Henry Lawton, a historian by formal training and a psychohistorian by avocation, is much more than a movie reviewer when he writes about movies. He explained to me that his articles about particular movies attempt to explain the essence of what the movie under study unconsciously makes known to their audiences. His studies do not relate to the perceived conscious intent of its producer and director. As with the movie audience, this matter is also an unconscious issue. Popular movies, he believes are successful to the extent to which they explain feelingful and prevalent group fantasies* to their viewers. He believes that The Passion of the Christ was a success in this endeavor.
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page
*A group fantasy is a psychohistorical term and refers to "shared restagings of dissociated memories of early traumas" (Lloyd deMause).
No other film in recent years has stimulated more controversy than Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
That he has made a very powerful communication of complex shared
emotion and fantasy is suggested by the fact that the film has grossed
some $800,000,000 world wide at the box office. That the film is also
an intensely personal statement of Mel Gibson's religious vision is
suggested by the fact that he used $25,000,000 of his own money to make
the film. This film is, quite simply, a cultural phenomenon, especially
in America. Everybody seems to have feeling about it even if they
refuse to go to the theater. Because this film is so powerful it is
important to try and gain some understanding of what it communicates.
Mel Gibson wants us to directly experience the "reality" of the
Passion. Except for a few disconnected memories of his past on the way
to crucifixion, we are told nothing of Jesus' life and message.
Matthew Fox suggests that by doing this, "Gibson makes Jesus a victim
rather than a martyr while removing Jesus' passion for justice and
substituting the term "Passion" to mean passive victim . . . Where is
the compassion, human dignity, and love that lie at the very heart of
Christ's teachings?" (pp. 1, 2) The broader message of Jesus is not the
point of the film, he is before us to suffer and die.
Perhaps because the entire New Testament is somewhat equivocal on the
issue and open to diverse interpretations (Anonymous ), we might
wonder why Jesus needed to die. Conventional Christian theology claims
"The death of Jesus on the cross is what atones for our sins."
(Witherington III, p. 88) He had to suffer so profoundly because of the
magnitude of our sins. "He endured more than any other human being,"
thus "his suffering was more important than any other suffering ever
endured." (Thistletwaite, p. 137) (Think about the grandiosity implicit
in such belief.) The film does not communicate that Jesus wants to
atone for the sins of man; rather he is presented as feeling he has no
choice but to die. Why would the film portray Christ's "Passion" as an
elaborate suicidal spectacle? I want to share some points from a book
that gives 50 reasons why Jesus had to die (Piper), which might help us
Consider the following: - "The ultimate answer to the question, Who
crucified Jesus? is: God did." (p. 11) Jesus states," I lay down my
life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it
down of my own accord . . . This charge I have received from my
father." (John 10:17-18) (Piper, p.13) Piper is clear that Jesus "chose
to die. His Father ordained it. He embraced it. . . . what Jesus did
when he suffered and died was the Father's idea . . . Christ's
suffering is a beautiful act of submission and obedience to the will of the father."
(Piper, pp. 13, 22, 23. Emphasis mine) He also tells us that Jesus
"learned obedience through suffering" and "was made perfect through
suffering." (Piper, p. 24) The death of Jesus "was the pinnacle of his
obedience." (Piper, p.41) What does all of this mean for man? Piper is
clear - "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will therefore surely
also with him graciously give us all things." (Romans 8:32) (Piper,
p. 52, emphasis Piper's) Piper's theological interpretation, taken to
its logical conclusion, supports my argument that the Passion may be
viewed as suicidal spectacle.
Gibson rubs our faces in the sadism of the crucifixion. We watch the
Roman soldiers laughing and enjoying themselves as they scourge Jesus
in preparation for his final agony and wonder how could human beings do
that to another. After the soldiers have beaten him to the ground,
Jesus finds the strength to stand. He looks at them with unspoken
them to greater determination to break his will by beating him into
submission (not unlike an abusive parent with a defiant child). This
scene is not in the Bible. Yet, there it is going on before us in
brutal sadistic detail made all the more horrific, because, as the fllm makes clear, Jesus has chosen crucifixion.
