Could The Passion of the Christ stir up flames of ethnic hatred?
Some of our Jewish neighbors fear that Mel Gibson’s film about the last hours of Christ will set the calendar back. Many remember the long history of anti-Semitism that surfaced in the writings of Church fathers, the Crusades, and the Holocaust.
Now as large numbers of people see Christ suffer in a powerful and graphic reenactment, a question surfaces. Will those angered by Christ’s horrific abuse feel contempt for those whose ancestors asked for Jesus’ death? Not if they listen carefully and take note of everyone who had a hand in His suffering.
The answer to who killed Christ is found not only in The Passion but also in the Gospel records. Even though a crowd of Jesus’ countrymen cried out, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25), Gibson’s treatment shows that no group deserves to be singled out as Christ-killers. The whole picture includes a fallen angel, Jewish leaders, Gentiles, and even Jesus.
The record is compelling. First-century witnesses make it clear that Jesus had a leading role in His own death. Critics, however, have used that fact to accuse Him of insanity. In a 19th-century edition of The Freethinker magazine, G. W. Foote wrote, “Who killed Christ? Why himself. His brain gave way. He was demented. His conduct at Jerusalem was that of a maniac. His very language showed a loss of balance. Whipping the dove-sellers and money-changers, not out of the Temple, but out of its unsanctified precincts, was lunatic violence.”
Foote goes on to say, “Quite in keeping with these displays of temper was the conduct of Jesus before Pilate. A modicum of common sense would have saved him. He was not required to tell a lie or renounce a conviction. All that was necessary to his release was to plead not guilty and defend himself against the charge of sedition. His death, therefore, was rather a suicide than a martyrdom . . . . As a man Jesus died because he had not the sense to live” (G. W. Foote, The Freethinker).
Jesus wasn’t a victim. G. W. Foote says what biblical writers acknowledge—that the rabbi from Nazareth cooperated with those who hated Him. The record of Matthew indicates that Jesus warned His disciples on several occasions that He was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; 20:28). Even though He took action to avoid being killed before His mission was completed (John 7:1; 10:39; 17:1-4), the day came when Jesus refused to resist His accusers.
Interestingly, the accusation that Jesus wanted to die because He had lost His mind is not new. The apostle John quotes religious leaders as saying among themselves, “He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?” (John 10:19-20). To that question someone answered, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (10:21). Just as significantly, does the Sermon on the Mount reflect an unstable mind? Not according to the millions who say they have found sobriety and sanity in the mind and heart of Christ.
Jewish leaders conspired to kill Jesus. Members of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and chief priests regarded Jesus as dangerous. Publicly they accused Him of blasphemy (John 5:18; 10:30-33). Privately they resented that He had won the hearts of so many. Even though they disagreed among themselves about many things, they found a common enemy in “the rabbi from nowhere.” Together they were convinced that if they didn’t silence Jesus He would disturb the fragile relationship with Rome and bring into question their own leadership. So with the help of one of Jesus’ disciples, they hired false witnesses, had Jesus arrested, and petitioned civil authorities for His execution.
A Gentile signed the death order. A Roman bureaucrat named Pilate played a supporting role in Jesus’ death. While admitting, “I find no fault in this man” (Luke 23:4), Pilate chose to protect himself rather than the innocent teacher who stood before him. Rather than risking his own political future, Pilate gave the official order to have Jesus executed (Matthew 27:24).
Gentile soldiers treated Jesus like a criminal. Roman executioners went beyond the requirements of their profession in torturing Jesus. They mocked Him with words of scorn, bruised Him with their fists, spit in His face, hit Him on the head, thrashed Him with barbed whips, pressed a crown of thorns into His head, and led Him through the streets like a public enemy (Matthew 27:27-31). At a place of execution, they drove nails through His hands and feet, lifted Him to ridicule and stood back to watch Him die.
We too were there. In one inexpressible moment, heaven and earth crashed head-on at the crossroads of time and eternity. In principle, all of us were there.
Dr. Peter Marshall wrote, “When we are honest with ourselves, we know that we were there too and that we helped to put Christ there. Because every attitude present on that hilltop that day is present with us now. Every emotion that tugged at human hearts then, tugs at human hearts still. Every human being was represented at Calvary, every sin was in a nail, or the spear, or the needle-like thorns, and pardon for them all was in the blood that was shed.”
Will The Passion of the Christ or the Bible itself renew feelings of ethnic contempt? Only if we refuse to see that we were there, and that love held our Savior to that tree, not the nails.
Will the big screen make our Lord’s suffering bigger than life? Only if we forget that even the biggest pictures and most graphic portrayals can only begin to tell the story.
One for all.Father in heaven, forgive us for being so casual and mindless about the inexpressible suffering of Your Son for us. Please help us to live the rest of our lives in grateful praise for the One who said, “I am the good shepherd . . . . And I lay down My life for the sheep . . . . No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:14-18).