Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Responsible Opposing View

Edward Hudgins
Washington Director
The Objectivist Center


The Problems with "The Passion's" Moral Message.
By Edward Hudgins

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 take upon himself our sins. "The Passion" 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 with, "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" 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; 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 for 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 who we love -- we are not sacrificing but, rather, affirming
our highest values and self-interest.

"The Passion" 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 to 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.

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