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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Of gods and men - reflecting on the film through Revelation

Occasionally a film will engage me deeply, its story, the characters, the scenes recurring in memory, touching the heart and challenging the conscience. Of gods and men is one of those films. Some friends of mine have been back to see it a second time, already.

As an account of martyrdom, of loving your enemy, and being present with the poor and marginal in the context of a very dirty war on terror in Algeria in the mid 1990's, based on a true story, this is a stunner. It is beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted. A patient exploration of a community of Trappist monks dealing with the issue of what their vocation and commitment to the way of discipleship means in a time of threatening violence and deep injustice. It is a retelling which recaptures the tensions around their decision-making process, in which we are reminded again and again that at the heart of what they are about is the cycle of worship and prayer, the chanting of the psalms and the reading of the scriptures that shapes what they are becoming and what in the end drives their decision to stay with the Muslim village that they continue to serve.

I won't attempt to do a review of the film, or attempt to tell the story in any detail. If you are interested in a range of views, from a diverse bunch of reviewers, from people of faith to those outside, check out the following links. They are some good You=tube extracts of scenes from the movie on some of them.

Interesting Links:
Of Gods and Men (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Of Gods and Men – review | Film | The Guardian
Of Gods and Men « Notes & Quiddities
OF GODS AND MEN (Why we need St. Benedict more than ever) « Ecclesiastical Graffiti
Of Gods And Men (2010,France) « Andygeddon
Of Gods And Men | Movie review: 'Of Gods and Men' - Los Angeles Times
Film review – Of Gods and Men (2010) « Cinema Autopsy
Father James Martin, SJ: “Of Gods and Men” | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS

What I want to do is to just point you to some of the theological issues and biblical context against which, as a Christian, I found myself trying to understand the path that they took.

The film title is taken from  Psalm 82 verses 6-7, underlined. I have reproduced the entire Psalm because I think it is worth thinking about in view of the trajectory of the movie. Who are the gods and who are the men? Is the movie title referring to the pretensions of those who think that violence is the key, as opposed to the monks who seek to treat all, including those who might do them violence as children of God?

 1 God presides in the great assembly;
   he renders judgment among the “gods”:
 2 “How long will you[a] defend the unjust
   and show partiality to the wicked?[b]
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
   uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
 5 “The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
   They walk about in darkness;
   all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
 6 “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
   you are all sons of the Most High.’
7 But you will die like mere mortals;
   you will fall like every other ruler.”

 8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
   for all the nations are your inheritance.

Michael J Gorman in Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Cascade Press, 2011) observes in terms that are relevant to the story in the movie and the rejection by the monks of the offer of protection by the Algerian military, that:
The current dearth of martyrs in the Western church may be welcome, but its accompanying amnesia of past martyrs and our ignorance of martyrs elsewhere in the world are tragic. In addition to failing at practicing the community of saints, this lack also feeds the desire for national heroes and martyrs. In church history, there has also been a strong correspondence between truly Christian heroes and martyrs and the presence of religious-like commitment to the nation state and its heroes and martyrs - ie., civil religion.
This is very relevant in thinking about the rejection by the monks of military protection and of the attempt by the guerillas to bring their weapons with them when they invade the monastery in search of medical assistance,

The Book of Revelation is associated by many Christians with violence and fighting and may seem a strange biblical resource to bring into consideration in the context of non-violent, enemy loving practices of the monks. That association is substantially wrong.

A further consideration of the relevance of the message of Revelation, with its focus on the slain Lamb and the waiting of the saints to the story of this movie is signaled by the comments by Gorman towards the close of his discussion in Reading Revelation Responsibly, in the chapter entitled "Following the Lamb: The Spirituality of Revelation". This account captures much of what the monks were grappling with in reading the decision to stay. To read Revelation correctly is to understand what their stance was all about. Revelation lived out at the end of the twentieth century.
The resistance (discerning, imaginative and self-critical) required of Christians can be likened to warfare in search of victory. But because this victory is of the victorious slaughtered lamb, Christian resistance to empire conforms to the cruciform pattern of Jesus Christ and his apostles and saints, faithful, true, courageous, just and nonviolent. ... It is important here to emphasise how Revelation conveys a spirituality and ethic of non-violence ... Jesus has already demonstrated both how God deals with evil and how god's people are to deal with evil.  ... not in a show of violent power, but in a paradoxical and subversive act of not confronting evil on its own terms. ... Revelation knows that true spiritual existence is warfare, but it defines victory in the cosmic battle as faithfulness. Neither the Lamb, nor his followers fight in any other way than faithfulness , even to the point of suffering and death. (p.183)
The other important resource that fills in some of the background that is not dealt with in the film and assists in coming to grip with the Prior, Christian's approach to Islam, is the wording of a testament written not long before his death.
The folowing testament was composed by Dom Christian de Cherge in Algiers, December 1, 1993 and produced in Tibhirine, January 1, 1994. It was opened on Pentecost Sunday, 1996, shortly after Dom Christian and others of his Trappist community were murdered in Algeria.

In an early scene in the movie he is seen composing this document, visible on the desk are The Rule of St Benedict, The Little Flowers of St Francis and a copy of the Koran.
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. To accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would like them to pray for me: how worthy would I be found of such an offering?

I would like them to be able to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones allowed to fall into the indifference of anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, and even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a space of lucidity which would enable me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.

I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I don’t see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder. It would be too high a price to pay for what will be called, perhaps, the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I know the contempt in which Algerians taken as a whole can be engulfed. I know, too, the caricatures of Islam which encourage a certain idealism. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience in identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam is something different. It is a body and a soul. I have proclaimed it often enough, I think, in view of and in the knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already respecting believing Muslims.

My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these must know that my insistent curiosity will then be set free. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills: Immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with Him His children of Islam as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playing with the differences.

This life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that JOY in and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU which is said for everything in my life, from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, O my friends of this place, besides my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, a hundredfold as was promised!

And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!

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