I said, you are gods, sons of the Most High.
But you shall die like men and fall like princes.
Over the weekend, I watched Xavier Beauvois’ excellent film, Of Gods and Men. The movie is based on the true story of seven French Trappist monks who lived in a small Algerian village, located in the Atlas Mountains, near Tibhirine. During the 1990’s, when the film was set, the Algerian government was caught up in a civil war fighting against Islamist extremists who were seeking to take control of the country. Due to the violent nature of this conflict, the people of Algeria lived in a constant state of terror as brutal atrocities, like beheadings and massacres, became an ever-present threat (a situation not unlike those living in Iraq and Syria today under the rule of ISIS).
The film juxtaposes the quiet and charitable lives of the monks, who supported themselves by gardening and collecting honey, with the radical violence and hatred of those around them. Even in the midst of war the brothers remained deeply involved in the life of their village, offering medical care and practical assistance to their Muslim neighbors. However, as French Christians living in Algeria, they were apart of a complicated political legacy due to the long history of European colonization in Africa. Although the monks were not overtly trying to expiate the sins of colonialism, they were surely committed to healing its wounds. This desire for reconciliation can be seen in the Prior‘s (Brother Christian) incessant study of the Koran, and his desire to find common ground with the people whom he was ministering to.
However, the monks desire for peace and reconciliation is challenged when the violence of the civil war hits close to home. In an effort to rid Algeria of foreigners, the Muslim extremists killed a group of Croatian workers in the village, leaving the monks in serious danger. This tragedy sparked an ongoing debate amongst the brothers: should they stay or return to the safety of their homeland? The Algerian government officials, whom the monks talked to, advised they leave the country – but this didn’t make their decision easy. The monks had a strong bond with the villagers and they felt that by leaving they would be abandoning those they cared about. The scene, in the video posted below, shows how important they were to the stability of the village.
As the brothers debated about what they should do, the danger surrounding them continued to mount. On Christmas Eve, the jihadists invaded their monastery seeking medical care and supplies. The lives of the monks were spared that night, but they realized that martyrdom was a very real possibility. As they prepared for death, they gathered for what would be their last supper together – a meal filled with both joy and sorrow.
On March 27, 1996, seven of the monks were kidnapped by the jihadists.
On May 21, they were led out into the snow and executed.
Throughout the film the monks recited various chants, readings, and prayers. One of the readings, which occurred near the beginning of the movie at a meal, gives a fascinating glimpse into the faith of these men.
“Accepting our powerlessness and our extreme poverty is an invitation, an urgent appeal to create with others relationships not based on power.
Recognizing my weaknesses, I accept those of others.
I can bear them, make them mine in imitation of Christ.
Such an attitude transforms us for our mission.
Weakness in itself is not a virtue, but the expression of a fundamental reality, which must constantly be refashioned by faith, hope and love.
The apostles’ weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the spirit.
It is neither passivity nor resignation.
It requires great courage and incites one to defend justice and truth and to denounce the temptation of force and power.”
In an age where New Atheists and radical secularists say that all religion is evil, the film offers a more nuanced perspective. The movie clearly points out the ways in which the extremists used religion to justify their violence. One of the monks, Brother Luc, even quotes Pascal saying that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” So there are no illusions in the film that religion does not cause evil…it surely does. But it does not leave us in this cynical place, for the monks themselves are living proof of the difference Christ makes.
It seems to me that the film offers us a vision of two types of fanaticism. On the one hand you have the jihadists who use God to justify their own sinful desires, but on the other hand you have the monks who, in defiance of all “common sense” or pragmatism, literally give up their lives for their friends. Their fidelity to Christ led them not only to pray for their enemies, but also to actively do good to those who were persecuting them. Brother Luc, for example, treated a wounded jihadist, and Brother Christian prayed for the soul of a murderer and pre-emptively forgave his own likely assassins (you can read Christian’s last testament here).
The film begins with the mundane, but it ends with the metaphysical. For the monks’ death leaves us with the question Pilate asked Christ: What is Truth? Does Truth lie with the jihadists, with those who have the power to kill? Does Truth lie with the members of ISIS who beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians? Was Nietzsche right? Is the world really all about the will to power?
If we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead then we must say NO. For the resurrection was not a random act of divine power, but the Father’s vindication of Jesus’ entire life and ministry. It revealed that Christ is the Father’s self-identifying Word. Therefore if Jesus commanded his followers to love [their] enemies and pray for those who persecute [them] then we must say that peace is a deeper reality than violence. For if God is seen most clearly in the face of Jesus, then the world has a new organizing principle. Instead of being organized around an axis of power enforced by violence, the world has now been re-founded around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness. Brother Christian understood this when he wrote:
“I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.”