Theology Thursdays: 'The Passion' of the Americans by William Rivers Pitt
The television airwaves have been filled for the last several days with a lot of back-and-forth about Mel Gibson's new film, 'The Passion of The Christ.' A great deal of debate centers around whether Gibson has fashioned a broadside against Jewish people in the manner of the Medieval anti-Semitic passion plays of old. There are plenty of rabbis arguing with Christian ministers on just about any channel you might choose to watch, so I'm going to leave that question to them for the time being.
My question is much simpler: Why would Mel Gibson make a movie about people in the ancient Middle East and cast it with so many white people? To look at the central actors in this film, you'd think Jesus did his work near Manchester, New Hampshire instead of the Holy Land. The answer to that question lies within the United States, the prime market for this film. There are millions of Christians in America, some 25% of whom would characterize themselves as evangelical. It stands to reason that this film would do very well here, especially given the controversy that has surrounded the content.
The whiteness of the cast, however, speaks to a decidedly un-Christian truth that lies near the heart of this republic. Simply put, nailing a white Jesus Christ to the cross on film will generate a far more emotional response from the American viewing public than the crucifixion of a savior who actually looks like he is from the Middle East.
First, let's dispense with the idea that the white people who were cast to play the most emotive characters - Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene - have anything to do with historical accuracy. In truth, the region where Jesus was born was, and remains, populated by brown-skinned people. The fact of Christ's non-whiteness is borne out in the historical record, and in biblical scripture. Right off the bat, the Book of Matthew describes Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Egypt is in Africa, and is populated by brown-skinned people. For my money, this would be the last place on earth I would go to hide a white baby from an angry King.
The earliest renditions of Jesus, painted by the first Christians called Essenes in the catacombs of Rome, depict a person with brown skin. During the time of Roman Emperor Justinian II, a gold coin featuring an image of Jesus was minted. This coin, which today can be seen in the British Museum, depicts a man with demonstrably non-white features and tightly curled hair. Finally, there is the Book of Revelations, which bears out the crafting of the Essenes and the Roman coin-makers by describing Jesus as having hair like wool, feet the color of burnt brass, and who resembled jasper and sardine stones. Jasper and sardine stones are both brown, as is burnt brass.
The Jesus most familiar to Americans, the Jesus featured in Gibson's film, looks like the front man for an alternative rock band out of Minnesota. Judas in this film is a shorter version of the same phenomenon. White skin, long straight brown hair, decidedly European features - this is not the Jesus that preached revolution against the Empire long ago. This is the Jesus fashioned by Michelangelo five centuries ago, who used his white cousin as the model for the savior.
The ugly truth which never even occurs to most Americans is that Jesus looked a lot more like an Iraqi, like an Afghani, like a Palestinian, like an Arab, than any of the paintings which grace the walls of American churches from sea to shining sea. This was an uncomfortable fact before September 11. After the attack, it became almost a moral imperative to put as much distance between Americans and people from the Middle East as possible. Now, to suggest that Jesus shared a genealogical heritage and physical similarity to the people sitting in dog cages down in Guantanamo is to dance along the edge of treason.
George W. Bush calls himself Christian. If you believe him, he is on armchair-to-armchair relations with the Almighty, enjoying regular conversations with He Is What He Is on everything from tax policy to invasion plans. Bush serves a unique dual role as both the Commander in Chief and as high priest to the evangelical wing of American Christianity.
When Bush did his little flight-suit strut across the aircraft carrier last May, he proclaimed victory in biblical verse and sent a signal to those Christians who see him as more than a man. Bush, that day, quoted Isaiah's passage from the Servant Songs about captives coming out and slaves being free. This is the same passage, as described in Luke chapter 4, which Jesus used to announce his coming as the Son of God. "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," said Jesus. Bush's use of this incredibly loaded passage speaks as much to his messianic fantasies as it does to his status as Christian-in-Chief.
Yet this is the same man who invades countries without cause and consigns tens of thousands of innocents to explosive, burning death. This is the same man who pushes tax policies that further enrich the wealthy while stripping funds and services from the neediest in this nation. This is the man who speaks the language of vengeance, of fear, of violence. This is the man whose entire moral existence flies in the face of Christ's words from Luke, chapter 12, verse 15: "Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions." Sadly, the skewed moral compass of George W. Bush is shared by too many Americans who would call themselves Christian.
Possibly the most important words ever spoken by Jesus can be found in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 38-45. "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'" said Christ. "But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."
It is these words that condemn both Bush and the hands-off moral attitude of too many American Christians. Certainly, Jesus was no fool. In Luke, chapter 11, verse 21, he said, "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace." Self-protection, for person and nation, is both moral and intelligent. But vengeance, violence and hatred are not Christian. Mercy, love and generosity are the hallmarks of the teachings of Jesus. If you are to call yourself Christian, you must be for the poor and the weak, and against empire and vengeance. Period.
These simple attributes are all too absent in the American soul and spirit. Gibson's white Jesus is but one example of how far we have strayed. It is a safe bet that, had Gibson chosen a brown-skinned actor to portray Jesus, his film would not find a connection in this country. Millions of Americans try to live by the teachings of Jesus, and do so with success, but find themselves at odds with those who carry the banner of Christianity. This is a travesty.
Too many so-called Christians are blind to history, blind to the actions of our nation, blind to the hypocrisy of our so-called leaders, and the world bleeds because of it. Too many so-called Christians are people who would slaughter the savior to protect their power and position. Were Jesus alive today, he would probably nail himself to the cross to get away from all these people who act like barbarians in His name.
William Rivers Pitt is a teacher from Boston, MA. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available from Context Books. He is also a contributing writer for Liberal Slant and on the writing staff at www.truthout.com where this article was also published. You can contact him via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, March 4, 2004