A Bloodshed Theology

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has no compassion for those of us relegated to the margins. I am not too certain that the film has any love for Christ, either.

It would be an egregious omission to gloss over the unrelenting violence that took place during Jesus’ time, especially in light of the ongoing violence in today’s society toward people of color, women, Jews, Muslims, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. However, the deification of violence as depicted in the film as redemptive suffering has deleterious implications that are not-so-benignly played out today from the playground to the courtroom.

Also, the film desensitizes killing, giving rise not only to a cavalier attitude to kill those who pose a physical threat to our lives, but also to a self-righteous attitude to kill those who are believed to pose social and political threats to the status quo.

So much of the opposition to same-sex unions is intrinsically tied to a religious belief held by many Christian evangelical heterosexuals. They will by any means possible — and violence is not excluded — oppose any bill sanctioning such a union, because their fight is not only just, but it is also redemptive. And many of these Christian evangelical heterosexuals believe that if Christ can suffer as he did up the hill to Golgotha at Calvary, so too can they, as they make their way up to Beacon Hill in Boston to save the sanctity of marriage.

The notion, therefore, of equating violence to redemptive suffering is not only bad theology, but is also a bad paradigm to demonstrate how God, who so loved the world that he offered up his only begotten son to save all of humanity, sacrificed in the form of a sado-masochistic flogging.

With no contextualization of the Gospel’s Passion narrative, Gibson flings his audience into the carnage of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. The scourge consisted of rivulets of Jesus’ blood due to metal-tipped whips that sliced and flayed his skin. The eerie sounds of the crunching of Jesus’ bone, the dislocation of his shoulder, the piercing of his palm and the nailing of his feet to the cross would bring anyone to tears, whether or note they know the Gospel narrative.

So much of the opposition to same-sex unions is intrinsically tied to a religious belief held by many Christian evangelical heterosexuals. They will by any means possible — and violence is not excluded — oppose any bill sanctioning such a union, because their fight is not only just, but it is also redemptive.

However, without the contextualization and accountability of the violence enacted upon Jesus, the cycle of violence continues. As a figure that has dominated Western culture and Christianity for over 2,000 years, too little attention is paid to Jesus’ death. If more focus was spent on the reasons for his death and the systems of oppression that brought about his demise, violence against marginalized people would cease to exist.

By focusing on the death of Jesus and how justice might be adjudicated from it, we are forced to remember history. In the year 33 A.D., Jesus was unquestionably a religious threat to conservative Jews because of his iconoclastic views and practice of Jewish Law, and viewed as a political threat to the Roman government simply because he was a Jew.

In I998, Americans got to see its “haterati” at its ugliest. The country saw the worst form of social intolerance since the McCarthy witch-hunts and the lynching of a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till of Chicago.

In a small remote town in East Texas named Jasper, an unemployed vacuum cleaner salesman named James Byrd Jr. was walking home from a party along Highway 96 and was offered a ride. Little did he know that he would be chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged by his ankles to his death – simply because he was black.

During the summer months of 1998, the country was hit with the explosion of “ex-gay” ministry ads that appeared in major newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. The ads were sponsored by a coalition of 15 right-wing Christian organizations calling all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to convert to heterosexuality. The ads stated: “Please, if you, or someone you know or love is struggling with homosexuality, show them this story. If you truly love someone, you’ll tell them the truth. And, the truth that God loves them could just be the truth that sets them free.”

And then in October of that year, we heard the deadly news coming from another remote place called Laramie, Wyo. This time, the victim was Matthew Shepard, 21, a first-year college student. Under the guise of friendship, two men lured Shepard from a tavern, bludgeoned him with their rifles, and then tethered him to a rough-hewn wooden fence, like a hunting trophy — simply because he was gay.

In conservative Christianity, the cross as the locus of God’s atonement for human sin raises a myriad of questions for those of us who, like Louima, want to avoid hanging from it. As an instrument for execution by Roman officials during Jesus’ time, the cross’s symbolic nature and its symbolic value can both be seen as the valorization of suffering and abuse. . .

In 1998, America got to see how hate in this country spares no one who is deemed different.

