By Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 10/01/07):
‘Apocalypto is unburdened by nationalist or religious piety” claimed New York’s Village Voice. With this alibi, critics have allowed themselves to be won over by Mel Gibson’s disgusting Mayan slasher movie. His previous film, The Passion of the Christ, was widely condemned for its anti-semitic portrait of Jews – repeating, many believed, the idea that “the Jews” were responsible for Christ’s death. This interpretation was apparently confirmed by an incident last summer in which Gibson told a policeman: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” In the light of this there is palpable relief that Gibson has left his religious politics at home and made Mad Max in the jungle. But this relief is groundless. Apocalypto is a prequel to The Passion of the Christ, just as determined by Gibson’s disturbing theological worldview and just as infatuated with the connection between blood and salvation. It’s another Christian snuff movie, but most reviewers haven’t the theological literacy to spot it.
A village of peaceful hunter-gatherers is raided by a band of terrifying Mayan warriors who string up their captives and haul them off to the city. The male captives are used as victims in an orgy of human sacrifice to appease the sun god Kukulkan, who is believed responsible for a plague afflicting the city. One by one, victims are led to the top of the pyramid where the high priest cuts open their chest and holds aloft a still beating heart. The head of the victim is severed and flung down to a deranged crowd. It’s important for Gibson’s theological point that this sacrificial process just keeps on repeating itself, with hundreds of bodies dropping from the pyramid. Yes, it’s sick.
The connection between The Passion and Apocalypto is a very specific theology of sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews puts it thus: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.” Read as a pair, Apocalypto and The Passion contrast the macabre cult of the sacrificial system with the one true sacrifice of Jesus Christ. For it is a staple of a certain sort of Christian atonement theology that the endless cycle of temple sacrifice was done away with by the crucifixion.
Apocalypto has been broadly condemned for its racist stereotyping, and historians have pointed out that mass human sacrifice was unknown in Mayan culture. But it’s not really Mayans that are in view here. And perhaps that’s why Gibson didn’t care enough to get the cultural references right. Unfortunately this film is yet another chapter in his none too healthy obsession with Judaism. For Mayan pyramids read Jewish temple. Gibson knows that Jewish temple worship only involved animal sacrifice. None the less, his Mayan high priest draws from some of the worst caricatures of the bloodthirsty Jew as invented during the middle ages.
The film’s final scene is a shocker. As the gorefest plays itself out, a boat rows ashore bringing Spanish conquistadors and a monk holding high a simple cross. The Mayans look on dumbstruck. The old sacrificial system is about to give way to Christianity. Thus Gibson redescribes the genocide conducted by the conquistadors as a morality tale in which Christianity saves indigenous peoples from the Mayan death cult.
In a sense, the cultural chauvinism is easiest to spot. What’s more sinister is the connection Gibson is always forging between salvation and violence. The root cause is a theology associated particularly with Anselm and Calvin. Human beings are wicked and can only make it to heaven if they are punished for their sin, thus righting the scales of justice and wiping clean the slate. The problem is, human wickedness is so deep that the required punishment would be too much for us to bear. So Christ offers to take our place, accepting our punishment in the form of an excruciating crucifixion. It’s the story of salvation, as read by the religious right. All sin must be paid for with pain.
The technical term for this theology is penal substitution. It is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians like Gibson support the death penalty – wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it’s precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful. Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it’s a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel’s insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.
Jesus put it pretty clearly when he quoted his favourite passage of the Hebrew scriptures: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The retributive logic that sin can be cancelled by pain is just what Christ resisted. And it was a stand taken by the Hebrew prophets before him. By contrast, in Gibson’s films, only blood can pay for blood.