‘Killing Jesus’ Haaz Sleiman:
Loving Your Enemy Empowers You
10 years ago, Haaz Sleiman likely never imagined that one day — on an early evening in March 2015 — he’d be talking to me on the phone about him playing Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in a highly anticipated National Geographic Channel TV movie.
There we were, gathered around a single topic — Jesus — like two philosophers sitting around the warmth of a campfire, discussing the big questions of life. It was a fascinating conversation because we arrived at that moment from very different backgrounds.
Haaz is from Lebanon. I’m from Shafter.
(And, in case you’ve never heard of my small town USA, it is just outside of Bakersfield, California. I’m sure that clears it up for you.)
Lebanon is mentioned in the Bible.
Shafter just got a new Del Taco.
Haaz comes from a Muslim background. I’m a Protestant Christian.
Yet, despite any dramatic differences, as we spoke about the powerful themes in “Killing Jesus” — which will premier on the National Geographic Channel on March 29, 8/7C — something amazing happened: we found common ground.
We discussed what it means to love your enemy in the chaos of this world — what it means to rise above that chaos and somehow, with the strength of love, see purpose and value in it, even in great suffering (i.e. Romans 8:28) — which then frees us to show kindness to anyone, even our enemies.
As Haaz put it: “That means you go out and give your love. That’s what it means. In the midst of the chaos, you give your love.”
And, perhaps better than any Jesus movie before it, “Killing Jesus” shows just what kind of chaos the Prince of Peace was up against. National Geographic describes the film this way:
“‘Killing Jesus,’ based on the New York Times best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly, dives deep inside the historical story of how a man whose message and preachings led to his persecution and execution by a group of conspirators who saw him as a threat to their power.”
In this exclusive interview with Haaz Sleiman, he discusses some profound themes from the life of Jesus and from “Killing Jesus” — a movie, by the way, that presents the Gospels with respect and with wonderfully rich historical authenticity (my official review of the film will appear next week):
I was very moved by your performance of Jesus. I thought you really brought out His humanity. Well done with that.
Thank you so much. That means a lot actually, that’s exactly what I was trying to get — the humanity. I really appreciate you saying that.
Awesome, well, mission accomplished! [both laugh] Can you tell us a little bit about your journey? How did you get from Lebanon to Los Angeles?
I wanted to continue my study in the US so I got admitted to Wayne State University in Michigan, in Detroit. So I moved from Lebanon when I was 21 and I stayed with my aunt who lived in Dearborn, Michigan, where a lot of Arabs are. I studied for two and a half years, got my Bachelors in Computer Science, and then moved to New York four years to pursue a career as a recording artist, believe it or not, and recorded about 30 songs. That didn’t work out, and acting was something I always wanted to do, and then I moved to LA after I got an agent, and here I am. I’ve been in LA since then.
Wow, an amazing journey — and now you’re playing Jesus!
Yeah, that I never dreamed. There’s no way I ever thought I’d be playing Jesus. And, given the fact that He influenced my life heavily, it’s all the more of a shocker. It’s just been fascinating.
You anticipated my next question. In your interview with “The Christian Post,” when you spoke of your Muslim background, you said that Jesus had heavily influenced you prior to getting the part. How did He influence you?
I think He influenced me in terms of how I treat myself and how I treat others and how I treat the world and, more specifically, the power of love, and what love can do for yourself and for others. When you live your life from a place of love, there’s nothing more powerful than that energy and that power and that intention. Nothing can in any way diminish it or reduce it. Whenever love exists, there’s no fear or anxiety or hatred — there’s no need for that.And I like the idea of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” or “judge not lest you be judged.”
All of these concepts I try everyday in my life — you know, [laughs] some days successfully and some days not-so-successfully. But I was constantly, as much as I could, whenever I remembered, I tried to do that, and it really just transformed my life. He moved me and just shifted [my life]; like I was more in a place of, I don’t want to say ignorance, but, sort of blinded by judgement, blinded by self-judgment and judging others and judging situations, and in return not having love for others in a way that He preaches.
So the more I was aware and enlightened by these teachings and tried to apply them the more I was shifting into a place of being more inclusive. That to me really transformed me, to be inclusive of everyone. That’s what I loved about Him the most and was one of the things that really stood out for me is that in His story He even loved His enemies. He didn’t leave anybody out. It didn’t matter who you were, He had love for you.
And that is, to me, probably the ultimate thing that shaped my life to where I’m at today. For me, that’s what made it absolutely possible to portray Him. I don’t think probably I would have been able to — had I not been in this position and able to be as inclusive — because the key to who He was was that: that we’re all human beings. We all come from the same place. God created all of us, no matter what your beliefs. We all come from the same place and we’re all going to die. We won’t take anything with us, and we all breath the same air. Nobody has more right or less right to breathe the oxygen that’s in the air. And He was about all of that — about being inclusive. And so if you bring it to today, if you look at the people today — Buddhists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims — if Jesus was here today, I believe, from what I know about Him and His teachings, that He would have had love for all. So that, to me, there’s nothing more powerful than that.
What you said reminded me of this thought: many people think violence is radical, but really, loving your enemy is extremely radical. It’s so against human nature.
Yeah, and it’s the most powerful thing to do and the hardest thing, but it’s actually powerful. It’s not weak. It really takes a powerful, strong person to really understand that and do that.
