It was too good an opportunity for us to pass up: Three shrinks, a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian, all simultaneously motivated to enjoy – or perhaps endure – Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
First, a word about us. We were, all three of us, fallen whatever-we-are’s. A strongly ethnic, but largely non-practicing Jew from the wilds of furthest Michigan, a Muslim raised in a densely populated, poverty stricken area of India who has not entered a temple in years, and your modest scrivener, a black-Irish-Catholic who surrendered his faith about the time priests stopped droning in Latin.
Of course, as 21st century human service personnel, we could not engage in an activity as momentous as going to a movie about Jesus without the requisite amount of psychological processing. We spent an hour – off the books, of course – in a hospital office examining our ambivalence, our subconscious motivations, and what it all meant for our feelings about our mothers before deciding to rush to a top drawer pizza joint for a pre-movie fortification feed. Thus sated, we sallied forth, Jesus bound, through the brightly lit mall, past the hectoring mavens offering free dental exams or eyeglasses, and onward into the deepest bowels of the cineplex.
But first, of course, more about us. In truth we approached this video challenge with motivations as varied as our names. My Muslim colleague regularly regaled us with tales of his penurious upbringing; he ate rats, walked miles to school, endured the beatings of teachers, and used it all to fuel a fire for achievement that, with his mother’s powerful urging, separated him from the masses of his village and propelled him onward to the top of his medical class. His mother told him that he was too ugly to be an actor and too small to be an athlete, so an M.D. was his only ticket to the wider, wealthier world. He had a happy arranged marriage and was now better off than he had every imagined possible – and he often mused, somewhat somberly, about how well childhood penury prepares one for adult success. For himself, he wanted to know more about this strange thing called Christianity, to initiate an understanding of its history and its mythological figures. The Muslims revere Mohammed but also Moses and others, and they consider Jesus to be a great prophet who, like nearly all prophets, met an unfortunate end. Just how unfortunate he was about to find out.
My Jewish colleague, as learned as a Rabbi if not as observant, had for years been studying the cultural, political and religious history of the near eastern regions from which Christ emerged, and was curious about the charges of anti-Semitism leveled at the film. Out of deference to his Christian fellow humanoids, with whom, after all, he shared much the same belief system but for a slight disagreement about the epistemological status of a certain messiah, he wanted to be an informed commentator; and, truth be known, if there was threat to be faced he wanted to face it face on.
As for myself, like so many other lapsed Catholics I apprised seeing the movie an analogous to the twice monthly visits to the confessional of my childhood; It was no fun, but it had to be done. But another part of me, again like so many other Boomer Christians no longer even remotely young, secretly wondered whether this cinemagraphic religious experience might reintroduce me, in reality, to a world-changing figure who, in spiritual principle, I might be personally encountering before the cock crowed all that many more times. After being ethnically, and forcibly, submerged in Catholicism in my youth (just imagine the smash hit Nunsense, minus the humor, dancing, singing and, well, fun), and faced with the credibility challenging ecclesiastical fantasies of virgin birth, Papal infallibility, and the awaiting eternal agonies of Hell, I had wandered from the flock. Now I was going to check out the shepherd to see if maybe it was time to wander on back.
So cell phones were switched to vibration-mode, popcorn buckets strategically placed among us and the room darkened. Oddly, the cavernous theater was nearly empty on that Tuesday evening – and who was that other fellow over there, clad in that strange cloak?

Sarcasm is the defense of the intellectualized and we had our first opportunity about a third of the way into the movie when Jesus the carpenter was presented in a scene of domestic bliss with his mother Mary. He is working on a table, which happens to be exceedingly tall. Mary calls Jesus for lunch and is perplexed at the altitude of the table. Jesus explains that the table is elevated for leaning on when sitting on tall chairs. Mary tries to lean on the table and slips, then the two of them make their way to the kitchen, playfully, and darn Oedipally, splashing each other with water. My Jewish friend was struck not by the carpenter or Oedipal parts – but why the tall table? What is this, Jesus meets Martha Stewart? Will the catalogue arrive in a month? It seemed incongruous and superfluous, like many other less prosaic details of the movie.
But our initial fervent debate, of course, was about the violence. In truth, my Muslim friend who had witnessed great poverty and pain in his village and therefore was comfortable with it, slept through many of the most gruesome scenes. While Jesus’ flesh was being torn with hooks and flayed with whips he dropped off for a quick nap like a good psychiatrist, the better to be responsive to those midnight calls. But my Jewish friend wondered if the graphic scenes of violence were no more than gratuitous. Was this simply another technologically produced chainsaw massacre, given a clever religious theme to gain access to a wider audience? Was Jesus being torn up so graphically simply because American consumers would no longer fork over ten bucks to see the desiccation of a mortal human?
