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The ‘coming of the kingdom’ in the media

Kamira Porter | Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Christians constantly look to images of Jesus to order our lives, actions and beliefs. In our time, people have a considerable amount of sources in a variety of mediums from which to contemplate our spiritual founder. From paintings, films, songs, literature and political rhetoric, Jesus, apparently, is everywhere. In our Notre Dame community, we find ourselves even more immersed in the different images of Christ around campus.

Across the country and on campus, debate and discussion over Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” brought us back to the pivotal moment in our faith lives and in religious history. After viewing the movie, something beyond the horrific violence left me uneasy about the portrayal of Jesus. While Gibson reaches for authenticity in showing the manner of Roman torture, the film offers little concerning why Jesus was executed.

The prominent Jesus scholar Marcus Borg faults the film for completely separating Jesus’ death on the cross from what Jesus was passionate about in life. This follows a close and politically oriented reading of both the Hebrew Scriptures and Gospels. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is highly concerned with issues of justice, primarily economic justice. For example, the pivotal event of the Torah, the Book of Exodus, tells of the Israelites deliverance from slavery in Egypt – an economic, political and racial oppression. In this and countless other stories, we can conclude the God of our faith is extremely concerned with economic injustice of God’s creation.

In the Christian Scriptures, we find the same concern in Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus preaches hope and help to the poor, calls people to give up their possessions and establishes an unlikely and unpopular community of outcasts as close friends and followers. Jesus as solely teacher, healer and miracle worker is hardly worthy of the brutal execution of the state. Even, as the Passion film proffers, Jesus being brought to trial as a blasphemer seems a bit unlikely to warrant the attention of Roman authorities. In a serious reading of the Gospel story, what Gibson and many miss becomes clear.

Jesus spoke often of the “Kingdom of God” and its eminent coming. This refers not to heaven, but of what the Earth would look like if God were on Caesar’s throne. Through Jesus’ parables, that world was a stark contrast to the Roman Empire – one in which all would have what they needed. Jesus was a political treat to the aristocracy and power structure of his time. His passion for God’s desire for economic and social justice on Earth made Him a threat and caused His death. Further, the early church was a contagion to Roman Empire since its leaders, Paul, Peter and James, were also executed.

So, Gibson misses the mark in capturing the zeal of Jesus, yet Hollywood on the whole does poor job in this regard. Popular films dealing with faith and spirituality, like “Saved” or “Dogma,” entertainingly critique empty and hypocritical Christian ideologies, yet offer to replace them with an empty and unchallenging spirituality. In these depictions, Jesus is not the advocate for the poor and disenfranchised we find in the Bible, but a tamer person merely concerned with moral squabbles and relationship ticks. These three films differ in theme, making us laugh or cry in anguish or in horror, but in their effect on American viewer spirituality, they are similar. All divorce Jesus from what He was passionate about: a new social order of justice.

In the current American Christian context, such depictions hardly surprise me. Christian voices in the forefront mainly represent morally conservative views and largely neglect the economic implications of following Christ. Additionally, Christians – particularly Catholics – find themselves in the higher social classes and in positions of power and influence over many. The culture wars and financial interests have re-shaped the image of Jesus to serve their own self-interest. This warm and fuzzy Jesus of personal salvation lacks the communal justice aspect found in the Gospels and early Church.

People of faith must re-connect with the Jesus of Gospels and continue the social movement he began two millennia ago. God’s passion for economic and social justice calls us to action. We must be pro-active in ending poverty, economic exploitation and injustice.

Kamira Porter is a junior history major. She can be contacted at kporter@nd.edu.

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