Public Spectacles, Torture, and Crucifixion, or, More Passion Stuff

In the Washington Post, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

I have experienced a conversion of sorts as a result of “The Passion of the Christ,” although hardly the conversion Mel Gibson had in mind. I hasten to say that I have not “personally” seen that film (rather like not having “personally” read a good many books that I have the illusion of having read from a multitude of reviews). But my own reaction to it has to do not so much with the film itself as the phenomenon — what it represents in the culture and what it is making of the culture.

I agree with this observation. The phenomenon around this film — which I have been sucked into myself — is very intriguing. But my thoughts on the subject have taken a new turn.

Mel Gibson is getting quite a bit of attention, some good, some bad, for the spectacle of violence on the silver screen. Rumors of the pope saying “it is as it was” about the film gives it a certain amount of legitimacy. Others are outraged by the gore, and can’t get past it to judge the film on other merits.

But I am wondering about the spectacle factor. Crucifixion itself is a spectacle, albeit a horrific one. In the film, and possibly in the Bible, one can see Golgotha (“the place of skulls,” the site of the crucifixion) from the city walls. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, given only to non-Romans. This historical fact, combined with the spectacle, means that the primary function of crucifixion is social control. “Watch youself under Roman law, or this could happen to you.”

It was horrible then, and it certainly looks horrible on the 100′ screen. So something I’ve been thinking about: to what extent is this movie, portraying a horrific method of social control, also itself a method of social control?

There are many layers to this question, one of which is to examine the extent to which Christianity — or indeed organized religion on the whole — is a method of social control. This is a legitimate question, but to me is not primary. I am more concerned with the political implications of the crucifixion itself, rather than the theological implications of Christ’s death and rebirth.

I’m sure I’ll think about this some more…

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