadistic overseers who acted just like the Roman legionnaries and lictors depicted in the film.

A scene from The Passion of the ChristOne of the reasons people of color are responding so positively to The Passion of the Christ is due to Gibson's frank, realistic depiction of the horrors of scourging and crucifixion. The Yeshua of Nazareth depicted in this film shows a full range of emotions -- He cries, laughs with His mother, stands up to angry religious authorities who want the adulteress stoned -- but most of all, this Jesus suffers mental anguish and physical torture, is mocked by Herod and spit upon by the Roman soldiers, and bears the full brunt of human hatred manifested in unspeakable brutality. In no other commercial movie venue is there ANY comparable depiction of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 -- the "Man of Sorrows" Who "hid not His face from shame and spitting", although "we hid as it were, our faces from Him...His visage was marred...yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise Him."

It is this Jesus -- the Jewish, biblical "Lamb of God" -- not the pale imitation of Hollywood's imagination -- that African-Americans and Latinos recognize as our Jesus -- the God who let Himself be beaten, humiliated and crushed, who felt the sting of violence under a harsh regime, who suffered injustice and oppression, and whose torn, lacerated flesh bore the marks of a savage, repressive empire bent on world conquest. Black Christians identify with the God who becomes a "slave" during Passover, the Festival of Freedom -- He is bought for 30 pieces of silver, the market value of a slave in first-century Israel -- in order to free humanity from its captivity to sin and death. The honest, unsparing depiction of the harsh reality of Roman punishment "hits home and "rings true" for those whose lives are impacted daily by systemic injustice and senseless violence.

African-Americans immediately recognized the Jesus we've heard about in our Sunday Schools, vacation Bible schools and worship services, on the knees of our parents and grandparents and community elders -- the Jesus of our prayer chants, our lined-out Psalms and our spirituals and gospel anthems, Who inspired our slave ancestors with hope and gave us joy in the midst of sorrowful lives -- and we have always heard from our pulpits the message of discipleship -- "No cross, no crown!"

Mel Gibson's artisitic vision does not spare theatregoers the simply stated, awful truth of the Apostle's Creed -- "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead..." Black Christians find it easy to identify with the God who endured unspeakable agony to redeem a sinful, evil world and reconcile humanity back to Yahweh our Father.

Hollywood is understandably "upset" with Mel Gibson for his "failure" to trivialize suffering and spare them the horrid truth of the enormous of humanity's redemption. For the last 25 years, the movie establishment was content to serve up a "saccharine slop of syrupy sweets" and sell these sentimental trifles as "biblical movies" to a jaded public. But then its collective little stomach heaved when scourging and crucifixion were accurately portrayed on film! We know from history that the backs of scourged victims were essentially reduced to raw hamburger meat and the internal organs, tendons, bones and muscles were frequently exposed -- so Yeshua of Nazareth certainly looked far worse than anything imagined by the production company's make-up department!

The pampered -- including media pundits, leading theologians and religious scholars -- who are all whining about the violence ought to try seeing this movie -- and the Messiah's suffering -- through the eyes of those intimately acquainted with violence and degradation. Scourging and crucifixion cannot and should not be sanitized, scrubbed clean and prettied-up to charm the comfortable folks who want the movie to prophesy unto us smooth things!

Those of us deemed marginal by the media elites are not the ones complaining there's just too much graphic, gratuitous violence -- Hollywood and the media moguls have not bothered to sample the opinions of black or Latino audiences -- who are buying literal blocks of tickets and keeping the theatres filled with busloads and carloads of theatregoers! Nor are black and Latino viewers muttering anti-semitic slogans or cursing all Italians for what the Romans did to Jesus -- most black and Latino Christians leave the cinema thinking and quietly discussing all we have seen and felt.

Inasmuch as Mel Gibson's picture has illustrated the suffering of the biblical Yeshua of Nazareth -- and has not shied away from showing that redemption was bought with a price -- The Passion of the Christ is destined to become a movie classic embraced by people of color who have suffered and can recognize the crushed Son of God who was mistreated, and yet triumphed through it all.

Charity Dell is a librarian at Plainfield Public Library in Plainfield, New Jersey. This is her first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • Mel Gibson's reply to 9/11 by Michael Moriarty (March 8, 2004)
    Michael Moriarty believes that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ isn't merely the story of the final hours of Jesus Christ's life, it is a declaration of war meant for those who desire to destroy us
  • Deicide and The Passion by Jeff Snyder (September 22, 2003)
    The controversy over Mel Gibson's movie The Passion misses, argues Jeff Snyder, what the story really means and it has nothing to do with who is to blame for Jesus Christ's death
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