The Non-Threatening Jesus of The Passion of the Christ
This post is part of a series adapted from a paper written as part of my M.Div. In this post I look at how The Passion of the Christ treats Jesus as a non-threat to the Romans.
Another dominant theme that stood out to me was Jesus as non-threatening. The film could easily be taken as anti-Semitism, which I believe it also was as the blame was placed on the Jews instead, but it is also a statement that Jesus was not at all radical to the establishment. When Jesus is first taken to the Romans and then to Herod, they do not even know who he is: Jesus was so safe that none of the Romans had even heard of him before he was brought to trial.
They also hadn’t even heard that Jesus was calling himself King of the Jews, which would definitely be something they would have picked up on in reality because if he is King of the Jews, it would mean that neither Caesar nor Herod were. When they find out, they still act as if they don’t see anything wrong with this claim, a claim that is nothing short of treason. Pilate is then portrayed as trying desperately to avoid punishing him, and the brief trial before Herod is similar. Jesus even excuses Pilate by saying that it was Judas’ sin that was the worst, not his for actually killing him.
According to Passion, the military establishment of the Romans is on the side of Jesus; even though they technically killed him, they really didn’t want to and didn’t see him as any kind of a threat. I’m not sure how many biblical or historical scholars would accept this kind of view any more. I am sure that this again ties into the necessity of Jesus being sinless in order to take on the punishment of the world, but I was somewhat surprised for a modern movie to present Jesus as not only sinless but also in no way a radical. This is a large part of why I put Gibson in the reactionary category of Catholicism and not in the larger category of emerging or even one of the intermediary categories – his Jesus does not want to disturb anything or shake anything up.
The average soldier is still bloodthirsty, but those who actually made the decision were actually on his side and just bowed to the pressure of the Jewish leaders out of fear of a rebellion. The film keeps trying to present the Romans as sympathetic: Pilate’s wife consoles Mary while Jesus is being whipped, at a couple points Roman soldiers step in to reduce suffering, Pilate is horrified at how far the whipping went, and a Roman soldier initially blocks but then allows Mary to go up to Jesus on the cross to kiss his feet. The most powerful expression of this pro-Roman theme comes in Pilate’s washing of his hands of the crucifixion. It is expressed in a very dramatic way, drawn out and complete with an otherwise-meaningless flashback of Jesus and the disciples washing their hands, making it clear that it is not Pilate’s fault.
Somehow even though it is the Romans who would see these tortures regularly and are the ones actually carrying them out, they are the ones who feel sorry for Jesus and try to limit the pain while the Jewish leaders look on undisturbed.