Global Perspective

March 22, 2005 Vol. 2, No. 41

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Antonio D. Sison
Antonio David Sison is a Filipino theologian who works in the interdisciplinary area of Theology and Cinema. His doctoral research was on the confluence of Edward Schillebeeckx's Eschatology and Third Cinema. He is also a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. He is currently in the initial formation program of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood in Dayton, Ohio. His e-mail is



The passion of The Third World Christ

By Antonio D. Sison

Eli, Eli lama sabachthani ...

The trailer showed an onscreen Jesus uttering one set of the famous seven last words -- "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" -- with great passion. Months before its premiere, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" captured my imagination if only for its tour de force stylistic option of using two extinct languages -- Aramaic and Latin. Weaned on Hollywood movie Christs who spoke with either an East Coast accent or the queen's English, I was in the market for a Christ who, at the very least, sounded close to the original. If this was a foreshadowing of things to come, I was also ready to see an onscreen Christ whose message sounded close to the original- that of inaugurating a Kingdom of liberation, justice and hope.

Mel Gibson's Jesus film received considerable buzz from both film and religious circles. It had a high-profile world premiere in spring 2004. During a break from my doctoral research in theology and cinema, I accepted an invitation to attend the Manila premiere and lead a post-screening discussion for a Catholic group.

"The Passion of the Christ" details the last 12 hours of Jesus' life in relentless scenes of graphic torture depicting chunks of raw, mangled flesh ripped out of Jesus' body and endless spurts of blood shed by the gallon. The extreme brutality and violence had a desensitizing effect; I simply found it impossible to relate to this Jesus image. He was no more flesh-and-blood than a cartoon character who stands up comically after a grand piano had been dropped on his head. He was also a Jesus who seemed to have come only to suffer and die. For me, Mel Gibson not only pushed the envelope, he also took my Jesus away and I do not know where he put him.

The ensuing film discussion confirmed my anxiety that Gibson's film would only work to perpetuate a self-defeating attitude so interwoven into the Filipino psyche. The common sentiment among the members of the Catholic discussion group: "I feel guilty because my sins caused Jesus untold suffering my sins crucified Jesus."

The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic. This can be an assertion of pride, the distinction that the country is, in fact, preciously unique; the only Catholic nation in Asia. On the flipside, it is also a statement that recalls the national trauma of more than three centuries of oppressive Spanish rule where religion became a weapon conveniently used by the colonizers to control and pacify a culture not their own. The images of Christ introduced by the colonial agenda were those of the crucified Christ and the santo entierro (literally, "holy entombment") or the lifeless body of Christ taken down from the cross. These images took root in the indigenous culture. Evidently, the colonizers favored an image of Christ's passivity, suffering and death, over more liberative images of resurrection and hope. The common practice of penitential self-mortification, which was unknown to ancient Filipinos, began to flourish. When first introduced by Spanish friars, the reception for the ritual was, at best, lukewarm. Upon the infusion of popular folk beliefs, however, particularly in the pre-colonial value known as damay or solidarity, the ritual found cultural assimilation. Self-flagellation came to be viewed as empathy for and participation in the passion of Jesus Christ.*

Present-day Filipinos have taken great leaps in identifying with the Jesus of the Gospels, who had come to personify God's in-breaking reign of justice and empowerment. In recent history, a collective, non-violent, religious-political revolt known as "people power" ousted not just one, but two abusive Filipino heads of state. At the heart of such liberative currents is the image of the resurrected Christ whose Spirit is woven into the lives of those who struggle against oppression and injustice. The Jesus of "The Passion of the Christ" is not the prophetic-liberating Christ that Filipinos have been seeking to re-discover. Apparently, this is a Jesus Gibson re-created from the writings of the German Augustinian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), who embellished the gospel accounts with mystical abstractions that singularly emphasized suffering. For Filipinos, indeed, for postcolonial Hispanic cultures, Gibson's Jesus may well be a silver screen version of the santo entierro.

In contrast, the passion of the "Third World Christ" finds cinematic representation in the 1964 Italian film "Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo" ("The Gospel According to St. Matthew") by the late auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini downplays the blood and gore and foregrounds the stark, unapologetic realism of Christ's passion and mission. An image that stands out in the film is the Sermon on the Mount sequence where Jesus is shown constantly walking as his disciples follow him. Using an over-the-shoulder camera angle, Pasolini frames his Jesus from the back so that the audience is drawn to virtually follow Jesus as he preaches. The ethical imperative is unmistakable: we ought not to be just "hearers" of the word but "doers" of the word. Jesus prophetically denounced various sociopolitical asymmetries and the powerholders who perpetuate them. He was the voice of the weak and oppressed. It is incumbent upon his followers to do likewise.

I am well aware that while there is only one Jesus Christ, there will always be many images of him. In his book Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media, Michael F. Fore asserts, "Each generation has had to face anew the question, 'Who is Jesus?' and to work out its own answers in terms of its own culture." As someone identified with Third World culture, the Jesus I have always known is not the neutral, depoliticized Jesus of "The Passion of the Christ," whose love for humanity is based upon the lashes he receives and the amount of blood he sheds. Rather, he is the Jesus of "Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo," who is bound by his own loving covenant of righteousness and who is in solidarity with the quest for human liberation.

For peoples of the Third World who have suffered enough, it is the hopeful promise of Easter, not the tortured suffering of an over-extended Good Friday, that is the true passion of the Christ.

* See Benigno P. Beltran, The Christology of the Inarticulate: An Inquiry into the Filipino Understanding of Jesus the Christ (Manila: Divine Word Publications, 1987) p. 115.
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