Mel Gibson’s Passion and Fascism’s Piety of Pain

Many years ago, after finishing doctoral studies in Paris, I spent a semester at the University of Munster in Germany. While there I lived in a Dominican convent which housed about six other Dominicans, one of whom was old and very strange and never appeared during the day time at meals or for any other reason. He seemed only to go out at night. One day I was asked to go in his room to fetch a book and I was amazed to see the books on his bookshelf (including Mein Kampf). I was especially amazed by a “holy card” on his prie dieu (a place where one kneels to pray). This “holy card” was the most gory I had ever seen, with Jesus depicted as thoroughly bloodied, beaten, abused and victimized. I later learned that this Dominican priest with the gory holy card was a self-appointed “chaplain to the Nazi’s of Munster”.  The year was 1970. As I sat and watched Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” with its unrelenting emphasis on blood and gore I had a déjà vu experience as I vividly recalled this Dominican priest and his particular form of piety. Gibson set out his intentions for his film in an interview: “I want to push you over the edge, push you right over the edge, so you can stay there and hang out with and get to a higher plane… through the pain.” Piety as pain, pain as piety. This movie opens a door on fascist piety which is pain-driven.

The piety of fascism is inevitably a piety of pain and suffering (thus the complete fascination with redemption and total refusal to entertain grace and original blessing) and it manifests itself in full bloody form in this movie. Gibson is allegedly a member of Opus Dei, a secretive Catholic sect of wealthy men whose spirituality is deeply fascistic. Its founder, a Spanish priest named Escriva, whom the Pope rushed into canonization two years ago in record time, was a card carrying fascist who actually praised Adolph Hitler and who was also deeply sexist. Two of his Opus Dei members served on Franco’s cabinet. The present pope has taken this religious order under his wing (his own press secretary is a member of Opus Dei) and has appointed many Opus Dei bishops and cardinals (especially in Latin America after decimating the liberation theology and base communities there). They have constructed an $81 million edifice in Manhattan and are ensconced in the financial capitals of Europe, especially in Frankfurt, which is replacing Switzerland as the financial capital of Europe.

One Peruvian I met told about growing up in an Opus Dei household and how his father forbade him to be alone at any time with his mother and sisters. Thus as a boy he lived on the streets and never went home before 8pm, when his father would most likely be home from work. (Boys could not be alone in the house with females of any age—so much for sexual common sense.) In addition, the family prayed the rosary on their knees on upturned bottle caps and were expected to bleed. Piety of pain indeed. Not, alas, the pain of the world—the suffering of others that can be relieved by acts of compassion—but self-inflicted pain.

In many ways the film is a monument to sadomasochism. By emphasizing the worst eighteen hours of Jesus’ life and leaving most of his teachings out of the movie, Gibson makes Jesus a victim rather than a martyr while removing Jesus’ passion for justice and substituting the term “passion” to mean passive victim.

Our culture is deeply engaged in sadomasochism—understood here as the haves lording over the have-nots. How so? Let’s take contemporary capitalism and the world distribution of wealth and power as an example: In the 1960s, the overall income of the richest 20 percent of the world’s population was thirty times that of the poorest 20 percent. Today, it is 224 times larger! In the 1960s, the richest 20 percent held 70 percent of the world’s revenues; in 1999 it was 85 percent. Today the income of the richest 225 people in the world is equal to the income of 3 billion poor people. The income of the three richest people in the world is equal to the collective national incomes of the poorest forty-nine countries! It would take no more than 5 per cent of the overall annual sales of arms in the world to feed all the starving children, to protect them from dying of preventable diseases, and to make basic education accessible to all.

Yet Gibson’s Jesus shows none of the passion for justice that served as a corrective to the sadomasochistic tendencies of his own culture and times, and barely opens the door to issues of soul and society that could serve as correctives to our culture and times. Where is the compassion, human dignity, and love that lie at the very heart of Christ’s teachings? You don’t cure sadomasochism with more sadomasochism and by legitimizing it with religious sentiment.

Gibson’s rejection of Vatican II (which, among other things, apologized for the church’s long and sorry history of blaming Jesus’ death on the Jews and its primary role in fueling anti-Semitism over the centuries), gives one a sense of where his piety lies.  I lived for one year, unknowingly, in Paris with a family that was “integriste” or extreme right wing Catholics who like Gibson would only attend Mass in Latin and who like Gibson rejected Vatican II.  They said that “Vatican II was a Jewish and Freemason conspiracy.”  Thoroughly anti-Semite, they denied that Jesus was Jewish.

Gibson tells us that people who object to his movie are actually objecting to the Gospels, but in fact the movie owes much more to the medieval practice of the Stations of the Cross which is a practice of meditating on Jesus’ trial, his carrying of the cross to his crucifixion and a nineteenth century nun’s visions named Anne Catherine Emmerich than it does to the Gospels. It is in the Stations of the Cross practice that we are told Jesus fell three times; that Veronica wiped his face with a veil; etc.—all scenes graphically depicted in the film. Mixing all of the gospels into one narrative, as Gibson does, is artistic license but it is not history. The gospels themselves lack historicity, as in their muddling of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and their bias against Judaism stems from the fact that they were written after the fall of the Temple, long after Jesus’ death.  They also let Pontius Pilate off the hook (which this movie does in spades).

Religious imagery is not a private matter; it is a profoundly public matter. Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said that “all the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves.” If we apply this insight to this film, we learn that the images Gibson gives to Christ reveal much about himself. As one viewer said, they reveal a tough childhood supposedly when his father must have taken him to the woodshed with a belt and a whipping. The point being that the God represented in this film is not a God whom I would want to worship in any form whatsoever or whom I could recommend others worship.

