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Barton GingerichApril 16, 2012
Was the Passion pornographic?
The Passion of Jesus Christ is pornographic. At least Kay Campbell of the liberal website "Red Letter Christians" seems to imply so when complaining how “images of the bloody and beaten Christ proliferate.” The Rev. Campbell is Faith & Values editor and reporter at The Huntsville (Alabama) Times and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
"I know there are Christians who find instruction in the violence of the cross, an excruciating sort of inspiration in the pornographic lacerations laid on the shoulders of the carved or painted Christ or the tortured actor in Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ,’” Campbell observed in a recent Eastertide article. “These Christians tell me those scenes help them appreciate their own sinfulness more seriously and the deep love of Christ more fully.”
But Campbell “can’t help but fear that Christians who interpret Christ’s torture as an instrument of salvation can imbibe with that inspiration a kind of theological justification of cruelty….”
Although Campbell admits that hers may be an “extreme conclusion,” she still worries that the “crucifixion” may form the imaginations of Christians so as to encourage an acceptance of torture. Evangelicals, with their particular Protestant view of redemption, are her main target. She cited a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center that found about 10 percent more evangelical Christians than other groups agree that torture can often or sometimes be justified for use by American security forces.
For Campbell, the ugliness of a punished Christ threatens the true message of Easter: “Far beyond the primitive clatter of weirdly pagan interpretations of Christ’s death as placating a law-obsessed God or paying an arcanely unfair penalty, the wrens chirrup, the locust trees hang white lanterns along the roadsides, and a smiling Jesus escapes our pitiful viciousness to walk and talk again with his friends, calling them to dwell together in mutual respect.”
Although Campbell targets evangelicals for drawing an “inspiration in the pornographic lacerations” of Christ, all major Christian traditions include Christ's excruciating suffering on the Cross. Officials from some of these non-evangelical traditions even denounced U.S. interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11. The tie between a strong focus on the sufferings of Jesus during the Lenten season do not correlate with an approval of what Campbell calls torture.
Campbell's concern about Christ's crucifixion being “weirdly pagan” is also dubious. Many ancient church fathers and medieval scholars alike, steeped in classical education and culture, saw Christianity as the fulfillment of paganism as well as Judaism. In our own time of sterile post-Enlightenment materialism, a belief in the supernatural and a reverence for the proper natures of things might be a step towards true progress. To assume that the pagans do not have insights and habits of permanent importance to teach and form us is questionable.
Of course, Campbell’s main objection is against a penal substitutionary atonement, a doctrinal staple for evangelicals. Partly an outgrowth of the Reformed tradition, this view states that sin is an offense against God and deserves punishment. Christ’s life and death took upon the required suffering for sin, His Father’s own just wrath—for what righteous judge would be just who left crime unpunished? Christ is the gift of Heaven, the only bridge to fellowship with God.
This account unsettles Campbell. It illustrates a punitive side to justice. Like political liberals with government budgets, religious liberals deny an important claim: “Someone has to pay for this.” Jurisprudential atonement makes these same groups squeamish to see the cross as an incredibly violent act of God against His Son in lieu of sinful humans. The “angry, petty” God of the Old Testament doesn’t go away; He even returns in the Second Coming of the Messiah as envisioned by St. John’s Revelation. Such a theological narrative outlines a legitimate use of violence that pivots on proportionality and proper authority.
Pacifists not uncommonly try to dislodge penal substitutionary atonement to justify their own rejection of all violence. Evangelicals may well retort with the famous remark from neo-orthodox thinker H. Richard Niebuhr that these hand-wringing pacifists believe “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
In her own sanitized view of what happened leading up to the Cross, Campbell argues that Jesus Christ fell to the violence of the crowds. The Passion of the Messiah becomes more abstract. She claims, “God created us to be family to each other in a mutual system of inclusion and care. But we destroy the Earth, dismember each other and, when we get the opportunity, crucify God himself.” Jesus fell to the mob, and He continues to do so today. Mankind (wrongly) uses violence, which inevitably kills the Son of God. We should be ashamed of ourselves and stop our warring. In His life, Christ called us to be peaceful. The quicker this behavior and attitude are universalized, the better. Such is the Kingdom of God: peaceful bliss.
So Campbell paints the supposedly real picture of Resurrection Sunday: “Surely the message of Easter lies not in the fake blood and re-enacted beatings, but in the froth of azaleas and the giggle of children [no doubt in pastel clothing] spotting a bunny hopping into green grass.” Many Americans saw the exact same portrayal of Easter on television just last week: it was a J. C. Penney commercial. It appears that the "Red Letter" religious message correlates more with feel good advertising than ancient faith passed on by the saints.
Campbell's Easter Bunny Easter ignores the nature of sin and Christ’s work. He became sin for us, putting to death the old man as the husk of a seed must die to bring forth new life. Our being in Christ and being made alive in Him takes on fuller significance if we participate in the Church’s fasts, not only the feasts. Good Friday must occur before Easter. The whole Incarnation remains a messy affair.
Christ came into the grime, dirt, guts, and blood of the earth—all to make it new. Not all his saints have had the luxury of frolicking after baby animals through sensuous meadows. They have been scourged, hunted, exiled, hung, impaled, skinned, burned, and suffered a myriad of other horrors, proclaiming the true message of Easter (something to do with resurrection, grace, and the love of God). But ostensible "Red Letter" advocates like Campbell seemingly prefer to espouse an anemic spirituality, even at Easter time.
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