When it’s Christmas season, I like to watch lots of Christmas movies and listen to and sing as many of those familiar songs as I can. It opens the door to many memories, both good and bad ones, and allows me to have a rich experience and new understanding at a time of year when people act differently than they do normally. I believe people (including me) move through much of life behaving, but unaware. We are doing, and not being.
In Christianity, the symbolic polar opposite is the week before Easter. To me, the most subtle, difficult, challenging lesson the life of Jesus provided was not that he was innocent, but that he offered NO DEFENSE. As a child, I first thought that Jesus was killed by bad guys, but because he was God too he didn’t have to stay dead. As a teenager I completely rejected any consideration of Jesus’ possible divinity, but his ethical and compassionate actions kept me interested. Finally as an adult I began to try and tackle that thing I still didn’t get. He was innocent. He knew it. But he wouldn’t even say so in court. He gave responses that were the scriptural equivalent of “whatever”, and accepted his unjust condemnation, torture and execution.
It’s a mistake to concentrate too much on Jesus’ suffering at the hands of unknowing (and knowing) humans. The over-focus on “look how much He suffered, for US” is my chief complaint against Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Lots of innocent people were crucified under Roman law. Many, many of them took longer than Jesus did to die from it. They suffered as much or more, not having Jesus’ courage or assurance that heaven was awaiting them. However, even if they accepted their guilt in court, they still begged for lenience or mercy. Jesus offered no argument, and asked for nothing except for reassurance from the Father that he was not abandoned. Jesus felt pain, fear and doubt. He wasn’t entirely sure he would be strong enough to do what was asked of him. He wasn’t sure he could fulfill the mission, the last act. He somehow knew that he was supposed to offer himself up in full, voluntary submission.
This is a level of servitude I can barely imagine intellectually, and one I had no emotional understanding of for many years. I’ll tell you one thing. I’ve been beaten, enough to know you can learn to stand incredible amounts of physical pain by putting your awareness of it someplace else. I knew Jesus had considerable will and self-discipline, so I knew he could take pain. It was his choice to bear it meekly that confounded me.
There was a turning point in my understanding. It was because of a remarkable French film about the life of a donkey, filmed from the donkey’s point of view, with a donkey’s mute acceptance of the many and varied cruelties inflicted upon it. The film is writer-director Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au hasard Balthazar.
The first two words of the title are a French idiom meaning “chosen at random” or “by lot”. Balthazar is the name the donkey’s first owner, a girl named Marie, gives him. I can’t begin to explain properly what a special work of art this film is. In only 95 minutes viewers are given the parallel stories of the lives of Marie and Balthazar. They both endure a series of injustices, and heartless, senseless crimes committed against them by circumstance and other characters. The film has very little dialogue, and proceeds with incredibly emotionless resolve. One thing happens, then another. There is no tipping the scale in any direction, except for the director’s choice of what to point the camera at, and when to cut. We see what happens as if we were Balthazar.
In this morality play both Marie and Balthazar become beasts of burden. He is what he is, and merely experiences life as it occurs. Marie isn’t made that way, and her spirit is broken by abuse. Scenes in the film are sad, beautiful, shocking and serene all at the same time. The humans in the movie do awful things to each other, especially emotionally, but much of the violence is off-camera. This creates a feeling for the viewer as if we are donkeys, with no ability to estimate the differing significance of events. Things just happen. We see what’s in our view, what’s right in front of us. Because we are still humans watching a story presentation, we supply critical judgments while watching through uncritical eyes.
The scene that led me to new understanding was one after Balthazar wanders away from one of several owners who mistreat him. He is found by the employee of a traveling circus. Balthazar is in close up, bit in mouth, looking at the caged animals. We see him. We see the elephant and the tiger looking back at him from within their bondage. It’s as if the animals are all saying, “This is our lot in life, to never be free, to be beaten and learn tricks to entertain our captors and tormentors.” They don’t contemplate it. They just know it, and observe the unity of their common condition. None of the human characters share empathy and intimacy like the beasts do in this moment. The people are just as caged by their poverty, greed and weakness, but they pretend they are in control of it.
Watching these uncomplaining animals, I came to realize something about Jesus I hadn’t before. He was born for the sacrifice.