- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

Bush vs. federalism

There was one really telling sentence in President Bush’s endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban civil marriage for gays. Here it is: “Furthermore, even if the Defense of Marriage Act is upheld, the law does not protect marriage within any state or city.”

What the president is saying is that the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 is not enough. Even if it is held to be constitutional, the president objects to the leeway it provides states. If, say, Massachusetts decides, after its tortuous legal, political and constitutional process, to allow civil marriage for homosexual couples, Mr. Bush wants to prevent it, regardless of the will of Massachusetts voters, legislators or judges. This isn’t because such marriages would be automatically transferred to other states. If the Defense of Marriage Act were upheld, as the president argues, they wouldn’t. It is because the president refuses to allow even one state to decide for itself what civil marriage should be. That is a truly radical attack on the rights of states — removing from them the right to administer civil marriage as they see fit, a right they have enjoyed since the beginning of the republic. No true conservative would or should support that intervention.

The reality of this country right now is that it is deeply culturally polarized. On an issue like civil marriage for homosexuals, there is no way that San Francisco and Colorado Springs are ever going to agree. As long as civil marriages are kept within a state, the ideal solution is to allow each state to decide for itself. That’s the genius of federalism. It allows for diversity when uniformity would tear the country apart. Why on a matter of this contentiousness can we not allow federalism to save us from civil and cultural warfare?

Pornographic religion

It’s impossible for a Christian not to be moved by any halfway competent version of the passion of Jesus. And watching Mel Gibson’s famous movie on opening night, I was, at times, moved. At the same time, the movie was deeply disturbing to me. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the reduction of all human thought, feeling and personality to mere flesh.

The centerpiece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive — slowly, methodically and with increasing savagery. We first of all witness the use of sticks, then whips, then multiple whips with barbed glass or metal. We see flesh being torn out of a man’s body. We see pieces of skin flying through the air. We see Jesus come back for more. We see blood spattering on the torturers’ faces. We see muscled thugs exhausted from shredding every inch of this man’s body. And then they turn him over and do it all again. It goes on forever. And then we see his mother wiping up masses and masses of blood. It is an absolutely disgusting scene.

And it is emblematic of the entire film. It’s some strange combination of the theology of Opus Dei and the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino. There is nothing in the Gospels that describes this level of extreme, endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It is designed to evoke the crudest human pity and emotional blackmail — which it obviously does. But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination. Thatsamepsychotic sadism permeates the entire enterprise.

Of more than two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless violence on a level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie before. And you have to ask yourself: Why? The suffering of Christ is bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree. Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was profound and voluntary.

The saintly Pilate

Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels, and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Mr. Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew — fussing over money again. There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ.

For good measure, Mr. Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus tell Pilate that he is not responsible — the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent.

Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Mr. Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate’s wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus’ blood, arguing for Jesus’ release. Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn’t say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It’s motivated by psychotic sadomasochism. But Mr. Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is also unforgivable.

Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply misguided work of art.

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