Where Gibson became a node in the spiritual/moral/political body of contemporary America was with his 2004 film, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. It may be difficult now, six years later, to recall how intense was the controversy this Gibson film ignited, a division that corresponded significantly with the intensifying division between devout supporters and alarmed opponents of the Bush presidency.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was a depiction of the final hours of Jesus's life on earth. Supporters of the film (mostly conservative evangelical Christians) and its critics (mostly liberal Christians and secularists, as well as Jews) became embroiled in disputation over two main issues. One concerned the question of whether the film was an expression of that virulent spirit of anti-Semitism that has deformed the history of the West over so many centuries, as some critics alleged, or whether it was just a faithful rendering of the Christian Gospels. The other dispute was over the film's pervasive violence, with the film's defenders emphasizing that such a depiction of Christ's torment served to emphasize the central Christian truth of the Savior's great sacrifice on behalf of humankind while the critics argued that the violence and sadism had become the film's message, a manifestation of a spirit very different from that represented by Jesus Christ.
Now we have the tape of Mel Gibson's vicious and ugly rant at his erstwhile girlfriend. (And we also have the evidence of Gibson's other unsettling displays of his inner life.) The rant provides us evidence--so it can plausibly be argued--that reveals which side in that controversy was right.
This assertion rests on two propositions.
The first of these is that both the rant and the film are expressions of the same spirit. Admittedly, this is not self-evident. But is it such a stretch? Unless we posit some sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde cleavage of this one person into two, are we not to understand that the person who made the film operated from the same underlying structure of thought and feeling as the one who, we now see, is so ready to spew hateful and violent imagery in his dealings with other human beings?
This point is strengthened by an examination of how the rant (and the other such displays from Gibson) touches upon those two areas of controversy surrounding the film.
First, there was the question: was the film anti-Semitic, an incitement to the kind of hatred that has darkened Western history?
One relevant thing we now know is that Mel Gibson was ready, when arrested on a DUI, to declare to the police: ""F***ing Jews...the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." But beyond the matter of the Jews, in Gibson's diatribes we see a consistent tendency to cleave the world into groups divided by hatred and interacting in a kind of state of war. At his sometime ladylove, he hurls this in his fury: "[I]f you get raped by a pack of n*****s, it will be your fault." Even the nature of his interaction with this woman displays a proclivity to turn relationship into war, with the Other treated with utter derision and scorn.
Are we to believe that the anti-Semitism some saw in this film, the spirit of hatred--was merely a matter of being true to the Gospel?
And then there is the issue of the violence. How are we to understand the manner in which Gibson chose to depict what is, theologically, the central event in the Christian story, the moment in all of human history in which history becomes transformed from a condition of guilt and sin to one of redemption and salvation?
Michael Medved, during that 2004 time of controversy over the film, wrote that "The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus." It is, Medved said, "the most violent film I have ever seen."
Are we to buy the idea that the violence was simply a matter of fidelity to the Gospels? A Wikipedia article observes: ""Although only one sentence in three of the Gospels mentions Jesus's flogging, and it is unmentioned in the fourth, The Passion of the Christ devotes ten minutes to the portrayal of the flogging."
Are we to accept the justification, given at the time by Mel Gibson himself, for why his depiction was so full of violence and cruelty. Gibson said that he wanted it to be "shocking" and "extreme" so that the audience will see "the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule"?
We know more about Mel Gibson's relationship to violence, now that we have heard him respond to his girlfriend's challenge to him, asking "what kind of man" would hit a woman in the face while she was holding their baby: "You know what?," Gibson answered. "You f***ing deserved it." This, on the same tape in which he's entertaining the fantasy of the mother of his child being gang raped.
Gibson said it was for "love and forgiveness" that Christ's passion opened the way, despite the torments. But what sign is there that in Gibson's heart there's room for such things as love and forgiveness?