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Passionate about ‘The Passion’

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, April 8, 2004

Frank Rich of The New York Times called it “a porn movie.” To Christopher Hitchens, it was a homoerotic “exercise in lurid sadomasochism.” The New York Daily News called it “the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.”

How can we explain the hostility of the elites in the media, Hollywood and the academy to Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ? Antonio Gramsci can help us understand.

Gramsci, an Italian Communist who died in 1937, saw that the proletarian revolution of Marxist theory would not happen in western countries because the workers and their oppressors were united by a common bond of Christian culture and belief. The secular, classless paradise, he thought, would be achieved without a revolution, but only if the people were first separated from their Christian roots and conditioned to ignore the transcendent, i.e., God and his truth, and to focus on the immanent, i.e., living day-to-day without reference to God or objective morality.

Since the 1960s this country has been a Gramscian laboratory. The courts removed any affirmation of God from the schools and public life. Merry Christmas gave way to Happy Holidays. Deconstructionists deprived language of objective meaning. Trendy clerics turned the Commandments into advisories.

“More than in any other historical period,” John Paul II, “one must point to a break in the transmission of moral and religious values between generations.”

The intentional infliction of death is now an optional problem-solving technique. The contraceptive separation of sex from life provided control over the beginning of life and inevitably over the ending of life through abortion and euthanasia. That separation legitimized sodomy and undermined the status of marriage. Pornography is a bigger business then professional football, basketball and baseball combined. And so on.

Gramsci wrote approvingly of “hegemony” as dominance by a ruling class not by the threat of force but by the willing submission of the subordinate classes. The molders of culture have achieved, in recent decades, the cultural hegemony not of a class but of a secular, relativist and individualist code. That code conditions the public to think only of the materialistic here and now, with God excluded or relegated to the margins.

So why the hostility to “The Passion?” The protests against it were described by Rabbi Daniel Lapin as “morally indefensible and ill-advised.”

“Gibson has complemented the Gospel narrative,” said Vatican Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, “with the insights [of] saints and mystics … [The film is] faithful to the meaning of the Gospels, as understood by the church.” Maia Morgenstern, the Jewish actress who played Mary, and whose father is a Holocaust survivor, said, “Despite the blood and the violence, it’s a beautiful film … It brings … a peace message.”

If anything, Gibson understated the sufferings of Christ. St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, relying on St. Bonaventure, St. Anselm and the visions of St. Bridget, said “the number of the [scourging] strokes amounted to several thousand, the flagellation being administered … after the manner of the Romans, with whom there was no [limit] … [T]he bones of his ribs were laid bare … St. Peter Damian wrote that the executioners exhausted themselves with fatigue in scourging our Lord.”

“After the scourging,” wrote St. Alphonsus, “[Pilate showed] him to the people, saying, ‘Behold the Man!’ [because he] was … so pitiable … that Pilate believed the very sight of him would have moved his enemies … to compassion, and hindered them from … demanding his death … The appearance of Jesus after his scourging was so shocking … as to move to tears even those who hated him.” Liguori concluded that Christ, a divine person with two natures, human and divine, willed to suffer beyond merely human endurance. The film is a love story.

Why are the liberal elites so hostile to this film? Because it threatens to upset their applecart, worldwide. “The Passion,” like a lightning bolt, is a sudden intrusion of the transcendent – God – into the immanent, into the lives of ordinary people.

A religious renewal had been germinating before “The Passion.” But “The Passion” reaches beyond the religiously aware to affect many for whom it is a wake-up call. The elites had already overreached, with the Super Bowl halftime and the arrogance of public officials “marrying” sodomites in defiance of enacted law. But Mel Gibson is so hated by the elites because he dramatically reintroduced the American – and world – public to the transcendent and specifically to Christ. The fight is not about Mel Gibson. It is all about Christ.

Antonio Gramsci would understand. Pray for him. And go see “The Passion.”

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column usually appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at lplawecki@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.