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The Passion of Dogville
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And speaking of movies, I rented a pretty strange double-feature over the long holiday weekend. I picked up Dogville (the experimental anti-American screed starting Nicole Kidman and directed by Lars von Trier) and The Passion of the Christ, which you might have already heard about.

Now there were interesting parallels between the two films that I didn't expect. Both were essentially about a protagonist who is utterly brutalized, humliated, and tortured by their community. And both protagonists are actually sympathetic to their tormentors (except that Grace, the Nicole Kidman character, has a hard change of heart at the very end, and gets bloody revenge). But von Trier's implicit judgement is that she is a monster, and that the previous Grace (the un-fallen one) was in fact very Christ-like, willing to excuse and forgive those who had just spent weeks exploiting and violating her in every possible imaginable way.

Even as the sneering Roman guards are hammering the nails home, Jesus implores god to forgive them. "They don't know!" he cries, right before they flip the cross over to bend the nails so they don't fall out.

It is interesting to note that Grace is a paragon of the liberal view of poverty, crime, and the human condition. The liberal view is not of personal accountability for wrongdoing, but the notion that people are criminals because they can't help it. They were either abused, by parents, society, peers, or all of the above, and they don't really know any other way. I've never honestly understood why the opposite is never applied...why those who live by society's rules and don't steal, murder, and rape aren't simply victims of circumstance as well.

But anyway, Jesus seems to hold a similar view. It's odd that conservative Christians are some of the least forgiving, staunchest supporters of punishment, up to and including the death penalty, while many very non-Christian liberals hold views that seem much more in line with Christ's.

Now personally I'm not a fan of this worldview, and The Passion seemed to me a very sad, very gory depiction of how cruel people can be to each other, especially when religious beliefs collide. But since I don't believe he was some sort of human instantiation of god, I saw the brutality as merely horrifying and despicable...not redemptive or sacrificial, as I presume most Christians would view it. In fact, I got nauseous, and admittedly couldn't watch the whole thing.

What I realized, watching both films, is that I find that viewpoint mostly naive and repugnant. Jesus yells to god to forgive the bastards driving spikes through his hands. Why? He says "they don't know". They don't know what? That he's really the son of god? Well, okay. But Jesus wasn't the only one ever crucified. The Romans had a go at thousands more. Were each one of those crucifixions worthy of forgiveness? Presumably Jesus would say so. But again, why?

He preached for us to love our enemies. Why? When someone does me wrong, it is only natural for me to want, if not revenge, at least justice. Did Jesus not believe in the notion of justice? When a man steals your goat, let him. When he rapes your daughter, offer another. When he kills your best friend, embrace him with love. This is what I hear Jesus saying...though admittedly very, very few Christians live anywhere close to this ideal.

But what is the rationale behind such a philosophy? Of course, most religions don't really much like followers to question the underlying rules, but I'm honestly asking the question. Is the goal to engender a change of heart in the one doing the brutalizing? I don't know about you, but from personal experience, when I've turned the other cheek, a lot of people are all too eager to slap the shit out of it. I learned to avoid bullies in school, rather than offer up my ass for extra helpings of beatings. And call me crazy, but I didn't love them for their thuggishness. Am I really supposed to believe doing so would change them? Honestly, that sounds abominably stupid.

When they take Jesus in the garden at the beginning of the film, Peter fights back. Jesus tells him to drop his weapon. "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword," he says. Um, really? Because in my reading of history, there are a whole hell of a lot of people who die by the sword who don't live by it. And there are more than a few who take up the sword but die peacefully in bed.

So it seems to me that those who value justice over forgiveness should rightly judge Jesus as a fairly poor moral philosopher. His essential message seems to compel us to live like sheep, in the hopes that if enough of us get eaten, the wolves will have a change of heart.

No thanks.

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