Religion & Film: Of Gods and Men

Psalm 82:6-7, “I have said, ye are gods and all of you are children of the Most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.”

In 1996, during the Algerian Civil War, seven monks of the Tibhrine monastery in Algeria (belonging to the Roman Catholic Trappist Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) were kidnapped. They were held for two months and killed. It remains unclear who the perpetrators were: the Armed Islamic Group (GIA – who claimed responsibility) or the Algerian army who may have killed them during an attempt to rescue them.

The film of Gods and Men is based on that event and follows the lives of French Catholic monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria in the 1990s. As the country is caught into a terrible civil war between an oppressive secularist state and radical Islamists, the Trappist brothers face the question of how to ‘love thy neighbour’.
Monks in Algeria: loving thy neighbor at gunpoint

Caught between the brutal Algerian government and the ruthless Islamists, the monks struggle to know and share God’s love and peace. What they experience alongside the beauty of the love they live out on a day-to-day basis in their monastic community is unbounded hatred, unspeakable violence, and, ultimately, unstoppable death seeping into their world. They must decide whether to remain in their monastery or flee the violence and return to France.

In their vocations, they seek to love and serve God by being “brothers to all”—in their monastic community and with all the people they encounter. All this becomes exponentially more complicated when new neighbors—a group of radical Islamists—come to the region. The battles between the Algerian government and the Islamists for influence and control unleash persistent horror and tragedy.

Love thy neighbors, all of them

The monks face a new question: What does it mean to share brotherly love at gun point? Over the years, the lives of the monks and the neighboring villagers became intertwined. The monks realize that if they leave, the consequences will be immense not only for themselves but also for the Muslim villagers who work in the monastery and whom the monks serve through a free medical clinic.

This is not a film about Christians vs. Muslims. Rather, this is a film about Christians trying—imperfectly but still genuinely—to love Muslims. And the monks must sort out what love means amid competing interpretive claims on the Muslim faith. In the Islamists’ political fanaticism and obsession with political power, the monks encounter a “distorted” Islam that stands in sharp contrast to the religious faith the monks experience in the lives of the Muslim villagers who live alongside the monastery in peace, Muslims who love their families and their neighbors.

The film is magnificent in the sense that it brings out the struggles each of the monks has with living together with others with whom they share many things but whom they also fear. It is in their prayers before God that these struggles are most clear. Trying to remain steadfast Christians and to respect Muslims against the background of the Civil War and trying not to resort to a dead end us vs. them game. The solution they found was ‘to love thy neighbour’ even at gunpoint.Journal of Religion & Film: Of Gods and Men (2010) by Wendy M. Wright

Each of the monks reacts differently to the felt sense of impending peril. But viewers are not treated to a story of one individual against many but to a story about genuine community in which individual struggle is honored and at the same time the integrity and deep bonds of the whole are acknowledged. The oscillation between common and individual dynamics is captured through the filmmakers’ choices. When the army wants to thrust its machines and armed men upon the monastery, Fr. Christian peremptorily refuses: this is the antithesis of the life of peace and hospitality (another one of those other Benedictine themes) that he has chosen. But his confreres gently but firmly call him out: we did not elect you to make your own unilateral decisions they say, reminding him of his appropriately humble and un-autocratic role as outlined by St. Benedict’s Rule. Alternately, the solitariness of Fr. Christian’s burden of leadership is evident as he paces alone across the remote windswept acres of the monastic lands while wild fowl wing across a vast expanse of sky and dwarf his silhouette.

[10] Thus begins a remarkable series of scenes that reveal the process of spiritual discernment, genuine listening to the Spirit of God as it is refracted through individual conscience, through community members, through others, and through the tradition. This is where the centrality of the liturgical office and the prayer to which the men return again and again becomes clear. The words of the midnight liturgy of Christmas echo powerfully as the shaken community gathers after the terrorists disappear into the night. Allusions to the crucified one and to the sacrifice of love resonate in the music the men sing. As the danger looms, they listen in the refectory to a reading by Carlo Corretto (a French spiritual writer and member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a community inspired by hermit Charles de Foucauld who lived and was assassinated in the Algerian desert). Carretto’s words about surrender sink in, helping to sharpen the discernment the men are making. What is stability? What does it mean to vow fidelity to a community? What does it mean to follow the crucified God of Love? What is martyrdom? What of the people in the neighborhood to whom they have pledged their presence? The filmmakers use some dialogue to explore these questions but much of the questioning, both individually and communally, is visually expressed through facial close ups and by careful attention to the nuances of posture, gesture, tone of voice, and unspoken interactions among community members as they gather to decide together what they should do.

I think when used with articles and books that shed some more light on Algerian politics of the second half of the 20th century this film is excellent for teaching purposes.

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