I proposed that many Christians, like myself, had never been exposed to the reality of Christ’s ordeal. An Irish child grows up hard by the ubiquitous crucifix, occasionally wears it around his neck, kneels before it in darkened chapels. But what did it mean? That Christ suffered and died “for your sins” was the guilt inducing mantra of my youth, and stood as the first model of committed, purposeful sacrifice. But, until tonight, these were mere words. Now, perhaps for the first time, millions of Americans were being confronted by the visual image of the lashes, the beatings, the nails, the unrequited torture of Jesus’ sacrifice. This was no longer about the abstract, orthodox dogma of salvation; it was about pain suffered in pursuit of a higher goal, indeed, the highest goal – unity with God. Perhaps, in a simple sense, it had to be seen to be believed.
My Muslim friend talked about the profound influence of Mahatma Gandhi on his childhood, the apparent similarity of his story to that of Jesus, and how in the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of his childhood violence was anathema because Gandhi, the father of the nation, had pleaded that his assassins be spared even as he lay dying of their bullets. He knew that tolerance is possible – perhaps often not preferred, but nevertheless possible. He did not believe the movie to be anti-Semitic, brushing off such talk as the indulgence of hypersensitive types.
I talked about another recent movie Michael Collins, which portrays the rise and ultimate betrayal and murder of an Irish freedom-fighter. Collins is surrounded by nobility, courage, venality and cowardice, all of it thoroughly Irish. Though the Irish may passionately disagree about the meaning of The Struggles, we would never deny that it demonstrates all the varied qualities, ethics-wise, of our ancient cult. There can be no doubt that the movie presents local Jewish leaders as arrogant and cold, and does indulge in the occasional hook-nosed, snaggle toothed stereotyping, further reinforcing our ancient association of ill virtue with homeliness, obesity, and poor dental care. Pilate, looking majestically Roman, washes his hands and abandons Christ to the insatiable blood lust of his Jewish tormenters. But present too are the noble and compassionate Jews who comfort Jesus in his self-imposed hours of suffering and grieve at the necessary sadness of his end.
But two thousand years later, my Jewish friend opined, we can wonder why the significance of Jesus’ death was elevated over the thousands of other Jews who were similarly tortured by the Romans, primarily for their insurrectionist tendencies. Was not their pain as legitimate, were not their deaths as worthy of recognition? Is it only faith that renders Jesus’ agony of a different order than that of mortal men?
After an hour of discussion sitting in a parked car in a darkened lot, the key message of the movie, we surmised, was that it was not the Jews or the Romans or the Philistines who killed Christ, but it rather was every one of us in our tendency to find reasons outside ourselves for our failings and perversions. Shrinks call in externalization, or projection. Christ was killed by humanity’s rampant need to discover an external focus for our pain and for our very mortality, and our deluded belief that by destroying the target of that focus we can rid ourselves of pain and death. Jesus walked, spoke, suffered, maybe even made bad furniture, but the one thing he most insistently did not do, we thought, was blame others for his plight.
It wasn’t forgiveness, for forgiveness requires the original internalization of a psychological or emotional injury, and Jesus had a perspective that allowed him to transcend, and therefore avoid, the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune. The message was conveyed that the initial imposition of a harsh judgement upon other was an error; through an absolutely unlimited willingness to yield Christ proposed that the only path to life is through death.
Left stranded by such high-minded ruminations we took refuge in considering the strange synchronicity of epochal religiously themed events in contemporary life; the current struggle, most evident in middle east, between forms of Islam and Christianity, the painful, and infuriating sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and then the simultaneous emergence of this movie that appeared to mean much more than movies usually do. Deadly explosions rattle neighborhoods as well as battlefields, with the name of God the last word on supposed martyrs’ lips; lawyers and Church potentates debate the significance of thousands of incidents of licentiousness, in rapt pursuit of money, or justice, or both; and now – why now? – people of all faiths line up to witness the degradation and murder of a Jewish carpenter of two thousand-odd years ago.
Does this mean, the three of us wondered, that the Day of Reckoning is at hand, are all the signs pointing in the right direction – up, down, sideways – such that forgiveness will be loosed upon the world in all its might? Will we all soon believe that we all believe much the same things and we can therefore focus on what is right rather than what is ours? Is ours the epoch that finally understands that enough blood has been spilled in the efforts to be the sole arbiter of sacred truth, and Muslim, Jew, Christian and all other faiths will learn to live together? And does it mean that, come this Sunday, I will overcome my deep-seated resentment and drag my sorry butt out of bed and go to church?
We’ll see.