Of Gods and Men

“Accepting our powerlessness and our extreme poverty is an invitation, and urgent appeal to create with others relationships not based on power. Recognising 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 is in itself not a virtue but the expression of a fundamental reality which must constantly be refashioned by faith, hope and love. The apostle’s 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.”

–       Of Gods and Men, 34 minute mark.


Sometimes you see or hear or read something that, regardless of its quality, cuts you right to the quick. The film Of Gods and Men was produced in 2010, in France. “It centers on the monastery of Tibhirine, where nine Trappist monks lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population of Algeria, until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.” (Taken from the wikipedia entry about the film).

To my mind, the craft which has produced the film is workmanlike. It’s one of those realist styles of drama, which suits me fine, but has a fairly none-too-interesting initial half hour detailing the day to day lives of the monks. It really struck me hard, however, when the monks are eating dinner together, listening to a recording of a speech quoted at the beginning of this article.

I personally have never understood the whole ‘turn the other cheek’ mentality. If you can construct a spectrum with violence at one end and non-violence at the other, the best place to weigh it, for mine, is in terms of Gandhi versus Hitler. Gandhi said that he would always advocate non-violence, even against an adversary like Adolf H. I have read a little bit of Mein Kampf, namely the bit about how the world’s population can be broken down in terms of race and consequently, how the roles of labour should be ascribed after the institution of the Third Reich. I expect Hitler would have been thrilled by Gandhi’s approach; it would have made it much easier to exterminate the jews, gypsies and disabled before enslaving the black and yellow races to work for the benefit of the Aryans.

The thing about the monk’s quotation that struck me so powerfully is its clear statement that affluence, force and power are social evils. If I found myself in a crisis situation, I would always try to acquire – and –exert – power. And I imagine that if I saw my wife and friends and children tortured and killed, I would want to maim and torture the people that hurt them.

The monks approached the problem from the diametrically opposite position, the theory of which is explained in the quoted recording. When I heard it, I could see the integrity of their logic and it struck at the foundation of my own. When I write posts like ‘When is it socially acceptable to hit someone at work?’, I am thinking in terms of the fact that these spoiled, arse-hole rat-racers I work with in Armadale have no fundamental respect or empathy for others. I find people agree with me when I lay out my argument, but what I have privately failed to ackowledge is my own contribution to the conundrum, which is pride.

It’s pride that the monks eschew. The mystery of Easter, which I expect is the wilful acceptance of martyrdom, is their ultimate destination. The film is structured around their routine of monastery life and attending to the needs of the Muslim villagers around them. What is interesting is how the enemy initially seems to be the extremists, but after the monks tend to an extremist soldier, the Algerian army begins to harrass them, also. The monks remain powerless by choice, and the sides which were initially construed as good and bad change places, for all intents and purposes. By opting out of the power struggle, they have placed themselves at the recieving end.

I’m not saying they were right, but their story is deeply compelling. And you have to admire their courageous sacrifice. In a time when a credible argument is made for impeaching the pope for crimes against humanity, the church needs people – and stories – like these. The community needs to believe that not all the great Christians have been extinct for 2,000 years.

I looked for the origin of the quotation at the beginning of this article online, but could not find it. Instead, I found a study guide which contains one of the surviving monks’ responses to the film, and also, a last will and testament from one of the monks that was murdered. 

Click to access MOVIE-20110420Study-Guide2.pdf

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