It is no wonder, then, that this film is being seen by so many Christian groups whose piety is built more on fear than it is on love and hope, more on sin than on blessing, more on victimization than on liberation. It provides a logical haven for fall/redemption religious world views.  No wonder Gibson leaves out so much of the message of Jesus: It is not compatible with fascism which is about control and not justice, about power-over, not power-with (compassion).

It is one of the signs of our times that new generations born since the defeat of fascism in World War II (and the attempt to throw off fascism in the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council), know very little about fascism.  I recently met a twenty-six year old college graduate who did not know what fascism was.  It is a scandal that our Congress appropriates millions of dollars to build monuments to the heroes of World War II but apparently very little to educate youth (or itself?) about the lessons to be learned from the purpose of that war: To defeat fascism.

Susan Sontag has defined fascism as “institutionalized violence.”  I would define it as authoritarianism, an authoritarianism that swamps all else--conscience, community, human rights, justice—and that in the process legitimizes violence.  Fascism is a philosophy of disempowerment based on fear, power over (sadism), power under (masochism), victimhood, and scapegoating.   Fascism seems to need religion and even religious piety to wrap around itself and render feelings of pious sentiment and self-righteousness.  Its God is the God of Authoritarianism. Cardinal Ratzinger, the present pope’s right hand man and current inquisitor general, is a devote of authoritarianism. It is in this context that the late theologian Dorothy Soelle wrote of a new “Christofascism” coming to the fore in our day.

Recently a political scientist, Dr. Lawrence Britt, wrote an article naming fourteen characteristics of fascism.  He based his study on an examination of the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Suharto and Pinochet.  (For the record, we need to remind ourselves that four of these men were Roman Catholics never excommunicated by their church—all except Suharto.)  A summary of Britt’s points follow.

1. Powerful and continuing nationalism employing constant use of patriotic slogans, symbols, songs, flags. 2. Disdain for the recognition of human rights because security needs outweigh human rights which can be ignored. 3. Using enemies as scapegoats for a unifying cause. 4. Supremacy of the military. 5. Rampant sexism including more rigid gender roles and anti-gay legislation. 6. Controlled mass media. 7. Obsession with national security driven by a politics of fear. 8. Religion and Government are intertwined especially in rhetoric employed by its leaders. 9. Corporate power is protected—industrial and business aristocracies put government leaders into power and keep them there creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite. 10. Labor power, which represents one of the few threats to fascism, is suppressed. 11. Disdain for intellectuals and the arts and hostility to higher education along with censorship of arts or refusal to support the arts. 12. Obsession with crime and punishment. 13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. 14. Fraudulent Elections.

One does not have to be a paranoid to see these elements alive and well in the USA in 2004.  To encourage this through pious film-making underscores the danger.  Perhaps we can thank Mel Gibson for opening up possibilities to discuss fascism once again including its strange mix of politics and very strange religious notions.  One wonders who will be the beneficiary of Mr. Gibson’s billion dollar profit on the crucifixion of Jesus?  Will it lead to more Opus Dei bishops in North America?  More mixing of right-wing politics and right-wing religion and right-wing media?  Stay tuned.

In the multi million dollar campaign to get churches to support this movie, a four-color flyer was sent to most churches in the country that boasted the following headline: “Dying was Jesus’ Reason For Living.”  It is difficult to imagine a slogan more contradictory to the facts of Jesus’ life or his teaching or indeed of that of the Christ who in John’s gospel says: “I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance.” Mel Gibson ought to read the great spiritual genius Ernest Holmes who writes: “The will of God is never toward suffering.  Man must constantly reaffirm his belief in the Infinite Goodness if he expects to exclude the idea of evil from his thought….God’s Will is always toward Life and more Life…the life within you is God”.  Holmes got Jesus’ message right.  But the slogan Gibson invokes, “Dying was Jesus’ reason for living,” sick as it is, tells the true story about this film and the piety behind it.   What we have here is a clear case of religion as necrophilia.  From this movie we learn that necrophilia (love of death) is more important than biophilia (love of life).

Here lies the ultimate scare of the movie and its success.  It speaks to and elicits from people in our culture a desire to wallow in necrophilia at the expense of biophilia.  (I do not recall an ounce of biophilia much less humor in the movie.)  I am reminded of the wise warning from Erich Fromm in his brilliant study on evil, An Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. He writes: “Necrophilia grows when biophilia is stunted.” And this is how evil is unleashed in the world.  (Remember that the opposite of evil is not good; it is the Sacred.)

Russian Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev warned about a “decadent humility” that “keeps humanity in a condition of repression and oppression, chaining its creative power.”  And Rabbi Abraham Heschel reminded us that prophets do not become such from a life of asceticism but from passion for life.  Clearly, a movie like this kills creativity and the prophetic spirit in its appeal to pain and gore.

The question of “who killed Jesus?” is a silly question in the sense that it was done 2000 years ago.  NO ONE alive today killed Jesus.  How could we?  We were not there.  We are fully capable of killing the Christ, however, that is the God-self (or Buddha nature) in all beings.  We do this when we destroy rainforests, render species extinct, starve the children, refuse health care to the people, allow starvation and unjust distribution of the earth’s resources—in short when we ignore the teachings of Isaiah and Jesus and others about the need for justice and compassionate works.  What a shame that Mel Gibson, with all his potential access to decent theologians and today’s contemporary scholarship about the healthy Jewish roots of the historical Jesus, chose to make a film based on false history, contradicting Gospels, anti-Semitic overtones, fascist piety and necrophilia.  Hopefully, prophetic forces of biophilia will resist.