Gibson puts the audience into a masochistic role by forcing us to watch Jesus die. We must endure
what is being seen or leave the theater. Gibson seems to feel that he
must be sadistic; maybe he believes that symbolically abusing his
audience is the only way for his message to be understood. Why is he so
driven to communicate with his audience in this way?
Gibson claims Jesus "was beaten for our iniquities . . . He was wounded for our transgressions
and by his wounds we are healed. That's the point of the film." ("Pain
and Passion," p. 2. Emphasis mine.) Why are we healed by his wounds?
Think about the logic of such an assertion. Gibson readily admits his
film is "very violent . . . if you don't like it, don't go . . .
I wanted it to be shocking. . . I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge . . . so that they see the enormity - the enormity of that sacrifice
- to see that someone could endure and still come back with love and
forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule."
("Pain and Passion," p. 3. Emphasis mine)
Though this is the conventional theological line, the film only shows Jesus undergoing sadistic torture and abuse. Where and how does Jesus come back with love and forgiveness in the film? This film communicates things other
than what surface religious appearances. Could it be that Gibson feels
driven to use this film to communicate elements of his own childhood
experience and that he needs to project various aspects of himself onto
Christ, disguised as religious message?
With this in mind, I want to look at his life to see what, if any,
degree of support may exist for such notions. Gibson was the sixth of
eleven children. He was born in Peekskill, NY. His father, Hutton
Gibson, remains a "traditionalist" (fundamentalist) Catholic who ran
his "household on severely moral grounds" in accordance with a
worldview described as "quite fixed." (Lewis, p.6) He was and is
extremely conservative. The elder Gibson rejects Vatican 2 (1962-65)
labeling it a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons to derail the Catholic
Church. In his eyes the Church has been without a Pope since the
1960's. He rejects the doctrinal innovations of Vatican 2 and continues
to believe the mass must remain in Latin, etc. This seems partially due
to nostalgia for the old ways of the church and partially due to rather
blatant anti-Semitism. Though he does not absolutely deny the reality
of the Holocaust, he downplays its gravity and monstrousness.
While Mel Gibson does not seem to share his father's views on the
Holocaust, he will not publicly disavow the man. "My dad taught me my
faith, and I believe what he taught me. The man never lied to me in his
life." ("Gibson: I was 'spiritually' bankrupt," p.1) Hutton Gibson
worked for the NY Central Railroad but was injured on the job in 1964
and could no longer work. Life was hard for his family through the
1960's. Using his injury settlement ($145,000) won in 1968 and $25,000
he won on Jeopardy he took his family to Australia partially out of disenchantment over the sort of culture he felt America was becoming.
When they got to Australia his father enrolled Mel in an all boys
Catholic school where peers taunted him for his American accent. When
he finished school Gibson thought about becoming a priest but due to
the instigation of his sister studied at the National Institute of
Dramatic Arts instead. In 1979 he achieved world fame as Mad Max.
He remains with his wife of 30+ years with whom he has had 7 children.
In 1990 his mother died (it seems striking that in all the biographical
accounts that I have been able to find, the father always occupies
center stage while his mother remains a shadow figure). Shortly after
this he brought his family to America where, for reasons not clear, his
life began to fall apart and he hit bottom emotionally. He brought
himself out of depression, drugs and alcoholism with AA and by returning to the fundamentalist Catholic faith of his father.
It seems clear that religion served as a form of internal control for
him, which is not necessarily bad, though it influences his worldview.
Gibson says the following about his wife: - "There is no salvation for
those outside the church. I believe it. Put it this way. My wife is a
saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She's like,
Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she
knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's just not fair if she
doesn't make it, she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement
from the chair. I go with it." ("Biography for Mel Gibson (1)," p. 5)
Mel Gibson has personality bankrolled his traditionalist parish church
in Agouna Hills, California. In 1992 he began research for the film
that was to become The Passion of the Christ
("The Facts: Mel Gibson;" "Mel Gibson's Father Says Holocaust
Exaggerated;" Noxon; Fenerstein; Scroth; Svesnik; "Male Celeb Pics;"
Boys [A]; Boyer) Gibson states that this film is his thanks to God for lifting him out
of hopelessness. While this may be so, it does not seem a stretch to
hypothesize, even though I cannot be certain, that Mel Gibson was an abused child still hoping to be protected from pain. When Jesus is in the garden he pleads
with his 'father (God) to "rise up and defend me. Save me from the
traps they have set for me." But he knows better - "I trust you, in you
I take refuge. Let your will be done not mine." Jesus is resigned to
his fate from the beginning. So to is Mary, his mother, when she says,
"It has begun Lord. So be it." (Despite the many pleas of Jesus for his
father to help him, God remains silent.
