March 3, 2004 -- The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ reflects a deep divide concerning the moral foundations of our society. The film's supporters maintain that freedom is threatened when a society loses the moral compass traditionally supplied by religion and drifts into moral relativism. The film's critics worry that intolerance is encouraged when a society is based on religious dogma, and many have claimed that the movie itself promotes anti-Semitism.
(It doesn't; after all; Jesus, his mother, and disciples, and not just the religious elites and their supporters who condemned him, were all Jews.)
But neither moral relativism nor religious faith will sustain a free, flourishing society.
Gibson and many Christians believe that human beings are born with original sin and worthy of nothing but death and damnation. But because of his love for us, God sent Christ to our sins upon himself. The Passion of the Christ graphically depicts Jesus's cruel torture and crucifixion—penalties that we all deserve. To avoid hell, we must accept Christ's sacrifice.
In our secular society, many individuals who reject this theology still accept the moral message of Christianity. But the problems with this message—as well as a way to a better moral vision—can be found by examining three themes that are central in Gibson's film: sin, sacrifice, and suffering.
Original sin means that we are all evil not just in any given thought or deed but by our very nature, that we can't help ourselves, that we must act immorally. One of the messages in Gibson's film is that since we are all sinners, we all killed Christ. But this doctrine of inherent and collective guilt means that morally upstanding individuals are culpable for evils that they did not create. Further, this doctrine allows moral slackers to excuse their failing by saying, "I'm only human."
But in any hour or issue we each are responsible for our own actions—and only those actions. We each have a choice to stop the impulse of the moment, to think or not to think, to ask whether our actions are moral or not, and to act either for good or evil. Yes, it takes strength and fortitude to do the right thing. But that is exactly why those who make the most of their lives should feel proud and never accept unearned guilt.
In The Passion of the Christ, we see Jesus passively submitting to his own brutal torture and death, even forgiving his tormenters. Many see Jesus's sacrifice as a moral model: He forfeited his life to save us sinners, we are all responsible for the problems of the world, and thus we each should sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. But this is exactly the wrong moral lesson. A morality of life requires the pursuit of happiness and pride in oneself, not self-abnegation and acquiescing in the role of a sacrificial victim. It requires that we judge both others and ourselves, both their actions and our own, by standards of justice, and not offer moral absolution for the most heinous crimes and criminals.
This is the key to the right moral code: We each have a right to our own lives and should act out of self-interest, not self-sacrifice. True self-interest means seeking rational values that preserve and enrich our lives. It means we should each seek the best within us. It means neither sacrificing ourselves to others nor asking others to sacrifice themselves to us. It means engaging in relations with others because we value them and they value us. For example, when we give up time and money to help a sick spouse—someone with whom we share our values, interests, and deepest thought and feeling, someone to whom we bare our souls, someone whom we love—we are not sacrificing but, rather, affirming our highest values and self-interest.
The Passion of the Christ shows Jesus suffering and facing death with fortitude. Any decent human being would feel pity for an innocent man who is tortured and killed. And each of us will face suffering in our lives. But suffering is the exception, and the world is not a vale of tears. We should plan and expect to achieve our values and goals. We should know that we have the power to understand the world around us and use our knowledge, strength, and fortitude to create the things that allow us to live and flourish: houses and skyscrapers, airplanes and rockets, medicine, works of art, and the like. The essential fact about human life—the fact on which a morality of life should be based—is not the inevitability of suffering but the possibility of achievement.
Gibson's film shows the depths of depravity to which humans can sink and prompts deep reflection. But only a moral code of personal responsibility, not original sin; self-interest, not self-sacrifice; and achievement, not suffering can avoid the dangers of moral relativism and intolerance, and ensure both personal happiness and a free society.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.