A third of the way into the movie, the sniffles among the audience turned into sporadic moaning and weeping. The relentless blows that Jesus endured en route to his crucifixion made me flinch. Perhaps the first pragmatic lesson about watching the “The Passion of the Christ” is that you need real courage. This movie means so many things to so many experts; “it encourages anti-Semitism”, “it is just all too much blood and gore,” “it is at it was” the Pope is reported to have said. But what does it mean to the ordinary citizen and perhaps millions of Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Why should the movie mean anything to these people or to any one for that matter? After all, at the height of the fight against colonialism in Africa in the 1950s and the struggle for Civil Rights in the US, many radicals called him the “White Jesus” and charged that European imperialists and missionaries had abused Christianity to oppress, brainwash, and exploit millions of people of color all over the world. After all, Christianity and Jesus do not have the best reputation in all corners of the world. The famous Karl Marx expressed similar sentiments about religion saying it the opium of the people; meaning that religion prevents people from realizing or becoming conscious that they are being abused, exploited, and oppressed by the powers that be all over the world.
The “Passion of the Christ” provoked me to reminisce about the life of pain and suffering that we endured as we lived in our extended families and kinship in remote African villages, tribes, and schools. Many Africans endured the lives of exploitation and brutality in deep underground mines in apartheid South Africa and rubber plantations deep in the heart of the Congo then ruled by the ruthless King Leopold of Belgium. African lives and those of people in the Third World under European colonialism were often hell on earth. “The Passion of the Christ” reminded me of my experiences at Tamanda Dutch Reformed Mission school in a remote part of my Southern African country of Zambia, as a young boy learning about Jesus’ suffering on the cross for all our sins. President Kaunda, a staunch Christian who was the first President of my home country of Zambia wrote these profound words in the 1960s: “The very attempts of modern societies to insulate themselves from suffering have resulted in a refusal of love, for the willingness to love and be loved makes suffering inevitable. And in the refusal of love, modern man feels pain without the possibility of transforming it into suffering.” (Kaunda, A Humanist in Africa, 1966:40)
We commit sins ranging from denying others food and other necessities of life due to our greed and selfishness, consuming of pornography, to murder. Examples of sin and evil that humans commit are all over the newspapers. A headline in our local paper: “Couple Admits Torturing Tots” stated that the father of two young children allegedly “whipped them with dog leashes, choked them until they lost consciousness, punched their faces, and left them barefoot in the snow…..” (DNR, 03-13-04). There are those incompressible sins and horrendous evil that whole families, religions, governments, societies and civilizations have committed and continue to commit. A few come into mind: the Western Civilization imposed imperialism, introducing the universal poison that is racism, conquering, and exploiting Asia, the New World, and Africa often inflicting untold death and suffering on indigenous people. The Atlantic Slave trade of Africans that was fueled by Western capitalist greed, the American Civil War that killed millions, the 20 million souls that perished in Stalin’s gulags of the Soviet Union, the holocaust which decimated 6 million Jews and millions of others, the Armenian genocide, the killing fields of millions in Cambodia in the 1970s, the famine in Ethiopia and Somalia that starved and killed millions, genocide in Rwanda, and currently the terrorist bombings that are killing thousands creating massive fear, pain, and suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Every skin-gashing blow of the whip, pain and suffering that Jesus endured was to absorb all our small and horrendous sins and evil humanity has committed in the past, present, and in the future. “The Passion of the Christ” has even a greater meaning for the one and half billion people who live in poverty in the Third World because many of them do not enjoy the hedonism that we assume is our birth right in our society, but instead endure pain and suffering everyday as many struggle against hunger, disease, poverty, crime, exploitation, torture and human rights abuses, and death. The pleasures of the affluent life that we enjoy in the developed countries that are now flaunted world-wide through globalization and electronic communication via television and the internet often simply worsen the pain and suffering creating poisonous envy and frustration as most of the poor in the Third World realize they will never taste the kind of opulence that we enjoy. This is partially what may be creating and fomenting terrorism
“The Passion of the Christ” conveys the most important lesson. When Jesus was enduring the endless pain and suffering, his helpless mother at one point tried to give her collapsed son a drink of water. Another man helped an exhausted Jesus carry his heavy cross. This is a powerful symbol of kindness that also drives us humans when we see others in pain and suffering. The same sins and horrendous evil that we engage in are often overwhelmed by our goodness and kindness. Abused children who are adopted by foster families, sending food to starving millions, American civilians, missionaries, soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis died to create a better life for more than 25 million Iraqis. “The Passion of the Christ” finally made me realize why millions of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans accepted Jesus Christ’s message and Christianity with open arms: when you experience pain and suffering, see sin and evil around you on an every basis, Christianity and Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness is so soothing and offers an eternal light of hope.