Wednesday, March 30, 2011

“Of Gods and Men”

Last night, we saw the new movie, “Of Gods and Men.” More than any movie I’ve seen, it illustrates Bonhoeffer's concept of “the cost of discipleship.” Eight French Cistercian Trappist monks living in an abbey in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in the 1990s became pawns in that country’s civil war after the French colonialists left. Although the monks have the goodwill of the people in the area, tending to their medical needs, the monks are a reminder to the militant groups, vying for power, of recent European oppression. The local authorities are keenly aware of the militants’ feelings and repeatedly urge the monks to leave because the authorities will be unable to protect them from the violence that is an everyday occurrence. Much of the movie is devoted to the monks’ often anguished discussions about leaving or not. Some think it prudent to leave; others feel the need to continue their peaceable presence as friends to the people nearby who have endured continual bloodshed for so long. Their discussions and daily monastic tasks are interspersed with beautiful sequences of their singing the Mass and the Hours. Many of the psalms seem achingly pertinent to their debate, such as this excerpt from Psalm 91 (verses 5, 6): “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
Eventually, even as the possibility of their death becomes more likely, they all decide to stay. Soon, of course, the terror arrives in the night in the form of an insurgent group opposed to the Algerian government, and the monks are taken hostage to be negotiating tools with the French government. But to no avail; as the film ends, the monks are led off into the winter mist never to be heard of again. They are killed; their killers unapprehended.
The monks choose to stay – a very unwise choice. They could have been helpful elsewhere if they had lived. They choose to stay, because, as the prior says to one of the wavering monks, they had already died in Christ (Romans 6:4), and frightened as they were, their life in Christ was at the Abby. They were “fools for Christ,” as Paul writes in I Corinthians 4: 9, 10: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, ….”
The monks’ death was folly, but it wasn’t useless. They “become a spectacle to the world” (the movie was a sensation in France) and, as Tertullian wrote, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Their deaths – and their lives – challenge us, especially those of us in the Church, to follow the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and Jesus, the Gospels’ writers’ embodiment of the Suffering Servant. If we follow him into a life of peace and service, some will see the wisdom of our folly and find their life in Christ.
If, after you see the movie, you want to learn more, “The Monks of Tibhirine” by John Kiser is “A richly detailed and moving account of (the prior’s) life and the fate of his abbey,” writes A. O. Scott in his “New York Times” review.