It is only at the end of the
film when the earthquake damages the temple that we get a sense maybe
God was listening after all. But Gibson can only offer a plot device
not in the Bible to convince us.) As his scourging begins, Jesus
declares: "My heart is ready." Like an abused child determined not to
let his abuser know his pain he does not cry out. Was Gibson attempting
to show us that we could rise above whatever pain we may feel and not
be broken in the process? Was this film, in part, Mel Gibson's way to
get his (and our) pain to stop? Consider the following: -
"Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said that 'all the
names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves.' If we
apply this insight to this film, we learn that the images Gibson gives
to Christ reveal much about himself. As one viewer said, they reveal a
tough childhood supposedly when his father must have taken him to the
woodshed with a belt and a whipping. The point being that the God
represented in this film is not a God whom I would want to worship in
any form whatsoever . . . It is no wonder, then, that this film is
being seen by so many Christian groups whose piety is built. more on
fear than it is on love or hope, more on sin than on blessing, more on
victimization than on liberation." (Fox, p.2).
Let us also consider examples from Mel Gibson's other films. In Mad Max
Gibson is a policeman whose family is murdered. He becomes a kind of
avenging angel enduring often extreme violence, victimization and
abuse. Even after 3 films he has remained the perpetual outcast,
sometimes helping people in spite of himself, but forever the outsider
and always alone.
In Lethal Weapon he is a
suicidal policeman who has recently lost his wife. He is beaten and
tortured, finally achieving some measure of redemption as a surrogate
member of his partner's family. Suffering is a key plot device in many
of his films. Several years ago, he told a reporter - "When haven't I taken a beating? . . . It's in a lot of films, a lot of scripts. Maybe I pick 'em. Maybe I like torture."
(Slotek, p.47. Emphasis mine.) The reporter felt Gibson was being
facetious, but I wonder. Are Christ's sufferings in the film similar to
Gibson's view of his own sufferings? Rather than accenting the aspects
of love in Christ's message, The Passion of the Christ shows
Jesus giving his life at God's direction.
If we embrace suffering and
death (the film does not speak of turning the other cheek) and accept
these things as our own we will be with Christ in Paradise next to the Father.
We can only wonder about the possible nature of Gibson's relation with
his father. What kind of father would want his son to go through
torture and death? As I watched this film, I kept wondering where is
the love and non-violence that Jesus preached before his Passion?
Yet this film has spoken powerfully to so many perhaps because of its
violence. As noted by many, the film is not an accurate rendering of
the Gospels. (For example: - Smith;
Witherington III, pp. 81-88; Wieseltier) Many voiced concern about the
possible potential of the film to stimulate anti-Semitism (For example:
- Boyer; Carroll; Wall; Kauffman). Do anti-Semites need to see this
film to have their already existing bigotry stimulated? I think not.
(See, also: - Reinhartz, p.179). Despite the validity of such concern, anti-Semitism is not its point; presenting a vision of pain and a glorification of death is.
Gibson's drama of the passion is consciously planned and accepted
by Jesus. In the beginning, he seems afraid; Satan seeks to tempt him
from his suicidal resolve by telling him that it is too much for anyone
to bear and he need not do this. But the effort seems to strengthen his
resolve to see it through no matter what the pain. Toward the end of
the film we hear Jesus declare, "it is accomplished." He seems to ask
man to see what he has done. He has shown us the Kingdom (though the fllm does not make this clear), if man will only believe and follow his example.
But by submitting to crucifixion he sadistically sacrifices himself as
an example for us to follow. Is Jesus' decision to die a grandiose act
to show that he can be worthy of his father's love and respect?
