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Torture, The Passion, and a Great Awakening

This column originally appeared as part of The Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

Mel Gibson's celebrated / infamous The Passion of the Christ returned to movie theatres this week in a sanitized version. This latest cut of the film is about six minutes shorter than the edition that appeared in theatres in 2004. The cuts largely come from the lengthy scourging scene that disturbed many viewers who otherwise enjoyed the film.

Given its recent return to theatres, Easter Sunday strikes me as the perfect day to raise a few knotty questions about the film, and its continuing popularity. Two thousand years later, why make a passion film at all? Why emphasize Christ's suffering, and the violence done to him, to such an extraordinary degree - as opposed to the teachings that Thomas Jefferson described as "more pure, correct and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers?" And inasmuch as torture and hideous forms of execution haven't exactly disappeared from the world stage, and that senseless brutality and violence are a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, why exactly is the film's graphic violence having such a powerful impact on Catholic, evangelical and fundamentalist audiences?

Jesus suffered horribly during the last eighteen hours of his life. This is a given. One would hope that anyone seeing a depiction of his suffering would be forever changed by the experience. One hopes that they would ask how human beings could ever do such a thing. But the Gospels are a bit confusing on a key issue, as is Gibson - who essentially follows them. Is the Romans' torture of Jesus hideous and indefensible simply because they should have known that He was the Son of God? Or is their real crime that of subjecting any human being to such a fate? The difference is profound.

With regard to the first condition, how could the Romans even know that Jesus was the Savior? Christ's ministry was directed towards his own people, not Pilate, who gave the order for his death, or the soldiers who took part in his torture and execution.

With regard to the second condition, one assumes that the reasonable twenty-first century man or woman would conclude that Roman guilt here is assured. Torture, humiliation, and wrongful execution have no place in the human experience.

Yet, if this realization were the primary message being communicated by the film - a realization that is as firmly rooted in Jesus' philosophy of love and non-violence as a majestic Redwood is in the Northern California earth - then shouldn't we be seeing a ripple effect across the nation?

Shouldn't we be hearing calls by American evangelicals and fundamentalists for, as one example, an end to the policy of shuttling Al-Qaeda prisoners off to "allies" who use their own hideous means of torture in extracting information?

Shouldn't we also be seeing outrage and disgust among movie audiences at the recent revelation that over twenty-six prisoners have died in United States custody since the start of the War on Terror?

And even though the media has largely chosen to brush Abu Ghraib under the rug, shouldn't we also be seeing the film's multitude of viewers coming to grips with a horrible irony: the vast majority of prisoners held there were later simply released by American authorities. This indicates to me that these prisoners were likely innocent men, caught up in a political/religious struggle, and yet subjected to torture, humiliation, and even loss of life in our name.

We're not seeing that kind of reaction from Passion audiences. We're not seeing a spike in intellectual recognition of the profound humanitarian issues raised by the film - or the truly revolutionary philosophy that Jesus taught.

If anything, the film must be seen as illustrative of our collective presence amidst yet another Great Awakening - a phenomenon quite common in American history, where often-irrational religious emotion and fervor overtake reason and authentic spiritual insight.

The Founders and Framers each lived through at least one of these periods - the first of which in American history ran from about 1730 to 1760, and the second from 1820 to the mid-1830s. These were decades of great religious revivals, and fiery preachers - whose message, heard through modern ears, is apt to strike us as the Book of Revelation struck Thomas Jefferson - "the ravings of a maniac".

For an example of what I'm describing, take the time to read the linked sermon by Jonathan Edwards, one of the leading figures of the First Great Awakening, his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (

These "awakening" periods are a part of our history, but let me strongly suggest that the thinking that they reflect is far removed from the breakthrough in human consciousness that was behind the birth of this nation in 1776. As historians point out time and again, it was a miracle of near-biblical proportions that a group of men as forward thinking and intellectually brilliant as the Founders and Framers even came together at that point in human history.

Furthermore, the emotion-laden thinking that these "awakenings" exploit, and is either deliberately or unconsciously being communicated through Mel Gibson's film, is not much different than that used by Islamic clerics when coercing young men and women with potentially promising lives to become suicide bombers.

Let me close this Easter Sunday with two final points. One, in my experience, this kind of emotion has almost nothing to do with authentic spiritual development or cosmic insight into the human condition. It is the cotton candy of spiritual experience. It tastes sweet, but it can rot your teeth - and it has little nutritional value.

Two, to reiterate the advice that a Fordham professor once gave this student, don't blame the problems of the world on Jesus when His actual philosophy has rarely, if ever, been tried - especially by those who most rapturously, and publicly, speak His name.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on March 27, 2005, as part of The Tao of Politics series.