The Passion--Mini-Essay II
The Torment of being Betrayed
One further thought on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" should be mentioned. It has to do with what many reviewers have noted: the pure physicality of the depiction of Christ's suffering. Zoom-in images of facial agony, of nails ripping into flesh, of the viciousness of Christ's whipping--all of these give the impression of the physical agony which almost any crucified person would have to endure.
Yet what is missing is the depiction of the most powerful, but subtle, aspect of unjust suffering, and that is the mental torment of the sufferer. Granted, Gibson gives us several minutes of Jesus' mental suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we never are quite sure why specifically he is suffering. Is it because of the type of death he will face? The fact that he will die as a young man before his days are full? Because he is being betrayed? Because of the weight of bearing the sins of the world?
Mental anguish may emerge from many sources, but for the Christ of the Gospels his torment emerges because of his betrayal by Judas. Note that in the Gospel of John as Jesus joins his disciples for his last meal, he quotes a Psalm of betrayal to show what is on his mind: "He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me (John 13: 18 --quoting Psalm 41:9)." What the "Passion of the Christ" lacks is the awareness of, much less the skill at presenting, what it is like for a person to be betrayed by someone he trusted. There is no indication in the movie that Gibson is even cognizant of the issue.
A more subtle awareness of how betrayal might have been portrayed is to understand the array of human reactions to being betrayed. While this isn't the place to develop that array fully, one could mention at least three potential reactions: (1) desire for vengeance; (2) a giving up of any will to live; (3) forgiveness. The first is the most usual and most natural human reaction. Acting out of vengeance is the psychic equivalent of a physical reaction to taking in a draught of foul liquid: we spew it out. And, after we spew it out, we keep spitting and spitting, just to make sure that every trace of that liquid is out of our system. It is an instinctive and self-protective mechanism.
So, in many ways, seeking vengeance is the most natural way to respond to betrayal. The deepest biblical exposition of betrayal is in Psalm 55. In that Psalm, ascribed to David, the Psalmist's bitter calumnies against his adversaries ("Let death come upon them, let them go down to Sheol alive; let them go away in terror into their graves.."--v. 15 RSV) arise because of betrayal. The person who betrayed him was "not an enemy," for "then I could bear it (v. 12)." Rather, the person who betrayed was "you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse tgogether; within God's house we walked in fellowship (vv. 13-14)." Immediately on the heels of identifying the friend who betrayed is the violent reaction--"let death come upon them." When we feel our trust has been betrayed, we seek vengeance. We want the betrayer dead. Immediately.
John has Jesus quote Psalm 41 probably because of the appropriateness of the reference to betrayal by one "who ate of my bread" in that Psalm. But note that Jesus only quotes Psalm 41:9 and not Psalm 41:10 also. That verse says, "But do thou, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may requite them! (v. 10--italics added). Not only does the Gospel writer want to place the interpretive film of betrayal over the last meal of Jesus but he wants us to recognize that Jesus will not act out of vengeance. But how does Jesus act when betrayed? The next mini-essay will deal with other reactions to betrayal.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long