Consider when toward the end of the film Mary runs to Jesus as he falls
on his way to the place of crucifixion - "See mother, I make all things
new." He also achieves what seems a masochistic sort of power when he
declares, "no one comes to the father but by me." Is this his reward
for bowing to God's will that he die?
Rather than taking a strictly religious view, it might be better to
look at the subject of this film in terms of human family
relationships. Other than God telling him to, why would Jesus choose to
die to save man? Unless blood sacrifice remains at the heart of our
religious beliefs/fantasies, why does he have to die to show God's love
for man? Why can man only be redeemed via a death of unparalleled
barbarism and brutality? Is man so obtuse that this is the only way he
can get the point? Or is God a vengeful father who revels in the
barbaric sacrifice of his own son? Why is sacrifice a redemptive act?
Certainly, many religions lack such traditions.
We know that the Jews in Jesus' time were brutally oppressed by the
Romans. I have long been of the opinion that the great innovation of
Christianity is the idea that in death you are no longer oppressed and
your reward is to join God in Paradise. Because their reward is in the
next world, death no longer seems to matter and thus they can no longer
be effectively repressed. Even so, what does this tell us about the
father/son relationship? God directs Jesus to sadistically sacrifice
himself. Thus, one could hypothesize that we are talking about a very
horrifying sort of child abuse. "The child who is abused seems often to
take on the guilt of the crime - which the abuser may or may not feel.
This guilt frequently takes the form of masochistic provocativeness and
a need for punishment . . . The pathological compulsion to repeat
traumatic events . . . results in the passing down of child abuse and
its consequent hate, hatefulness, and deprivation of joy from one
generation to the next." (Shengold, p. 25)
We might wonder about the complicity of religion, aside from whatever
else it does, in perpetuating child abuse, the sacrifice of children in
wars, etc. Consider this: - The Catholic Church put out a guide to
Gibson's film in the form of 100 questions. Question 19 asks about why
there is so much blood in the movie. "The blood is key to understanding
the sacrifice of the Lamb - Jesus, who took away the sin of the world. Just
as blood is shed by soldiers who lay down their lives for their country
or by mothers in child birth, sacrificial love often involves the
shedding of blood." (Editors of Catholic Exchange,
p.15. Emphasis mine)
Think about this and why Gibson emphasizes blood sacrifice while
shortchanging love. Is man's sin and guilt so great that there can
never be "enough spilled blood . . . What kind of god requires
relentless suffering and torture culminating in excruciating death?
What kind of god is so angry and vengeful that people leaving theaters
feel anxious and guilty? Is this in fact a Christian God?" (Good, p. 2)
Might this really be Gibson's projection of an abusing father writ
large? Might this vision have such power because so many in our world
have been abused, to some degree, as children or in adulthood?
Jesus, good obedient son that he was, accepts his father's injunction
with no real protest. This suggests an extremely pathological
father/son relationship. The religious, perhaps
unconsciously wishing to downplay such aspects, would claim God
to sacrifice himself to atone for the "sins" of man. "Christ entered
death voluntarily, in order to destroy death altogether and thereby
reconcile man to God . . . Jesus substitutes Himself in the place of
all sinners to placate the wrath of an angry God." (Jacobse, pp.1, 2)
But how does this reconcile man to God?
Those familiar with the dynamics of child abuse might agree that
elements of atonement are also reflected in such situations; the child
is felt to have transgressed in some way, real or imagined, and must
pay for its "sin" by placating the perpetrator via punishment. After I
had largely finished this paper I found an article by Thistlethwaite
(pp. 141-45) that is very strong on this aspect of what Gibson tries to
communicate. She tells how when she saw the film there were a number of
parents who took their young children to see it. "This is a film that
is inflicting abuse on the young children dragged to see it. They will
never be free of these brutal images . . . Their screaming in fright
should tell you something.
This is not a film about the Prince of Peace. This is not
a film about forgiveness, tolerance, mercy; about God so loving the
world that God does not leave us to suffer in it alone. The film's . .
. apologists have insisted that this is the film's message. But the children know better."