That is a world-changing thought when you look at it as power and not weakness. With all the news of war and conflict today, in your opinion, how can we love our enemies and have that mindset? What advice can you give to someone who struggles with that?
Yeah. I’m really doing this, you know, playing this part and being given this amazing gift of telling this incredible story. I mean, one of the things that it did for me, it really made me focus on certain things like love your enemy. I have to say that’s a concept that I knew before but not to the extent that I now look at it — to the degree that I actually appreciate it and admire it, and I aspire to live my life that way everyday. Have I been able to successfully apply that in my life? No. I’m working really diligently to get there. [pauses] And, to answer your question [about what advice to give to someone who struggles with the loving your enemy concept] — I’m trying to find the best way to describe this, so my words don’t get turned around against me. [pauses]
I think, if you look at the chaos in the world — the wars, the chaos — but in nature there’s chaos, right? I mean God created [nature], right? If you look at our existence in humanity, untouched by human judgment, then you are able to see the beauty in it all. You are able to see the beauty when a lion attacks its prey — though I’m not saying, “Oh, wars are like a lion attacking its prey”; but in humanity and human nature, because of our makeup, because of our fears, our emotions, all of these different qualities we have as human beings, it leaks all of that — but if you can find a way not to judge that, then and only then you’ll be able to have love for your enemy. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I see what you mean. Like taking baby steps, taking that first step and then…
Yeah, because in the end it’s God’s creation. I mean when someone says, “Oh, but God doesn’t” — but this is all part of our existence and it’s about not having judgment towards all of this. Then and only then can you start to understand the bigger picture and extract yourself from all the pain and all that stuff that can blind you, and you can really see the bigger picture and you can then see the beauty in it all. But it doesn’t mean that you think, “Oh yes, then people should kill one another.” No! That means you go out and give your love. That’s what it means. In the midst of the chaos, you give your love.
In the midst of the chaos you go out. That’s really very beautiful actually, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts about that.
Yeah, thank you. When you say that, that only means that we’re on the same page, and we get it. Though, of course, it’s not about if other people don’t get it or not — that’s judgment — but when two people have a conversation, and then there’s an understanding, that’s also a beautiful thing because, in the end, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about connecting. It’s about seeing each other and understanding one another and acknowledging one another, and I think what happens, let’s say, with the enemy, we don’t do that. We don’t connect, we don’t acknowledge one another, we don’t want to understand one another or where we come from. See what I mean?
I mean that’s the other thing too; because I think when you come from a place of love, then and only then you’re allowing yourself to be open to connect with that other person. That you really see them. Not just come in with preconceived notions about them or judgment that you’re already coming in with, which will close you up and not allow you to see the bigger picture.
That is so true.
It’s just amazing what it does. It’s amazing when you come from a place of love and let go of the judgment. There’s nothing more powerful than that.
What you’re saying reminds me that it helps to be a good listener; it’s really powerful, like you said. And “Killing Jesus” really conveys a lot of the themes you just talked about — Jesus’ incredible, unadorned love toward anyone around Him — but what do you hope viewers will experience after watching “Killing Jesus” and seeing everything in that movie?
I really hope that everyone who sees it will get to see how magnificent they can be — no, how magnificent they are as human beings. That humanity is magnificent — how beautiful humanity is and what we are capable of, the love that we have within us from birth that God has given us. It’s within us; it’s there all the time. We either choose to acknowledge it or tap into it and let it guide us or we don’t.
But we as human beings are capable of so much beauty and so much power from our empathy and compassion, and I just hope that’s what people get out of it; that, when they walk away, they feel empowered, they feel they can do anything, and they feel that, with love, there’s nothing that can be an obstacle to what they want and desire that is coming from that place of love.
And, for people to feel that way about themselves, is probably the ultimate thing — and that’s why it was so important to me, when I was playing Jesus and humanizing Him, to make people relate to Him. To make people start to see themselves in Him — or see Him in themselves, more accurately. That, to me, would inspire people and hopefully make them realize the beauty they have within themselves.
I think the problem in the world today, between you and me, is people judge humanity. They think that humanity is weakness. They think being human is already not worthy. It’s, of course, attached to being a sinner, which is — you know, religiously that’s fine — but I think what happens is that when we do that all you do is not trust yourself, and then in return not trust others, and then you end up either hurting yourself or hurting others or you end up doing things out of fear and anxiety. And then fear and anxiety and worry start to shape your life rather than love being your guide.
And I think the only way that you can let love be your guide is when you see and you know the beauty within you and know what you’re capable of doing for others and for yourself. If we don’t start celebrating humanity and seeing it as a beautiful thing, then we’re going to stay in a place where fear is growing more than anything else — along with judgment and divisiveness, rather than inclusiveness with one another. So I think, yeah, just walking out [after seeing the film], feeling empowered and feeling good about being human. Feeling great about being human — I’m proud to be human!
Not counting yourself out. I see what you mean. It’s a powerful thought.
Yeah, if you walk out thinking, “Well, I’m not the Son of God, and so what can I do? I’m not good enough.” That’s not the truth. That’s not what Jesus came to say. Jesus came to tell us that we are humans and we are beautiful and we’re capable of so much — by example. He was doing it by example, to show us what we can do.