The True Passion of Jesus
Winslow Myers 2004
The emphasis on the suffering of Jesus' last hours in Mel Gibson's violent film “The Passion of the Christ” both obscures and underlines the truth that it was Jesus' life and teachings, not his death, that ought to be important to us. The manner of that death was hardly unique. Many thousands were crucified by the Romans. Jesus’ willingness to die without protest only underscores the creativity
of his life. The manner of his death confirmed that he felt he had completed his mission, which was to teach. Would his teachings still be useful even if he had not been killed? And are they still relevant in a post-September 11 world? Yes, of course, on both counts.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about the teachings of Jesus concerns their apparent doormat quality. Resist not evil, but overcome it with good. Turn the other cheek. If your neighbor asks for your coat, give him your shirt also. If someone needs you to walk a mile with them, agree to walk
two miles. Pray for your enemies, and do good to those who spitefully misuse you. Such instructions seem to contain a passive, wimpy aspect which has never sat entirely well, even with serious Christians, and especially not today as we face the irrational destructiveness of terrorism.
But in the context of Jesus' world, Jewish Palestine under Roman military occupation, his teachings demonstrated the exact opposite of passivity. Turning the other cheek came from the notion that a Roman reserved the right to slap an inferior with his open palm, but could only slap a fellow Roman with the back of his hand. To offer one's other cheek was to confirm one's essential equality with the Roman occupier.
Again, a Roman soldier was allowed to conscript any citizen to carry his equipment for one mile. The willingness of the citizen to help out for two miles implies an autonomy and equality that undermined the smug Roman assumption of superiority.
When we pray for our enemies, we sink past their hate to the level of empathizing with their woundedness, and our own resentment of the way they have treated us can be replaced by compassion. Even if our good will brings no apparent change in them, our own head remains clear: we may be their enemy, but they do not have to be ours. This leaves us freer to respond creatively rather than react destructively.
Such preachings suggest a nimble kind of activism and initiative under difficult circumstances. Instead of resisting the abuses of Roman authority in Palestine, be the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said. For Jesus, that meant training ourselves in alternatives to the traditional eye-for-an-eye mentality. It required a creative
workout, an ability to apply to daily (or international) conflicts the perennial truths found at the heart of all the major religions: loving and caring for the creation, respecting yourself, loving your neighbor, regarding his loss as your own and his gain as your own, and even
learning to see value in your enemies as fellow members of the human species. This was a very high setting of the bar, about as non-passive and brave as human behavior can become.
What is the relevance of Jesus' creative activism to the “war on terror”? Not only may extremist adversaries wish us dead, but there is the possibility that they may try to kill us with the same kinds of weapons of mass destruction we ourselves possess by the thousands. While the stakes are higher and our historical moment is more complex, the challenge of responding creatively to evil and injustice and abuse of power has not changed since Jesus' time. He would tell us that we do not have to react with the law of talon, responding on the same level as those who have done us terrible hurt.
One aspect of his teaching concerned the need to include ourselves in the total picture of a conflict. "Seek not to pick the mote out of your neighbor's eye before you examine the beam in your own eye." It is a seductive temptation to see ourselves as entirely good and terrorists as entirely evil. Jesus suggested a more inclusive and responsive way, in
which we see the interconnection of ourselves with our neighbors. His suggestion is that when someone disagrees with us or even attacks us, we take a hard look within, examining the possibility that our own fear, greed or indifference may play a part in the total situation. When we respond to attack having registered the larger context that includes ourselves not just as victims but as autonomous beings, there is a greater chance that conflict can be resolved in everyone's best interest.
What would the American answer to terrorism resemble if it were carried out in the spirit of "resist not evil, but overcome evil with good?" Imagine having at our disposal the hundreds of billions of dollars that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost and using it to provide medical and communications technology, new schools, new sources of clean water and nourishing food for the coming generation. Wouldn't there be a chance that we could turn a vicious circle of retaliation into a virtuous circle of trust-building?
The most important thing is to do whatever we choose to do with a spirit of truth and good will, one which, even if it may not be able to "disarm" the core group of our adversaries, can positively influence the vast middle group of ordinary people among which extremists shelter. Terrorism cannot be overcome with military force alone, but of course will require the winning of hearts and minds. All out war, on the other hand, polarizes, and encourages extreme thinking on both sides. We justify retaliation in kind upon each other. Jesus opposed military force with the passion of what Gandhi called truth-force, action taken with the understanding that my adversary's life is equal to my own in the eyes of God.
Though millions of Christians insist upon it as gospel truth, perhaps it is the traditional interpretation of Jesus' death, the interpretation insisted upon by the Gibson film, that truly suggests passivity. It argues that all sin for all time was redeemed by the protracted torture and violent death of a single martyr, and on account of that, no great choice or discipline or workout is required of us except to believe
passively in Jesus the Christ. By emphasizing the passion of Jesus' death over his passion for life, we can miss his active message of responsibility and interconnection.
Asserting flatly the black and white separation between good and evil, that the world is either with us or against us on the issue of terrorism, we are in danger of finding ourselves in a hauntingly familiar role: for the Iraqis and Afghans, we are seen as Roman overlords. Perhaps
we will be able to do some good in faraway parts of the world, but we need all the help we can get from a creative spirit of good will and truth, the spirit that inspired the life of Jesus, the spirit that, because he taught so well, was not extinguished by his brutal death.