What Has Mel Gibson Got Against the Church?

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The answer, of course, is that the cross's iconography was a lot simpler than Mexican history. I called Charles C. Mann, author of the highly respected history 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann first noted a couple of anachronisms in the film. The Mayan capital, including any great temple of the sort in the film, had mysteriously disappeared 700 years before the Spanish arrived. Moreover, although the Mayans probably engaged in some human sacrifice, there is no evidence that they practiced it on the industrial scale depicted in the movie For that, as the Guggenheim exhibit suggested, one would have to look 300 miles west to the Aztecs, who had made it their religious centerpiece. Hernan Cortes (who probably rounded upward, since he conquered them), claimed the Aztecs dispatched between three and four thousand souls a year that way. Why Gibson decided to turn the Mayans into Aztecs is anyone's guess.

Most interesting, however, was Mann's observation that if the boat Jaguar Paw sees is indeed the 1519 landing party of Cortes (who pushed quickly through what remained of Mayan territory on his way to the bloody battle of Tenochtitlan), the man holding up the cross was no particular friend to the indians. It was not until 1537, Mann said, that, after considerable debate both ways, Pope Paul III got around to proclaiming that "Indians themselves indeed are true men" and should not be "deprived of their liberty." In the intervening 18 years roughly a third of Mexico's 25 million indigenous population died of smallpox the Europeans brought with them, and the Spanish had enslaved most of the remaining six million able-bodied men. And that's not counting the 100,000 Aztecs Cortes killed at Tenochtitlan alone.

So here is the conundrum. If you had to choose between a culture that placed ritualized human slaughter at the center of its faith, but that only managed to kill 4,000 people a year, and a culture that put the sacrificial Lamb of God at the center of the universe but somehow found its way to countenancing the enslavement of millions and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the same neighborhood, which would be more appealing?

Perhaps Gibson's problem is with the institutional church after all. Not the institutional church of Vatican II, but the church that managed to get so mixed up with worldly power that it was able to side with the centurions rather than with Christ for those crucial 18 years.

And perhaps he was right to have Jaguar Paw, having sampled the worst that the first civilization had to offer, take one look at the arrival of the second, and head back into the woods.

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