American Renaissance

Is the Power of ‘Passion’ Tied to Jesus’ Race?

Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 1

What if Jim Caviezel, a white man, had not been cast to play Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”?

What if another man had been chosen to play Jesus, say a man with a darker, more olive complexion — perhaps one with hair like lamb’s wool and feet the color of burned brass?

Last week, Rev. Albert Sampson of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago wrote an open letter to Gibson on this subject: “I am appalled that in the year 2004, you are producing a white Jesus in a white-dominated film.”

I wouldn’t say that I’m appalled, but I do think it’s a more than fair observation.

Probably, if you ask most Christians whether race is relevant when it comes to Jesus, the politically correct answer is no. And it’s true that the spirit of Jesus defies the confinements of skin color.

But could Gibson’s $25 million film have been as effective — so many people have been saying it has “transformed” their lives — if Jesus looked more ethnic, considering all the stuff we attach to the color of one’s skin?

Sadly, probably not.

Indeed, the physical depiction of Jesus has changed over the years.

I remember the picture of Jesus displayed on a mural behind the choir stand of the church I attended as a child. He was quite Hollywood-looking with his long, wavy blond hair, blue eyes and angular facial features.

I also remember my introduction to a Jesus who looked different. I was about 8 years old when I saw an episode of the 1970s television show “Good Times” in which the character Michael Evans, a young black militant, brought home a portrait of Jesus.

This one had a well-coifed afro, dark skin, thick lips and piercing eyes. Michael’s mother, a deeply religious woman, viewed the depiction as blasphemous and was repulsed by it. One of Michael’s siblings joked that the portrait wasn’t Jesus but “Ned the wino.”

After a few inquiries, I was comforted by the possibility of a darker-skinned Jesus and the thought of bowing before someone who looked a bit more like me.

The response from audiences of “The Passion” has been incredible.

After watching the movie at a downtown Chicago theater last week on opening day, one 21-year-old evangelical said, “I just want to rush home and pray and pour my heart out to the Lord. I can’t think about all his love in the same way, now that I have seen this movie.”

A man from Bensenville, 58, said, “It will change your life. It made me feel bad for every sin I ever committed.”

For the record, I am a Christian. And the movie, albeit one man’s interpretation of a historical event, is powerful enough that you don’t think so much about race or ethnicity, but about man’s inhumanity to man.

Still, I have doubts whether moviegoers would have believed as ardently or felt as transformed if Jesus looked more Middle Eastern or Hispanic or even Asian.

A more ethnic looking Jesus probably would have been too jarring (or viewed as too much of a political statement) to have been taken to heart.

Gibson’s marketing of “The Passion” has been phenomenal. He has hosted screenings for thousands of religious leaders across the country over the last two months. Christian publishing companies have offered study guides and sample sermons based on the movie, which many churches have adopted.

Church leaders across the country who saw the movie and approved began urging their congregations to see it. And flocks have flocked, according to box office numbers.

Church leaders have said they hope the film will spark a spiritual awakening among true believers and reaffirm their faith. That’s a pretty big undertaking for a movie.

Gibson knew that the only way to even come close to such an undertaking was by depicting a Jesus who fits a stereotype. Maybe Gibson never even considered the biblical descriptions of Jesus because actor Caviezel more closely resembles the Jesus in the director’s own mind.

How one sees Jesus is an extremely personal vision. These days, you can visit any number of churches and find a depiction that closely resembles the congregation.

But it’s too bad that on the big screen, Jesus still is typecast. I think it speaks more about our limitations than our spiritual awakening.