Whips, fists, and jeers adding to the torture.
A crown of thorns pressed down.
Nails pierced through hands and feet.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was nothing if not explicit about the violence of Good Friday.
But this dramatic portrayal was in a sense nothing new; it came as part of a long tradition of reenacting the crucifixion that stretches back to the Middle Ages.
Over time, these reenactments became known as passion plays.
They served as a reminder of the sacrifice, the pain and suffering the Messiah underwent on our behalf, and the victory on the other side of apparent defeat.
They also developed a darker side, and were at times manipulated to stoke hatred against Jews or enemies of Christendom.
Used for good or ill, passion plays were not primarily interested in making a cognitive argument. They were appealing to the emotions, the heart, and the imagination.
I want to suggest that, in much the same way, war movies have come to serve as secular passion plays.
While not making a cognitive argument for war (few of us would pack a theater for such a lecture), war movies appeal on a deeper level – shaping our hearts and our imaginations.
We are reminded of the sacrifice of war (which I would argue is itself an alternative liturgy to the sacrifice of Christ), the glory of battle, and the honor of dying and killing (or having others die and kill on our behalf).
Whether the movie features an established power confronting a rising threat, or a band of courageous rebels taking on the system, both feed into the narrative of empire, and both serve to legitimate war on a precognitive level so convincing we can hardly imagine an alternative.
As we leave the theater we remember the sacrifice, are encouraged never to let it be in vain by failing to repeat the sacrifice when war approaches in our generation, and are thereby told again of the necessity of the sacrificial system as a whole, all while being awakened once more to an awareness of who our enemies are.
Even (and perhaps especially) if such explicitly religious language never enters our minds, the liturgy of this secular passion play does its job well.
Now none of this means I expect to never watch another war movie, anymore than I expect never to return to the mall which has its own set of liturgical practices. But it is important that we realize we are being taught by such films, not on the level of a lecture but on the level of the heart and the imagination, on the level of myth.