“What can man do against such reckless hate?” asks the trapped and helpless Theoden King in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. He speaks for us all when faced with the orcs of ISIS rising in the East. Another film struggles with the same question. In Of Gods and Men nine Trappist monks face the encroaching Islamic violence in their own fortress of Hornburg—a monastery in the Atlas mountains of Algeria.
The film centers on the true story of a French Trappist community in Tibhirine, where the monks lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population. They offered medical help and education to the poor villagers while keeping a nervous eye on the increasingly violent developments in the Algerian civil war. The film faithfully portrays their monastic life and their struggle to respond to “the reckless hate” in a way that is consistent with their faith and calling.
“What can man do against such reckless hate?” At first the monks favor flight. The authorities counsel armed guards which the monks refuse. Some of the monks argue that they should move to a safer monastery or return to France. “We did not come here to be killed. We came to live with, and serve the people.” They are plunged into the unsolvable intricacies of the conflict. What witness would it be if they abandoned their people in time of need? In many ways the monks sympathize with the rebels against the corrupt Algerian regime, but it is those very Muslim guerrillas who are likely to behead them in the name of their religion.
The monks live and work with the Muslim population. They trust their Muslim neighbors and know most of them to not only be peaceful and full of faith, but to also be victims of the extremist violence. They are caught in a complex web of inter related insoluble problems. “What can man do against such reckless and irrational hate?”
Of Gods and Men does not whitewash the problem, nor does it portray the monks as ethereal saints who rise above the conflict. The brilliance of the film is that we share the turmoil and torment of the monks as they face their uncertain future. Tolling like a bell through the film is the monks’ beautifully simple life of prayer, and it is their spirituality which eventually brings the nine brothers to the unanimous decision to stay at their post.
Is peaceful non violence and martyrdom the only action a Christian can take against such reckless hate? No. The Christian tradition allows for the execution of justice, legitimate self-defense and just war against a clear and present danger.
Nevertheless, the example of pacifism offers a counterbalance and a sign of contradiction. The pacifist is the conscience of the soldier, reminding him that there is a better way, and that his courage in fighting can be matched by the courage of the pacifist who does not run away, but remains defiant in the fight, serving the suffering, even if his arms are crossed in his refusal to take up arms. The Trappists of Tibhirine were not trapped. They chose to remain and face the reckless hate with the persistent and insistent love of Christ.
Christian de Chergé, was the Abbot of the community and one of the monks who was killed. He had pioneered the good relationships with the Muslim population, convinced that followers of the two religions could live together peacefully. Consequently he was distrusted by both Muslims and Catholics.
Faced with the increasing tension, Chergé wrote a testimony which was discovered after his death.
If it should happen one day–and it could be today–that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow 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 will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this: How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!”
But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…I commend you to the 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.
The abbot’s witness points to the higher calling of non-resistance. In its echo of Christ’s passion, Chergé’s poignant and powerful words remind those who face “such reckless hate” that submitting as a victim of that hate is also a legitimate response and part of the greater mystery of providence.
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