Then just last year, on Nov. 30, Cincinnati police officers were acquitted for beating to death Nathaniel Jones, a 350-pound African-American male with an enlarged heart, because society has replaced the lynching of black men by the Ku Klux Klan with the killing of them by police officers. And this comes after the nation had to deal with the beating of Rodney King.

For example, when violence goes unchecked, oftentimes the oppressed — knowingly or unknowingly — participate in their own oppression. In a society that is built on Christian patriarchal violence, the sodomizing of black heterosexual men who have the courage to tell is considered by the African-American community a far more heinous crime than the lynching, and certainly the raping and killing of their women — straight or queer.

The sodomizing of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant from Brooklyn, N.Y., by a group of New York City police officers in the 1990s, was just as much about the racialization of violence as it is about its sexualization when it comes to the African-American community.

The pernicious lie from the police officers that Louima voluntarily engaged in consensual homosexual “rough sex” not only feeds into blatant homophobia, but also the absurd notion that someone wrongly being flogged by the police would be up to having sex at that moment. If Louima had the energy to turn his ass to the police, it would not have been an invitation to have sex with him but instead the defiant sign to kiss it.

In other words, in conservative Christianity, the cross as the locus of God’s atonement for human sin raises a myriad of questions for those of us who, like Louima, want to avoid hanging from it. As an instrument for execution by Roman officials during Jesus’ time, the cross’s symbolic nature and its symbolic value can both be seen as the valorization of suffering and abuse, especially in the lives of the oppressed.

For those of us on the margins, a Christology mounted on the belief that “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” instead of “Jesus died on the cross because of our sins” not only deifies Jesus as the suffering servant, but it also ritualizes suffering as redemptive. While suffering points to the need for redemption, suffering in and of itself is not redemptive, and it does not always correlate to one’s sinfulness. For example, the belief that undeserved suffering is endured by faith, and that it has a morally educative component to it makes the powerful insensitive to the suffering of others and it forces the less powerful to be complacent to their suffering – therefore, maintaining the status quo.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer because of well-intended heterosexual Christians’ unexamined and unaccounted for acts of homophobia. When these Christians say they love us as sinners, but hate our supposed sin, they are maintaining an unexamined and unaccounted for cycle of spiritual abuse.

Jesus’ suffering on the cross should never be seen as redemptive any more than the suffering of African-American men dangling from trees in the South during Jim Crow America. The lynchings of African-American men were never as restitution for the sins of the Ku Klux Klan, but were, instead, because of their sins that went, for decades, unaccounted for (until the 1951 Federal Anti-Lynching Act was passed). In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross and the lynching of African-American are synonymous experiences.

As a deeply controversial icon in Christian liberation theologies for many feminists, womanists, African Americans, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the cross is the locus of redemption insofar as it serves as a lens to critically examine and make the connections between the abuses of power and institutions of domination that brought about the suffering Jesus endured during his time to the abuses of power and institutions of domination that brings about the suffering which women, people of color and sexual minorities are enduring in our present day.

When suffering is understood as an ongoing cycle of abuse that goes on unexamined and unaccounted for, we can then begin to see its manifestation in systems of racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism in our everyday lives. With a new understanding about suffering and how it victimizes the innocent and its aborts the Christian mission of inclusiveness, Jesus’ death at Calvary invites a different hermeneutic than its classically held one.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer because of well-intended heterosexual Christians’ unexamined and unaccounted for acts of homophobia. When these Christians say they love us as sinners, but hate our supposed sin, they are maintaining an unexamined and unaccounted for cycle of spiritual abuse.

Many Christians do not realize that with the classical view of the cross held by many conservatives in their denominations as the exaltation of Jesus as male, Jesus as white, and Jesus as heterosexual, this view not only disinvites the many faces of God that should appear on the cross with Jesus, but it also disinvites solidarity among diverse groups of people who do suffer.

Mel Gibson’s Passion promulgates a bloodshed theology of unbridled violence. And with that type of theology one can easier forget this vital point about that day at Calvary: Jesus’ suffering is to be symbolized as the one who suffers above all other, but instead his suffering is to symbolized as the one who suffers with us all.

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