Last year a French movie was released entitled, “Of Gods and Men” that was described by the New York Times as “perhaps the best movie on Christian commitment ever made.”
Based on a true story it tells how, in 1996, an Islamic terrorist group kidnapped a small community of Trappist monks from their remote monastery in Northern Algeria, held them, and eventually killed them. But the movie is about something deeper than these bare facts. It focuses on how each of the monks, ordinary men with no ambitions for martyrdom, had to accept possible martyrdom. Each had his own struggle, and for several of them it was a mammoth one. The film climaxes with a “Last Supper” scene where the camera locks-in on the face of each monk. Each face manifests both joy and agony in that man’s unconscious realization that he is soon to die and yet how, because of what he has already worked through and accepted within his soul, that death will be a triumph.
At one point in the story, just as it was becoming clear to the monks that the political and military violence surrounding them would at some point invade their monastic enclosure, the movie presents us with a very poignant scene, Military helicopters hover over their little village and their monastery, with their propellers sounding ominously like war-drums. As this war-beat drowns out most every sound, the monks respond by going to their chapel, putting on their monastic robes, linking arms and chanting gentle songs of trust and praise to God, and we are left staring at the contrast: gentle songs of trust in the face of hovering military hardware. Which of these is more powerful?
That scene is paralleled in the Gospels when they describe the birth of Jesus: A world filled with violence, under the hard military fist of the Roman Empire, is looking for an answer from above. And what is God’s response: A helpless baby asleep in the straw. How will this baby ultimately triumph? How do gentleness and meekness inherit the earth?
This may strain the logic somewhat, but Jesus hints at an answer to that question in his response to his disciples when they ask why they do not have the power to cast out certain demons, when Jesus can cast them out. Jesus’ answer is metaphorical but deep. He replies, in essence, that “demons” are cast out not through a superior cultic power, but through a superior moral power, namely, by the power that is created inside someone when he or she sufficiently nurtures a deep private integrity, graciousness, love, innocence, and gentleness, and holds these in fidelity in the face of all temptation, including violence. Nurturing these things inside oneself connects a person to the ultimate source of all Being, the Ultimate Power, the power that Jesus called his “Father”. And this power, and this power alone, ultimately stands; everything else, including the most sophisticated military hardware eventually gives way to age, rust, obsolescence, and death. The helicopters that hovered above those chanting monks now lie in junkyards, the monks’ chant goes on.
That isn’t easy to accept. The perennial temptation is to try to defeat violence with a morally superior violence, the kind we see at the end of cathartic movie where the hero outguns the bad guys by displaying more muscle, firepower, and accuracy than they did. The demon is then cast out by a superior violence. But that is not the way of Jesus or of the Gospels; nor was it the way of those martyred Trappist monks in Algeria.
In the face of impending violence, our first action should not be an attempt to marshal a superior violence. No. Like those martyred monks, we are meant to link arms and sing songs of love and trust. Or, to vary the image, like the three young men in the Book of Daniel, we are meant to sing sacred songs, even as we are walking amid flames seven times hotter than usual.
To accept this response to violence does not, in se, rule out the possibility of morally justified self-defense or the possibility of a just-war. The world is complex, morality is complex, and we are not always at the same place within our lives, within our faith, and within our trust in God. One size doesn’t fit all. And, in “Of Gods and Men”, each monk had to make his own agonizing decision apposite to meeting violence. So too for each of us.
This is not a criterion for all moral decisions about self-defense and war (though, irrespective of circumstance, we should ever live with the maxim that violence always begets more violence) but an invitation, an invitation to begin more to cultivate within ourselves the kind of “prayer and fasting” that casts out all demons, including violence. The invitation is to begin to nurture within a deep private integrity, graciousness, love, innocence, and gentleness, and hold these in fidelity in the face of all temptation, including violence.