Liberation theology, not Calvinism, is behind Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

Apocalypto: terrifying, beautiful and macabre

The one redeeming feature about the recent spate of Bank Holidays and the fact that it gets dark so early is that one can find time for the guilty pleasure of watching DVDs. Over New Year I hunkered down with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which I think is an absolutely brilliant film. Others disagree. One such is Dr Giles Fraser , who took the film to task in the Guardian for theological error and anti-Semitism, among other things. I strongly disagree with what Dr Fraser has to say about the film’s supposed anti-Semitism, and I think his reading of it as an allegory where the Mayan priests stand in for the Jews is simply wrong. I also strongly disagree with what he implies in the following:

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.

I imagine that Mel Gibson or indeed any Catholic, no matter how “conservative”, would find the accusation of holding a Calvinist theology simply laughable. I have said it before now: Catholics do not hold the doctrine of penal substitution. It is unfair of Dr Fraser to assume that we do. Penal substitution is a Protestant heresy. It is doubtful that Anselm believed it, and there is no Catholic theologian of today who teaches it, as far as I know. I do not see it as my job to defend Mel Gibson, but it simply cannot be right to see him as an ultra-Conservative Catholic and a crypto-Calvinist at the same time: you cannot be both.

But to get back to the film. It is an astonishing piece of cinematography, while at the same time being bloody and frightening in the extreme. The world of the Maya is quite unlike our own: terrifying, beautiful, and macabre.

As for the accusation of cultural chauvinism – well, actually, human sacrifice is wrong, and the Maya did practise it. Such practices do need to be challenged, and should not be accepted uncritically. As the child of a South American mother I may well be prejudiced, but the Spanish conquest of America brought huge advantages to the continent, the greatest of which was, and still is, the Catholic religion. The Cross, which so notably appears right at the end of Apocalypto, is a sign not of enslavement, but of liberation. Giles Fraser is wrong in his reading of Mel Gibson’s theology: the film has no hint of Calvinism to it, to my mind, but rather points to a particularly Latin American theology – liberation theology.