both gods and men
In December 1991, the corrupt military-led government in Algeria was inching toward democracy when it held elections. At the time, I was at seminary in Philadelphia, following the story in the newspaper. The fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front pulled in enough votes to force a runoff. It seemed clear that it would win in a direct election with the government. And that, as they say, was that. The government cancelled the elections, and the war was on.
Of Gods and Men (2010) is the true story of a small community of Trappist monks who live near a village in the Atlas Mountains. The war has come to their beautiful corner of Algeria, and many questions are forced upon them. Do they stay? Do they seek a safer place elsewhere? Do they return to France?
Aside from the movie’s compelling story and beautiful scenery, I found myself captivated by the characters. I found myself identifying with all of them. As a pastor, I did not envy the task of their leader, Christian, played by Lambert Wilson. Olivier Rabourdin’s character, Christophe, was the most vocal about his desire to leave. I felt that all of the characters act as elements within the human personality.
I was impressed by their maturity, their realism, and their faith. They acknowledge the indecision and fear, but they do not let it swallow them. I imagine that I will revisit this movie when I need some inspiration. Below is the lengthy voiceover by Christian at the end of the movie. I quote it at length:
“Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to his country. That the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure. And that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know, I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul.
“My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insha’Allah.”
I find this story a powerful enactment of 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul’s hymn to love. Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
What does it mean to say love bears all things? The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”
Love believes all things (πιστευω, pisteuō). Love places confidence in someone or something. Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.
Love hopes all things. The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence. This isn’t an empty hope. It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.” It’s a strong and secure hope. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
Love endures all things (ύπομενω, hypomenō). Love remains. Love waits. Love doesn’t flee. Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack. Love perseveres. Love stands alongside.
Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off? I admit I have done that. Love has called to me. Love has pleaded with me. Love has begged me. But instead, I said “no” to love.
Love endures all. Christophe confesses his doubts and fears to Christian.
Christophe: I don’t know if it’s true anymore. I pray. And I hear nothing. I don’t get it. Why be martyrs? For God? To be heroes? To prove we’re the best?
Christian: We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtakes us, despite ourselves, because up to the end, we’ll try to avoid it, our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.
Perhaps we have our own story of endurance. Regarding the wearing of masks and receiving vaccines, I’m fine with them. (To a point.) However, I am troubled by the mandates. The shaming and social ostracizing saddens me. (By the way, my concerns aren’t limited to mere personal choice. I also have health concerns in mind.)
I have one more thought from the movie:
The monks announce to their Muslim friends in the community where they serve that they might be leaving. Br. Célestin delivers the news, “We are like birds on a branch, we don’t know if we’ll leave.” A Muslim woman in the room responds, “We’re the birds, you’re the branch. If you leave, we lose our footing.” The brothers choose to stay.
That’s something to consider the next time we want to fly away.