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.


Hershey J. said...

Pete, the monks made the wrong choice. Jesus is dead. He was not the Messiah (Christ). There is no God. Hershey

Pete M said...

Thanks for your comment. Jesus is certainly dead; the biblical record is an attempt to come to grips with this. The Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-32) is a particularly good example this effort. The story tells of the disciples moving from anger and grief at Jesus’ death, which showed that he was not “…the one to redeem Israel” (v.21), to joy, when at table, “…their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” (v 31). Who did they recognize? Not the dead Jesus, but the one, who by a process of haggadic Midrash, came to be known as the Christ. Every step in the process was mediated by their feelings. This is the point that Schleiermacher makes. He “…places religion in the realm of feelings, making it an interior, personal experience with an element of the unknowable and the mysterious.” (Holly Reed
Thus, the revelation of God is via our feelings. Not everyone has the same feelings. Thus, not everyone believes in God the same way. Indeed, not everyone believes in God. However, the feelings of the monks led them to believe in God and to believe that their vocation was to remain with those they had served over the years.
Schleiermacher’s emphasis on feelings as the basis of religion fits well with Cupitt’s writings. As I wrote in my post on “Jesus & Philosophy”: “Cupitt finds that the sayings most likely to reflect closely Jesus’ own teaching (coded red or pink) reflect a major innovation in ethics with a shift from realism to emotivism. The moral standard is brought down from heaven, thought to be real, and relocated in the world of human feelings and relationships, or, in Cupitt words, the world of ‘the heart’.” Cupitt no longer finds the concept of God useful, but he does locate Jesus’ teaching in the realm of feelings. In that regard, he is close to Schleiermacher, and I wonder why Cupitt does not acknowledge this closeness.

Franklyn said...

I cannot help feeling that no matter how noble or pious the decision to chose to die uncessessarily may be, that there is pathology involved. Their death accomplished little, and potentially, by freeing terrorists in an exchange,would be damaging. How much better to live and have helped others elsewhere. I liked the movie, I had compassion for the men who where certainly admirable, but I thought them unwise. Of course, the whole question of martyrs needs rethinking. Maybe there would be fewer of them if they didn't think that life gets better after death.

Pete M said...

Seeking to be a martyr is, of course, pathological. The power of the movie comes from the monks’ choice to stay, which, perhaps, can be seen as political. Although they apparently did not have a position on Algerian politics, their staying seems to indicate that they believed that they should stand with the people in the community, who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. Their political stance was non-violent solidarity with the local people.
They didn’t abandon the people to save their skins. This was foolish in the world’s eyes; they saw it as part of their calling.

Ellie W. said...

I read the book. John Kiser lives in Rappahannock County, Virginia, an hour and a half from DC. He spoke at a local church in Little Washington, where I bought the book. I hope to see the movie too, and appreciate your analysis.

Bob Y. said...

Dear Peter,
I had read your comments as well as a number of film reviews on “Of God and Men.” Various tasks and travel had prevented me from seeing the film until a couple of days ago. I found it to be a fine and very thoughtful film that goes into the core of the human dilemma regarding faith and life. The story is rich in complexity.
• Most important is the highly structured and aesthetically coherent spiritual life of the individual monks and their religious community. It is largely self-contained.
• The interface with the neighboring Arab community has two aspects. There is the acceptance that Islam and Christianity share many common values and that they can comfortably exist side by side. The other is that the monastery provides badly needed medical services to the Arab residents.
• The central dilemma is whether the monks can remain witnesses to their faith by staying and continuing with their monastic existence while under threat from Islamic guerillas. They would be making a statement of who they are. The argument that the Arabs would lose the services that the monks provide is a moot point in that whether they leave or are killed, those services will cease to exist.
• What the film does not examine in any detail is the sweet irony of this particular situation rooted in the long French occupation of Algeria. After a long and bloody revolutionary struggle, the FLN drove out the French and established a revolutionary government that evolved into a military dictatorship that was incompetent and corrupt. The regime is secular in nature and struggles to quash Moslem fundamentalism . It cancelled the elections won by the fundamentalists and banned the Islamists. Though the French and the Americans have little love for the Algerian government, they also consider it to be the lesser of two evils. The irony is that the Islamic guerrillas will kill the Catholic monks not because they are Christians but because they are symbols of the secular political system inherited from the French.
• Ergo, the heirs of the revolution are transformed into a military dictatorship
The conservative Islamic organizations become a radical revolutionary movement dedicated to the establishment of a theocracvy.
The monks just wish to maintain their monastic mode of life
Ciao, Bob

Pete M said...

Thank you for your comment. I was particularly struck by your statement that the monks were "symbols of the secular political system inherited from the French." In these situations, religion and politics can't be separated.