(p.144. Emphasis mine) She is correct of course, but most of those who
were subjected to violence themselves, might continue to rationalize
along the lines of - "Well yes, but it was not so bad, look how well I
turned out." I think Mel Gibson may identify with Jesus as an abused
This also suggests an Old Testament vision of God - an angry,
all-powerful, absolutist father who demands absolute obedience from his
children. But in the New Testament doesn't Christ offer a picture of a
more loving father waiting to receive those who repent and believe? Is
the sacrifice God demands from his son a regression to the sacrifice of
Abraham? But when God saw that Abraham was fully ready to sacrifice
Isaac he let it go. But here God demands not only his son's death
(suicide), but in the most sadistic way imaginable. He does not let it go.
Even if we could make a case for it being necessary, why does the
sacrifice have to be so brutal and extreme? Is man really so
horrifically sinful? Even if he were, why would human sacrifice be the
only possible atonement? The film offers us only silence on such
What also may be at work here is a "killer daddy" fantasy that Christ
uses as a rationalization "for experiencing the physical pain of
torture and the mental anguish of being helpless in the face of such a
"superior/controlling" other . . . the only thing Christ can do is
idealize the punishing greater authority, repress the "reality" of
experiencing pain unfairly and unnecessarily, and psychically merge
with the greater authority, in order to avoid feeling hopeless,
dependent, and hurt again . . . We suffer unnecessarily to bring God's
"saving vision" into the world" (Anonymous ).
There is also the question of the mother. In this film we see nothing
of Joseph the earthly father; he is a shadow, not in the film at all.
It is as if Jesus has no father in the flesh, there is only mother and
son (As noted above the reverse seems true in real life). As Jesus is
carrying the cross and falls, we see a brief childhood memory of him
tripping in the road and mother rushing out to sweep him up to comfort
her baby with hugs and kisses. There is another memory of him with
mother when he is older. He is a carpenter building some furniture. She
comes out and tells him to wash up for lunch. They seem perfectly happy
with each other. (These flashbacks are Gibson's plot devices and not
from the Bible. Reinhartz, p.175). But these fleeting memories occur,
as he is on the way to a death that his mother can only bear witness
to, she cannot save him. The reality of a father seems to exist only in
Jesus' mind and will certainly not protect him.
Jesus is an Oedipal victor (Bergman, pp.141-42, 150), the father has
lost out, and in the film he has his mother solely to himself. Does
Jesus know that he has robbed the father of the mother? Does he feel
guilt that can only be expiated by crucifixion? Do not forget that the
two men crucified with him were criminals not subjected to the same
brutality of punishment. Does the bird pluck out the eye of one, as if
to hide the real agenda of fatherly retribution? In the film
God seems to say that if sons keep the Oedipal injunction and do not
try to steal the mother, they will sit with him and his good son in
This film communicates both Gibson's personal fantasy issues that are
undoubtedly shared to some degree by many of us as well as more broadly
shared unconscious fantasy themes. One thing that makes this film
difficult for the psychohistorian is that it communicates to several
specific audiences. (Boys [B]) Thus it offers several shared fantasies,
on a number of levels, simultaneously (this is especially obvious in
the differences of opinion on how anti-Semitic the film is).
When he was at his spiritual low point and felt suicidal Mel Gibson
told Diane Sawyer, "I just didn't want to go on . . . I think, I just
hit my knees . . . I just said, Help. You know? And then, I began to
meditate on it, and that's in the Gospel. I read all those again . . . Pain is the precursor to change,
which is great. . . That's the good news." ("Pain and Passion," pp. 2,
1. Emphasis mine.) He said elsewhere, "I had to use the Passion to heal
my own wounds."(Van Biema, p.66) What is it within himself that Mel
Gibson has gone to such great lengths to heal?
How could the wounds of another heal him? Does he have to rely on
another because of the magnitude of his own emotional wounds? His
effort has struck an emotional cord in many people. It just occurred to
me that perhaps like the horror film, which allows us to vicariously
triumph over scary monsters, this film allows the audience a sense of
vicarious mastery over the pain of abuse and suffering, real and
imagined. We can be thankful for Jesus' suffering because it might help ease our own even if just for a little while.
