Mel Gibson might be my favorite feminist. If he’s not number one on my list, he’s pretty close, in competition with Pope John Paul II.
As you probably suspect, I don’t have in mind the usual definition of “feminism.” I can guarantee you there’ll be no fawning Ms. magazine cover story on Gibson (or JPII).
But give me a few minutes to fawn a little.
I, like others, have now seen an in-progress version of Gibson’s remarkable film. There is so much to be said and that will be said about the movie. Folks who get turned off by nonsensical talk that it is anti-Semitic will miss an unparalleled movie experience. But what they’ll also miss is Mel Gibson, the feminist.
If you want to understand–and celebrate–women, Gibson’s Passion of Christ, which will be released Ash Wednesday, is a good place to turn. Consider, for example, a scene that has Mary standing on the sidelines after walking a little bit away from the place where her son is being brutally beaten. She’s getting beyond the point of being able to take the unbearable pain, but she is slowly gathering her strength, her faith–and is even able to comfort Mary Magdalene, a friend.
Lending a hand of friendship to Christ’s mother is a very unlikely sister: Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate. Claudia isn’t happy with her husband’s general situation, and she’s not keen on his putting Jesus of Nazareth to death. We know what Pilate chooses in the end, but Claudia does her darnedest to guide him. She is a decent character, who bears her own crosses and evinces nobility throughout. When Mary is at one her hardest moments, it is Claudia who walks over and hands towels to her, which she soon uses to wipe up the precious blood of her son.
Mary feels pain acutely. Mother and son help one another. In another poignant scene, she is starting to lose it again, standing in an alleyway, not knowing if she can do anything for her son. At this point, there’s a beautiful flashback to Christ’s childhood, in which he falls down and his mother does what is only natural: She runs to him. The movie flashes forward again as Mary does likewise, running to her 33-year-old son. With the gentlest touch, Jesus gives his mother strength, even though he’s a bloody mess in indescribable pain-all of which he bears with the kind of grace only divinity can provide.
I don’t think many self-described feminists would agree, but there is something unique about women, and Gibson’s movie captures it perfectly in Mary, Mary Magdalene, Veronica (who voluntarily wipes Christ’s face along his arduous road to Calvary), and Claudia. He shows a real understanding of the depth of women’s feeling and the unique role that follows from it: that of giving support and guidance. This understanding of femininity cannot be missed–and should be noted and valued. It’s something the likes of a Susan B. Anthony understood, though modern-day feminists would rather we forget it.
This understanding is nothing new to Christians. Christ suffered for the evil in the world so that our souls might be eternally saved. To do that, he needed to live as a man–and he needed a mother, not just as means by which to be born, but also as a loving collaborator in mankind’s salvation.
Christian women–especially Catholics–know what pop culture thinks of their role: subservient; unworthy; barefoot and pregnant; seen but not heard. Consider, in contrast, the words of the current pope: “In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which 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.” Mel Gibson gets that genius.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of the archdiocese of Denver gets it too. After watching The Passion, he said, “The reason the secular world hates films like The Passion of Christ 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.” He continued, “The genius of every woman is to love; to protect and nourish the lives entrusted to her; and to support the full development of life in others. It’s the same whether you’re a mother, or a consecrated religious, or a woman who lives the single vocation.” The Passion shows this genius in honesty, respect, and admiration.
There are more things going on in The Passion of Christ than one can possibly grasp in one viewing-many with the potential for changing one’s image of the Gospel, at minimum. It is the sheer un-P.C., frank retelling of a story central to the existence of a majority of the planet-one in which divinely designed women play no small role. No wonder folks have resorted to convenient distractions instead of talking about the actual, multifaceted, countercultural aspects of the movie.
In a day when “Take Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries” is an often-heard chorus in mainstream abortion debates, Mel Gibson’s understanding of women and his articulation of their unique mission could have remarkable repercussions. This new–or old, inasmuch as it is natural and commonsensical–kind of feminism, a focus on the different contributions of men and women and the different ways they live their missions, should make us all rethink how we live and love.