Moments after nearly 425 Valley clergy and religious leaders watched Jesus Christ incessantly beaten to a bloody pulp in the debut of “The Passion of the Christ,” a faith panel passionately endorsed the controversial film Wednesday as God-inspired cinematography.
They praised filmmaker Mel Gibson for “responding to the obedience of God” by making the career-risking movie on the final 12 hours of Christ’s earthly life.
“This violence has the purpose of making us aware of just how extreme is Jesus’ love for us,” said the Rev. Leonard Walker, pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mesa, who was part of a panel discussion that took place immediately after an early morning showing at Superstition Springs 25 Harkins theaters in Mesa.
The long-awaited film opened at theaters across the nation Wednesday. Valley theaters reported first-day crowds that rivaled blockbuster openings such as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Much of the reaction in recent days has focused on the graphic violence in the two-hour film, produced and directed by Gibson. But one panel member told the gathering this represents the torrent of bloodshed required to cover the enormous sins of humankind through the ages.
“If we think about the billions and billions and billions of people not only since the time of Jesus but before, every person is represented by a drop of blood,” said Jannah Scott of New Generation Christian Fellowship Church in Glendale. Filmgoers should regard it as “symbolic of the power of Jesus shedding that blood for each and every one of us,” she said.
The graphic movie, starting with Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, contains a relentless litany of scenes of a bloodied Christ, whipped, slugged, dragged, tortured and brutally nailed through his feet and the palms of his hands. Intertwined are uplifting flashbacks to better times in his life and ministry.
Most of the 11 panelists analyzed the theological themes of the film. Some said they hoped viewers will more faithfully read their Bibles, but, more importantly, share the “Good News” to unbelievers.
“We just saw the crucifixion of the greatest Jew who walked the face of the Earth, and so it is the heart of the Jewish faith, as well,” said Messianic Jewish Rabbi Jack Zimmerman of Beth Simcha Hamashiach in Phoenix.
Yet a Conservative Jewish rabbi on the panel insisted the film does not advance Christians’ contention that Christ was the Messiah prophesied in Hebrew scripture.
“The Messiah was meant to bring peace and goodwill, and as long as there is not peace and good will, we will have questions about it,” said Rabbi Leo Abrami of the Beth Emeth Congregation, a Conservative Jewish temple in Sun City West. He insisted Jewish leaders at the time deeply explored the question and determined Christ could not have been the Messiah.
“The Jews portrayed here are savage murderers, and that is rather unfortunate,” he added.
The portrayal is not unlike historic controversies that have led “people to massacre Jews,” he said, but “Americans are well-educated and are probably able to overcome this.”
Still, many clergy clearly were moved by the film.
“I was moved by the forgiving spirit that Jesus exhibited throughout the film, despite all the wounds and hurts that he had to go through,” said the Rev. Joseph Chavez of Phoenix Inner City Church, which sponsored the special screening and discussion. Chavez said he had tried to get Gibson to come to the Valley to speak at a special prerelease screening of the film last year, but arrangements fell through.
“This is just a powerful, powerful movie that I would certainly recommend to everyone,” said Walker, who said he was pleased the film ended with a tomb and resurrection scene. Because of the violence in society, “some Christians may avoid these films,” he said, but as a priest “rather immersed in the culture of our society, I don’t find this violence to be gratuitous” like many movies that seek to “gain some kind of attention and excitement.”
“There can be no excitement out of the violence of this movie,” the Mesa priest said. “It brings us to sadness, to profound repentance.”