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Torture Porn with Jesus: The Fetishism of Suffering in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

April 20, 2013

I realize that I will, in all likelihood, get a lot of angry comments about this, so let me just remind everyone that angry comments are tolerated, abusive comments are not.

Before I begin, I am going to explain the title of this post.  First of all, torture porn refers to a specific type or horror film that is especially gory and involves torture as well as killing.  Movies like Saw are referred to as torture porn.

Second of all, the word fetishism does not refer to the sexual kind of fetishsm, but rather the religious kind of fetishism, where an object is believed to possess supernatural powers.

Now that that is out of the way, I can start the post.

The legends of the Buddha tell of a rich and happy prince who walked outside of his carefully protected world and discovered that there was suffering in the world.   Upon realizing this, he fled from his life in the palace to seek liberation from suffering.

I start with this anecdote because it is good to remind ourselves periodically that suffering is a problem, and there are no easy answers.  (I don’t think the Buddha’s 4 noble truths fully answer the problem.)  Suffering in this world is real, and too often in the United States we can pretend that this is not true.  We hush up the voices of those in pain, and tell everyone to smile, whether or not they feel like smiling.

Evangelical Christianity is the religious incarnation of this principle.  Acknowledgement of pain or suffering of any kind is frowned upon.  At my aunt’s funeral a little over a year ago, her husband and children were strictly forbidden from wearing black.  She said she wanted them to be happy because she was in heaven.  Her husband and children were not allowed to express the perfectly normal and natural reaction of human grief; furthermore, the experience of grief is suddenly a challenge to their faith.  (If I feel sad and experience grief, it’s because I do not have faith.)   It is relatively common in Evangelical Christianity to ignore all bad feelings.  The church service must often be a happy event, where everyone is happy all the time.  Evangelical Christians are fond of saccharine expressions that are created by people who have never truly experienced suffering, and since many Evangelical Christians are middle class Americans, their lives are often relatively free from suffering.  Evangelicals love to hear converts tell stories about how their conversion to Evangelical Christianity instantly cured their addictions to tobacco, alcohol and drugs, as if by magic.

The large problem with this is that, when the rug is pulled out from someone, when something unexpected and horrible happens, then the person is left adrift.  I remember seeing a silly PBS show where modern Americans had to live as though they were in Puritan New England.  The people had to attend a Puritan church service, and a young woman gave a talk about how awesome her life was, and therefore God was equally awesome.  As fate would have it, shortly after this talk, the young woman’s fiance was killed in a car crash.  I feel very bad for her, because nothing she learned at her church was going to help her in that moment.

Phillip Yancy, a prominent Evangelical writer, tells the story of a woman who attended a strict Evangelical college in the south, who graduated believing that, because she believed in God and was a good evangelical Christian, she could be confident that nothing bad was ever going to happen to her.  Her faith was a talisman to protect her from all evil.  Unfortunately for her, she discovered her husband was a closeted bisexual who cheated on her with both men and women, and her father (who lead the family in daily Bible study) was molesting her children, his own grandchildren.  It was, needless to say, a traumatic experience.

In a way, Traditional Catholics have exactly the opposite opinion on suffering.  Traditionally minded Catholics often love suffering, they wallow in suffering, and believe that suffering is not only good, but that it is the only good.  (It goes without saying that their favorite devotion is meditating on the Sorrowful, the More Sorrowful, and the Most Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.)   I have seen Traditional Catholics argue that the only way to get to heaven is by being totally miserable on earth.  Indeed, when St. Therese was dying of tuberculosis, she never received any pain killers of any kind, since the Carmelite order felt that pain killers or anesthesia was a violation of their religious vows.  H. L. Mencken once said that a puritan is someone who is haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, was happy.  That definition can also be applied to a number of traditionally minded Catholics.  It is to this group, Traditionalist Catholics, that Mel Gibson belongs, or at least did belong.  (Before he decided to abandon the mother of his children, live in sin with his mistress, and generally go bat shit crazy.)   The mindset of this group is clear in his movie, The Passion of the Christ.

