|Scene from a church Easter play. Image source.|
[also, this has got to be the weirdest spoiler warning I've ever written, but: spoilers for "The Passion of the Christ"]
The movie "The Passion of the Christ" came out in 2004, when I was in high school. I remember reading the gushing reviews from Focus on the Family- they were like, "This movie is really great because it actually is a biblically-correct, Christian movie! Not like all those other times Hollywood tries to make a 'biblical' movie but embellishes the story all wrong, adding all kinds of false teaching. So everyone should go see 'The Passion of the Christ,' and see it on opening weekend so it will make a lot of money, and we'll show this secular society that a lot of people really do want to see good, biblical movies." (Because God forbid the directors and writers have some creativity and play with the story a little, and it strays from "correct" evangelical doctrine.)
So I was super-excited to see it. But then my parents and I read the reviews in the newspaper, that said it was extremely, shockingly violent. (Wikipedia says that one reviewer wrote, "The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.") We started to wonder if maybe I shouldn't see it.
My parents went on opening weekend, and afterward said it wasn't that bad, it was fine for me to see it. So the next weekend I went with my mom and we saw it, and I was like "yeah that wasn't that violent, it was pretty much exactly what I expected."
We chalked it up to Christian persecution. "The media" didn't want people to see such a good, biblical movie, so they made a big huge deal out of the violence, when it really wasn't that bad.
From the time I was a little kid, growing up in church, I saw tons of images of Jesus being tortured. It was so normal. Books, movies, Easter musicals, all showing a man being beaten and tortured to death. Little kids see Jesus beaten, flogged, covered in blood and screaming in pain, and finally nailed to a cross. It feels so normal that Christians don't even realize how disturbing, how graphic, how horrifically violent it is.
There is artwork with Jesus "wearing" the crown of thorns. Holy crap. Long thorns being stabbed into his brain, and that's just a completely normal image to have in your church lobby, people walk by it every day and barely notice. There is so much artwork with Jesus bleeding out incredible, scary amounts of blood.
Furthermore, Christian culture makes a big deal about how it's so important that Jesus' death was so violent and painful. I've heard church people say things like, "Crucifixion was the most painful method of execution ever invented- that's why Jesus was born during the time of the Roman empire, because he needed to have the worst death possible." (Nevermind that he died pretty quickly after being nailed to the cross- the other 2 victims had their legs broken because they hadn't died yet. Seems like maybe they suffered worse than he did.) I've read articles which went on and on about how horribly painful it is to be nailed through the wrist. For some reason, a lot of Christians believe that it's absolutely necessary that Jesus' death be so tortuous and painful.
And there's guilt that comes along with that. Sunday school teachers tell kids that Jesus suffered all this pain for you and because of you. Your sin is so bad; you tortured and killed Jesus. And kids are taught that because Jesus suffered so much for you, you HAVE TO devote your life to him. Guilting them into it. This is spiritual abuse.
Church people seem to think that, if only people KNEW just how much Jesus suffered FOR THEM, then they would definitely become Christians. We wanted our Easter musical to look realistic. One time, a kid in my Sunday school class said, "If we could actually crucify someone, and people could see how bad it was, then they would believe. But probably we can't find anyone willing to be crucified, so, oh well." That's just the opinion of one naive kid, don't worry, none of the church leaders literally believed "it's too bad we can't actually kill the actor in our Easter musical." But it is consistent with the idea that "if only people could really see how much Jesus suffered for them, then they would believe."
So we grow up seeing, over and over, images of incredibly graphic violence, not suitable for children, and we get used to them, desensitized, and then pastors keep trying to come up with innovative new ways to describe just how horrifically painful Jesus' death was- to try to shock us and get us to commit our lives to Jesus even more. It's a pretty messed-up dynamic.
So when I went to see "The Passion of the Christ," it was pretty much exactly what I expected. I expected to see Jesus beaten and flogged, his entire body covered in blood. I expected to see him fall down and scream in pain during the flogging. I expected to see him collapse when they tried to get him to carry his cross- again, totally covered in blood. I expected that he would scream when they pounded nails into his wrists and feet. I expected a huge amount of blood to gush out when the soldier thrust the spear into Jesus' side.
It was the same thing I had seen over and over in books, movies, and church musicals that told the story. The only difference was "The Passion of the Christ" was the most realistic-looking.
Oh, wait. There was one bit I didn't expect. I didn't expect a bird to peck out the eyes of the thief who mocked Jesus. My mom told me to cover my eyes for that part. That was the only thing in the movie that we thought was "too scary." Because none of the other depictions I had seen of Jesus' death included it. (It's not from the bible.)
Christians become desensitized to the violence in the story of Good Friday. We don't even realize how graphic and disturbing it is. Like the time I posted the lyrics "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus" on facebook, and a non-Christian friend was like "HOLY CRAP what is this?" But Christians talk about being "covered in Jesus' blood", not realizing it sounds like something out of a horror movie.
So what's my point? What should we do differently? I have 4 suggestions:
- Content notes/ trigger warnings. It's fine to have images, movies, and musicals depicting graphic violence, but you should warn people first. Don't put a picture of Jesus all bloody on the cross somewhere that an unsuspecting passerby will suddenly see it with no warning- that is extremely graphic and it's understandable that people might not want to see it. If you post pictures on social media of Jesus on the cross, or being flogged, or with a crown of thorns, make sure to put a content note or trigger warning on it and post it in such a way that people can choose not to look at it.
- Let's reconsider how we tell this story to children. Is it really appropriate for kids to see images- even cartoon images- of Jesus covered in blood? Is it appropriate for kids to see an actor in your church play being (fake) nailed to a cross? That is scary and disturbing. I believe it really happened and it's important, but we need to seriously have a talk about how we tell this story, especially to children.
- The meaning of Jesus' death isn't in the sheer amount of suffering he endured. Within Christianity, there are many different perspectives on the meaning of Jesus' death. I was taught that "the gospel" was penal substitutionary atonement, which means that people deserve to be punished for our sin, but Jesus was punished instead. From this perspective, it makes sense to go on and on about just how bad the pain was for Jesus. It needed to be The Worst Suffering Ever in order to pay for all of humanity's sins. But I no longer believe in penal substitution, and I no longer think we need to focus on just how incredibly violent the crucifixion was in order to *get* the meaning of what Jesus did for us. Other factors like politics and systemic injustice are much more important than the sheer amount of pain. There's no value in trying to shock ourselves with more and more graphic and realistic descriptions of the pain Jesus suffered.
- Don't guilt people. The idea that "Jesus died because of your sin- you killed Jesus" is spiritual abuse which can do long-term damage to people's emotional and mental health. But in my experience in the evangelical church, this was a completely normal thing to say to children. And pastors and Sunday school teachers would go on and on about how because Jesus suffered so much for you, you owe him your life- you need to devote your life to Jesus or else you are being ungrateful and mean to him. This is extremely coercive and abusive. How about we stop teaching it in church?
Credit goes to Morgan for some of the ideas in this post~ I first heard the idea of "people really need to have content notes if they talk about crucifixion" from them.
Also, funny story: When "The Passion of the Christ" came out, some church people were like "but isn't it a sin to see R-rated movies? so can we see it or not?" lololol as if the movie rating people have the power to decide what is and isn't "sin."