Mel Gibson is still among the most reviled people in Hollywood. We all know about his bitter, violent anti-Semitism. And there’s more in the man’s record to revolt you if you can be bothered to dig further.
No amount of spin, no program of image management, not even a further body of impressive work is going to remove the ugly stain from his reputation.
Even his most famous film, “The Passion of the Christ,” has been widely derided as Gibsonian in the worst ways: excessive, heavy-handed, gratuitously violent, and, yes, anti-Semitic.
Watching it again today, however, I was struck by a new thought. Not that the film is in fact excessive, heavy-handed, or the rest: I think it is the best film by far in giving us some approximation, and only that, of the suffering Jesus underwent in the day before his death. “Excruciating” comes from crux, or “cross,” and only a film that stays with Jesus’ serial agonies in such a realistic way can begin to give us a sense of what he endured.
No, as I pondered Gibson’s portraits of the thuggish arresting guards in Gethsemane, the wickedly foolish Judas, the pompous hypocrite Caiaphas who thinks he is so very savvy, the dithering and dilatory Pontius Pilate who thinks he has escaped responsibility, the floundering Peter, the grotesque Herod, and the brutal floggers and executioners, I thought this: What would it take to atone for this amount of sin?
Usually, I have argued the other way. I take as axiomatic the conviction that an all-good, all-powerful God would not allow one bit of evil in the universe more than God has to allow in order for his great purposes to be fulfilled. And when Jesus prays in the Garden to be spared the horror awaiting him, and his Father impresses upon him an indisputable three times that that horror cannot be avoided, I conclude that only this much suffering will suffice—both what we can imagine from what we know of Jesus’s way to the Cross and what we cannot possibly imagine as the holy Lamb of God somehow atones for the sins of the world.
Today, though, as I cringed and cried my way through this movie, I came at it from the other side: Only this much suffering could atone for this much evil. Gibson’s movie could not be excessive, and no artistic depiction could possibly be, when it comes to what it cost God to redeem this much sin.