Certainly the film also speaks to shared "profound cultural disaffection" (Boys [B], p.2.)
See also: - Frykholm, pp. 15-24) and religious hunger that go hand-in-glove. If so, the message
may be misplaced because it glories so powerfully in brutal sadistic violence and death. Does
Jesus' endurance of such pain really reveal the true depth of his love for mankind? (Boys [A], p.
3) How? And why religious hunger expressed in the form of extreme sadism and suffering?
Think about that and what it means for our world?
Strozier notes that our modern world "is fraught with a new kind of
dread, for we live with the real, scientific possibility that either
through nuclear warfare, or choking pollution, or vastly increased
rates of disease . . . we could actually end human existence." (p.158)
To this list we can certainly add the terrorist threat, real and
imagined, as well as the increased shared anxiety that it has helped
stimulate. The dramatic escalation of Christian fundamentalism in the
last 50 years is a further expression of anxiety "that works directly
on large numbers of Christians and spills over in unpredictable ways
into other cultural forms" (Strozier, p. 159. See also, p. 5 for the
extent of fundamentalism in America) such as film. Many of these people
have long hungered for anything that
would counter what they see as "all the negative movies and Broadway
plays about Christ in recent years," (Boys [B], p.154) and gratify a
"deeply felt, even if largely unarticulated, desire to know Jesus more
fully." (Martin, p. 99)
But the basic appeal of this
film has more to do with shared fantasies of sacrifice and suffering.
This film does not help us know Christ more fully in any positive
sense. Concerns with anti-Semitism, while valid, are, in my view,
essentially red herrings to distract to from Gibson's real purpose of
glorying in sadistic death. But then especially for Evangelical
Christians (Frykholm, p.20) "suffering in this life can be used for
good, even when it may not, in itself, be a good thing . . . to die as
a Christian can be a good thing, since one then gets to move beyond
this vale of tears. It is not necessary to cling to this life at all
costs; this life only points forward to a later, better life God can
make one a better person through one's suffering. . . ." (Witherington,
pp. 91, 92) Can we really be made new via suffering and pain, or are we
talking about elevating what is inflicted upon us by abusers of
whatever sort via masochistic/narcissistic fantasy?
Gibson's film goes beyond religion in its emphasis upon "making one's
body an offering, a sacrifice. To die for others is the ultimate
expression of faith in social existence." (Marvin and Engle, p.15).
Consider the chilling arguments of Marvin and Engle that "blood
sacrifice is our defining feature . . . violence unifies enduring
groups . . . killing agreements hold
the group together . . . violence surrounds us . . . organizing, not
eradicating violence is the task of group survival . . . blood must
touch every member of the group . . . when all bleed, everyone is kin .
. . death secures freedom. To die for the group is to give one's flesh
and bone to reconstituting it. Dying is the primitive process that
creates the social body . . . the group must sacrifice its own to
create an enduring existence, which is freedom." (pp.64, 77, 89, 106)
The fantasies communicated by this film have animated societies for
centuries. If we accept the logic of Marvin and Engle, the message of
Gibson's film becomes clear. It is a message so much a part of who and
what we are that we are barely aware of it most of the time. Christ is
perhaps the great example/inspiration for groups to repetitively act
out this pattern of sacrifice and death over the centuries; in this
sense Gibson's film is only the latest of a list of countless
encouragements. That this film has communicated its fantasy of glorious sacrifice and death with such force to so many is indeed scary.
With the war in Iraq we are in an increased sacrificial mode. Certainly
this film communicates approval of such a state. Indeed the fantasy
communication offered by The Passion of the Christ is necessary to help sustain our continuing acceptance of the war.
Because the film puts violence/death at the center of Christian belief
we might hypothesize that it implies the need to sacrifice still more
young men in "war" or for any other purpose that may come to mind.
You look at a film like this and clearly see it is a glorification of
sacrifice, not in the sense of the sacrifice of Abraham which suggested
an evolution to a more humane and loving God, but in the sense of a
regression to a sadistic, implacable and demanding father who can never
be appeased no matter how great the sacrifice.
