The Passion of Mel Gibson, The Feminist

You might have heard that Mel Gibson's upcoming Passion of Christ is Marian.

It sure is. But it's also something else: It's a feminist movie.

That's right. I just called former Mad Max/Lethal Weapon star Mel Gibson a feminist.

Of course I don't exactly mean a feminist in the Gloria Steinem sense of the word. The movie, to be released Ash Wednesday, is a telling of the story of Christ's life, betrayal, suffering and death largely through the eyes of his mother — making it, frankly, all the more painful to watch. And all the more prayerful.

But Gibson's emphasis on the feminine does not stop there. In his depictions of the Virgin Mother, Mary Magdalene, Veronica and Pontius Pilate's wife, Claudia, we see what Pope John Paul II calls the “genius of women,” all in unique ways.

Americans tend to downplay the differences between men and women in a fog of shoulder pads and power plays. Not The Passion of Christ. Only one of the many glorious aspects of the movie, it shows the world what Christians really think of women.

There's probably no greater proof of the central role of women in creation — and in salvation history — than the fact that God chose to make a woman — essential to the story of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. But you don't have to be a Catholic or a Christian to get that in Gibson's Passion.

This is what the Pope, my favorite feminist, wrote in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life): “In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, that is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a ‘new feminism,’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination,’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.”

I don't think popular culture has seen such a perfect personification of this “new feminism” before The Passion of Christ. That it happens to be the Passion has the potential to make the point clearer than ever.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput saw it, too. After seeing the movie earlier this year, he noted in a speech, “The Passion of Christ does something unusual to men.” He continued, “Every man knows in his heart that the best of what he is comes through his parents, and especially from his mother. And what Maya Morgenstern shows us so movingly as Mary in The Passion of Christ is how the love of a mother touched the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus shared exactly the same moments of maternal tenderness and humor that every son thrives on.”

Mary, of course, is an integral part of the salvation story. But her character in this movie has multiple ways to reach out to viewers. She is the Mother of God. She is a mother. She is a strong woman. She is dangerous.

I don't think popular culture has seen such a perfect personification of the ‘new feminism’ before The Passion of Christ.

Dangerous? Yes — because she is not Hillary Clinton strong. She is not taking on Pilate. She does not end the movie with a grand oration. Archbishop Chaput put it this way: “The reason the secular world hates films like The Passion is because they persuade the heart with the logic of love. The reason the secular world seeks to reinvent or reinterpret Mary is because she's dangerous. She's the model of mature human character — a human being who co-creates a new world not through power but through unselfish love, faith in God and the rejection of power.”

People who are calling Gibson an anti-Semite are not only missing the point of the Gospel, which imputes guilt to us all, as we Catholics who read “Crucify him! Crucify him!” on Passion Sunday know all too well. The sum total of Gibson's acting role in the movie is his hand, which drives the first nail into Christ's palm in the movie. This is not a guy looking for a scapegoat for Christ's crucifixion.

No, they are missing what Gibson actually is, as evidenced from this remarkable movie: a feminist, and an evangelist.

The Second Vatican Council fathers in their “Closing Message” said, “The hour is coming, in fact has already come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness; the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”

Now that I have seen The Passion of Christ in a preview screening, I can tell you: It is not an easy watch. It's not a popcorn-and-soda movie. It might be a date movie — if you want to fast-forward to the heart of matters. It's bloody and brutal, but then so was Christ's betrayal and death.

But the Gibson Passion is a clear statement that the cruel soldier is not the ultimate symbol of power on earth. For Gibson, the ultimate human power is the most influential mere human who ever lived: Mary, the Virgin Mother of God.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online.