In Mel Gibson’s understanding of the passion, the total emphasis is on suffering and agony.  This is most clearly seen in the scourging at the pillar.  The first moment is when Jesus originally seems to collapse against the pillar.  Rather than staying collapsed, Mel Gibson’s Jesus wills himself to stand up, to take more of a beating from the Roman guards.  As Steven Greydanus points out in one of his comments about The Passion, Jesus in this scene almost seems to be inviting his tormentors to keep at it, to keep scourging him, willing them to sin.  (It should be pointed out that, in Catholic theology, to will someone else to sin or to encourage someone else to sin makes you complicit in that sin.)  If Mel Gibson’s Jesus is encouraging the guards to sin, then Mel Gibson’s Jesus is guilty of sin.

However, shortly after this moment, the film becomes ridiculous.  Jesus is lying on the ground, weak from the scourging.  The guards, who in the film have been ordered by Pilate to show restraint, approach Jesus, turn him over, and start beating him again.  Up to this point, I had actually been enjoying the movie more than I anticipated I would (I expected to hate it) but at that moment I almost found myself laughing.  The guards, who had no personal animosity to Jesus (any more than they would have had to any other political prisoner), who had been ordered to show restraint by the governor, suddenly turn into sadists worthy of the movie Hostel.  It was simply silly.  It’s one thing to ignore the Bible, Church teaching, and the writings of theologians, it’s another thing to ignore your own plot.  And yet, this act is very emblematic of the idea of Mel Gibson and his group.  Suffering of any kind, especially physical suffering, is good.  Pain is holy, pleasure a sin.

To me, the most clear indication of this kind of thinking is at the end of the movie, after the death of Jesus.  When the centurion pierces Jesus’ side with his spear, the blood and water sprays out like from a shower faucet, striking the Roman soldier in the face.  It’s worth pointing out that there is a legend about this occurrence, in which the soldier, named Longinus, has terrible eyesight.  When the blood and water from the side of Christ fall on Longinus’ eyes, his eyesight is healed.  There is no mention of this miracle in The Passion.  Instead,  the bad thief on the cross has his eyes gouged out by a crow, sent by a vindictive God who is far more interested in blinding people than in giving sight to the blind.  In a way, this makes perfect sense.  If suffering is good, and suffering is necessary to get to heaven, then the records of Jesus healing people are troubling, and even morally problematic.  How much better it would have been if Jesus had sent a message to St. John the Baptist, “The seeing become blind, the hearing become deaf, and the living are killed.”

Anyway, one of the most striking aspects of the build up of the film The Passion was the excitement of both Catholics and Evangelicals about the film, which brings me to my last point.  There are plenty of Catholics who are influenced very strongly by Evangelicals, reading Evangelical books, listening to Evangelical music, and watching movies made by Evangelicals.  What is striking to me is that those people often embody the worst of both worlds.  They spout meaningless platitudes such as “God answers every prayer, and he never says no.  He either says ‘Yes,’ ‘Wait,’ or ‘I have something better for you.'”  (I’m curious.  An acquaintance of mine had a friend whose two year old son, after three days of fervent prayer, died.  Which answer did the parents get?)

Evangelical Catholics, as I’ll call them, reject, for the most part, talk about suffering.  They embrace the Evangelical idea that having the truth means that we should be totally happy all the time, that being a Christian means we should be fat, happy, and prosperous.  However, when a person does start suffering, he should lie down and take it.  Even more, he should be grateful he cries himself to sleep every night, because suffering and misery rock! 

Instead, I think most Christians, Evangelical and Catholic, should consider the miracles of Jesus.  Jesus does not run away from suffering, or avoid talking about suffering.  However, when he meets a person struggling from illness, deformity, or even death, he heals that person and restores them to life.  Furthermore, Catholic religious orders have a long history of caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and liberating slaves.  People who call themselves Christians should not be afraid of talking about suffering and acknowledging its existence, but it should not embrace it as a positive good in and of itself.

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