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Mel Gibson to Leonardo Boff

(Article published in TODAY, Business Section)  

Lest talking about the gore in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ consume your Holy Week, you may wish to spend a few quiet hours in some follow-through reading of Leonardo Boff’s Passion of Christ, Passion of the World.  A short piece of work  which the author himself calls “experimental in nature”,  it seeks to explore the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ in the context of contemporary faith and circumstances.  Though written almost thirty years ago, it suggests an interpretation of the cross that is relevant to our here and now.

Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan priest and native of Brazil, fully discloses where he is coming from.  He is looking at the violent death of the Christ, so powerfully delivered to us by Gibson’s art, from the horizon of liberation theology.  Its three-fold point of departure consists in the experience of political, economic, and cultural oppression of one group by another, the experience of liberation movements struggling to shake off the yoke of oppression and establish a new manner of life for all, and the experience of resistance on the part of the more numerous bloodied but unbowed, refusing to lose hope that, in the end, their liberation will be a reality.

From this vantage point, Leonardo Boff outlines the task he had set out for himself: “My interest, then, is directed to the detection of mechanisms that led Jesus to rejection, imprisonment, torture and shameful execution…[which] is the result of a commitment and a praxis that threatened the status quo of his time.  I propose to consider how Christ waged this conflict, what meaning he attributed to it, and how it has been interpreted in the New Testament and in the history of reflection guided by faith.  Frankly, I seek to detail the meaning that the passion and death of Jesus possess for our faith today as lived and tested in the context of our interest.”

A wealth of thought-provoking material can be mined from Chapters 1 to 9, and the quiet of Holy Thursday and Good Friday is necessary to absorb it all.  But the central insight of Boff’s treatise is that the passion of Christ is the passion of the world, and the passion of the world is the passion of Christ.  My space allotment prevents a full exposition, but a flavor may be tasted from Chapter 10 that suggests how to preach, and live, the cross of Jesus Christ today.

First, Boff suggests an enlargement of the concepts of death and of the cross.  Death must be seen not just the last moment of life, but a consequence of one’s life.  Thus, to ask how Christ died is to ask how he lived and the answer is, Christ embraced death just as he embraced all that life, with its joys and sorrows, confrontations and communions, gave him.  Likewise, the cross of Jesus is not just the wood; it is all that limits life, such hatred, violence, and criminality.  Christ carried his cross by committing his life to confronting those that destroy life.  He made enemies along the way and they closed in on him and eventually lifted him up on the wood of the cross itself.

Then, he calls for commitment of oneself and all of one’s energies for a world of love, peace, and community where being open to God and surrendering to him is less difficult.  That was Jesus’s fight; it should be ours too.  

We must fight, as Jesus fought: in solidarity with the rest of the world crucified, presently agonizing and in passion.  Christ clearly identified himself with the marginalized, the brutalized, the deserted, the dehumanized.  So too, must the proclaimers of his story.

To do so properly, one must be prepared for the heavy burden of inverting, if not subverting, the values of the status quo for the system gangs up against those helping the oppressed and raves “cursed be he who hangs on the tree”.  The cross is to be accepted, not because there is value in it (after all, it is the symbol of hatred), but because on it hangs one who, by his love and commitment, broke the regime of hatred. 

How do we know that this way of the crucified leads to life?  By the  Resurrection.  For he, the crucified, lives.  The world’s crucified, too, will live, and live in abundance.  

Faith is thus not a sort of “opium of the people”, numbing their sensitivity to suffering and pain brought about by their oppressors.  Instead, it is a battle cry, resounding with the conviction that God, who intervenes in history, is their champion and in the rising of the Son is the guarantee of his coming reign.