"Gibson's unrelenting focus on mindless brutality and unmerited
suffering" conveys a world where "faith is futile, love impotent, hope
an illusion, and forgiveness folly. Instead of supporting . . . Jesus'
revolutionary message that the kingdom of God belongs to the children (Mark 10:14) . . . and that the Creator is a benign provider who supplies the needs of even the smallest creature (Matthew 6:25-34). Gibson's Passion
vividly presents a world in which irrational hatred and uncontrolled
violence reign supreme over a kingdom of suffering, death and darkness
that seems to have no end," (Smith, p. 8) not unlike the world of an
abused child. Gibson believes that life is a constant state of warfare
against evil and pain. Remember when Satan, realizing that he has lost,
looks toward heaven and emits an unearthly scream.
Despite Mel Gibson's protestations otherwise, this film communicates a
sense of despair, not unlike what might be felt by traumatically abused
children, that their pain and sacrifice will never end, but is glad
about it. Suffering is inevitable anyway so give in to it and join God
in Paradise. In Paradise we will be dead so our suffering will no
longer matter. (Lawton) This film is not the uplifting presentation of
Christ's sufferings that we are told it is; rather it offers us a
communication of extreme despair and glorification of death. Theology
says we are saved via Christ's death and resurrection, not by his suffering. Yet Gibson emphasizes the suffering and violence virtually to the exclusion of all else. (Wallis, pp.121-125; Martin, p.107)
Such emphasis is akin to that of an abused child identifying with the
aggressor. Does Gibson revel in fantasies of atonement by wallowing in
suffering or trying to rise above it? Looking at his life, the record
of his previous films, and the violence in this film, the answer seems
obvious. This film speaks to pain felt, for various reasons, by many of
us. Somebody had it worse so maybe we are not so bad off. But in
failing to pay attention to the promise offered by the resurrection,
any hope offered by the film is an illusion. Thus the dynamics will go
The sacrifice of Jesus was incredibly sadistic and brutal, yet it
continues to be glorified and acted out over and over in religion and
war. Gibson's last film prior to The Passion of the Christ (We Were Soldiers ) clearly glorifies the nobility of sacrifice and suffering in war with the same graphic violence we see in The Passion.
He clearly implies that there can be no peace, we can never atone
enough, we must continue to sacrifice ourselves and others; the
compulsion to repeat lives on . . .
Think about it.
The author is a retired child welfare worker and worked over 30 years for the NJ Division of Youth & Family Services with mostly teenagers who were survivors of varying degrees of abuse and all emotionally disturbed in various ways. He has an MA in American History and is currently working part time as a reference librarian. Henry Lawton has been a successful independent scholar in psychohistory for over 30 years and wrote THE PSYCHOHISTORIAN'S HANDBOOK (1988) still pretty much the only how-to text available for one wanting to psychohistorical scholarship. A Book Review Editor of the Journal of Psychohistory. he is a Charter Member of the International Psychohistorical Association, currently Secretary and past President. He is also Director of the Group for the Psychohistorical Study of Film. Writing on a wide variety of PH subjects in several languages his scholarly interests includes Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Mormons, film, large group process, millennial/apocalyptic fantasies, and the psychohistorical meaning of the computer.
Henry Lawton may be contacted at: - firstname.lastname@example.org
PLEASE NOTE: - This paper expresses some radical and rather
negative views about religion. The views presented are mine alone and I
take full responsibility for them. Anyone believing that it is my
intent to denigrate or make light of anyone's religious faith is very
mistaken! Religion, in whatever form, is a necessary aspect of most
people's emotional life; the nature of whatever belief a person holds
is a personal one and should be respected as such.
Previous versions of this paper were presented to the Group
for the Psychohistorical Study of Film on April 18, 2004 and at the
27th Convention of the International Psychohistorical Association on
June 2, 2004.
This article appears in the spring issue, 2005, of the Journal of Psychohistory.
A shorter version of the paper will appear in Viewpoints in Psychoanalysis in the fall of 2004. I thank the editor of Viewpoints, Dr. Neil Wilson, for his support of this project.
-- Henry Lawton
(Webmeister's note: Unfortunately, some of these links are already broken.)
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