A Matter of Life or Death

I’ve only seen the picture twice, for a total of twenty or thirty seconds, but its image burned a permanent path in my brain synapses. There are fresh cuts on the man’s cheek, where someone brutalized him with a sharp object. His face is also streaked with blood, and his lips are parched. But the worst part is the look of utter exhaustion mixed with resolve on his face. This man has been through hell, and he knows he has more to suffer. The crown of thorns on his head identifies him as Jesus, played by an actor, but the wounds are so real and the colors so vivid that the picture could almost be a photojournalist’s depiction of any torture victim from the past few years. The fact that it’s a cover photo, meant to sell magazines at the grocery checkout, makes the horror even more gruesome — the gratuitous use of suffering to sell more ad space.

Of course, who can blame the magazine? I’m sure this will be one of the best-selling issues of the year, and it risks none of the outrage that a naked, pregnant Demi Moore garnered for Vanity Fair. The religious conservatives who might normally write letters in protest of a cover photo will more likely write letters of praise for this one. But it’s not just the fact that Jesus is the subject of the picture that keeps people from being outraged; we as a society are hardly bothered by gratuitous violence. More letters will be written to CBS about Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” than about any of the hundreds of graphic images from the hit show CSI this year. Far from being outraged, we modern people appreciate artfully honest depictions of violence.

The cover photo of this infamous torture and murder, reminds me of iconic pictures from the past century — photos so familiar that a thumbnail description brings them to mind in every detail. Jackie next to JFK in the limousine. A Vietnamese girl running down the street. A man shot by a Vietcong. A dead Iraqi woman clutching her baby. A plane entering Tower II. And these are just the iconic images. With 24-hour news and movies like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Cold Mountain, we see thousands of brutally real images of violence every year.

It’s no wonder that the twenty-first century offers us what many are calling the most graphic passion play ever produced. Our society is so inured to violence, that we need quadruple doses of it to get the same rush we did a few years ago. I think Jesus weeps to see how little we’ve learned from him in 2,000 years.

My mother believes the movie The Passion of the Christ will awaken people to the suffering they caused Jesus. She thinks audiences will see the results of their sin in the body of Christ and repent en masse. I wonder how any audience member could make this philosophical leap when we aren’t even awake to the real suffering we participate in every day.

From all I’ve read, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is yet another perfectly rendered film-portrait of human brutality. Millions will likely see his masterpiece, and for the ones who believe that Jesus took their sins upon his back, they will experience a cathartic grief at the suffering of their Savior. Most of the audience, however, used as we are to this sort of violent period film, will leave the theatre and comment on the cinematography, the costuming, and the makeup. We will argue the historical accuracy of the production, mentioning how well it captures the pathos of the time. And then we will look around for the next piece of well-lit, well-photographed violent art.

However, this time, there is at least one theatergoer who will not be participating. I’m opting out. I’m not going to another movie that promises to move us with its graphic portrayal of suffering. I don’t need any more cathartic experiences of pain, no matter how artfully crafted — and no matter the importance of the subject. Sure, I’m intrigued by the hoopla and the promise of perfect period settings, but I’m not giving in to the temptation. I don’t want to participate in the gratuitous suffering of one more individual for the sake of art.

Instead of going to see The Passion of the Christ, I’m spending my two hours and seven dollars decreasing the suffering in the world. Instead of participating in Jesus’ death, I’m going to participate in his life.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, long before the Passion Week, Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” I take those words seriously, believing that if I am kind to someone it’s as if I were being kind to Jesus. So, during this Lenten period, I’m going to make some phone calls to friends who could use a good word. We’ll talk about the happy things that are going on in the world. We’ll share our love of life and beauty, and together we’ll strike a blow against a culture that prefers beautiful suffering to beautiful sunsets. Together we’ll bring life, not death.

Wouldn’t you like to join us?