Monday, October 3, 2011

Living Our Faith Under Threat

Yesterday, I watched Of Gods and Men, a French film that tells the story of a tiny monastery in the mountains of Algeria that got caught between a corrupt government and Islamic fundamentalists, the two sides of an Algerian civil war.

At first we see the men living peacefully amongst the Muslim population; they are so accepted that they're even invited to Muslim celebrations, and they go.  The population relies on them for medical care, rudimentary as it is.  They pray, they help the population, they work in their gardens, and sell their honey.  In short, they do what monks have done for centuries.

I remember when the monks were killed in 1996.  I remember the international reaction that went along the lines of "Why would you kill monks who weren't hurting anyone?"

Of course, anyone familiar with church history will remind us that any of us can get caught up in political issues outside of anyone's control; in our lifetimes, we've seen similar situations throughout the Latin American world, particularly in Central American countries.  The life of Christ himself serves as a potent reminder of the cost of discipleship:  if you're living your faith correctly, you're likely on a collision course with earthly powers.

The monks weren't martyred because they were Christian; they were kidnapped because they were perceived to have value.  The movie shows that they were taken hostage in the hopes that they could be exchanged for political prisoners.  The circumstances surrounding their death remain mysterious.

Their Christian faith and their monastic vows keep them rooted in place and in danger.  It's interesting to watch the monks wrestle with their commitment to stay put.  At first, some of them would like to leave, but they don't.  By the end, they've all decided that staying in place is the right thing to do, even though they face increasing danger.

We see the monks as real men, not as spiritual superheroes, which is sometimes the way that monks are portrayed in popular culture.  They don't want to die, and they're tempted by the safety that returning to France or going to another monastery in Africa would offer them.  Yet they know that the community needs them, and the poor Muslims in the surrounding community have no way to flee the terrorism that surrounds them.  By staying, the monks can mitigate some of that misery.

I found the end of the film profoundly moving.  A the monks march through the snow and the strangely beautiful, but desolate landscape, we hear the words of Christian, the thoughtful leader of the monastery, who reflects on the predicament of the monks, a predicament grim even before the monks were captured.  Christian reflects on the call to discipleship and the model given to us by Christ.

It made me, in my comfortable U.S. living room, feel a bit inauthentic, like I should go out immediately and become a missionary and volunteer to go to someplace truly dangerous.  Yet many theologians would tell me that I've missed the point of the movie.  My mission is not to go someplace where I will be martyred.  My mission, the mission of all Christians, is to be the light of Christ in a world that's dark for many reasons. 

The monks show us that there are many ways we can do this.  We can be a gentle presence in our workplaces.  Or maybe we could be a more forceful witness for Christ in our workplaces.  We can strive for balance between work, study, and worship.  We can pray.  We can rely on our communities for sustenance.  One lengthy scene near the end of the movie shows the monks welcoming an old friend who has brought them supplies and treats; together they enjoy a meal and two bottles of fabulous wine and classical music played at high volume.  In the last scene, as they trudge through the snow, we see those same monks holding each other up, literally, as they head towards death.

We are all trudging towards death.  Our spiritual lives can do so much more than prepare us for life after death; our spiritual lives should give us a taste of that Kingdom right here and now, as we transform our communities, so that everyone has a vision of the Good News that Christ declares:  that God has come to dwell with us, that Heaven is breaking into our normal lives, that we don't have to wait for death to commune with Christ.

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