When I make a Top Ten list of movies, most often I put The Mission near the top. It’s not a movie I could enjoy watching all the time, as I could another contender for number one, The Princess Bride.
But though I’ve seen The Princess Bride ten times more often than The Mission (maybe twenty), certain lines from The Mission stick with me as strong or stronger than Princess Bride quotes. That’s saying a lot, considering I can lip-synch the entire script of PB along with Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley.
I’ve also come to realize that though The Mission excoriates seventeenth century colonialism and the slave trade, its perspective is now dated. I love it for its music and imagery and powerful depiction of redemption and grace. You should probably stop reading this and go watch it for yourself before continuing.* But in case you don’t, I’ll provide context for my quotes. Spoiler alert for those of you who have been meaning to get around to watching it…since 1986.
Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) is a horrible, brutal man who, among other things, hunted and sold people as slaves and murdered his own brother. Then, through a process of penance and redemption that is at the heart of the movie, Mendoza leaves behind his life of violence and becomes a priest. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Jesuit priest who establishes a mission in northeastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay and who helps lead Mendoza to a point at which Mendoza can accept forgiveness.
However, the macro conflict of the movie–and it’s at least rooted in historical events (The Treaty of Madrid, 1750, and Guarani War 1754-56)–comes between the Portuguese government that wants to profit from slave-trading, the powerful leadership in the Catholic church, and these Jesuit priests who have established this mission. Thus, we have this climactic scene near the end of the movie.
Mendoza: I want to renounce my vows of obedience.
Gabriel: Get out.
Mendoza: I want to explain…
Gabriel: Get out, Rodrigo. I won’t listen to you.
Gabriel: Just you?
Mendoza: No, it’s Ralph and John too.
Gabriel: What do you want captain, an honorable death?
Mendoza: They want to live, Father. They say that God has left them, He’s deserted them. Has He?
Gabriel: You shouldn’t have become a priest.
Mendoza: But I am a priest, and they need me.
Gabriel: Then help them as a priest! If you die with blood on your hands, Rodrigo, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love!
Some might take this to mean followers of God should not get involved in politics. But Gabriel himself does get “involved” in politics. He confronts the evil and corruption he sees by speaking truth to power. He puts himself between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Gabriel rebukes Mendoza for turning back from his commitment to love–from following and obeying Jesus–and returning to violence-as-solution.
Great art should help us to see ourselves.
So should friends.
Two days ago, my friend Jeremy challenged me whether I spend as much time praying for Trump as I do criticizing him and his administration. Yet my friend made it clear that he wasn’t rebuking me for my criticisms–in fact he said, “I agree with you about all of it.”
I found that fascinating and challenging.
When people tell me I should “pray for Trump more,” usually loud but implied is “You should shut up and pray for Trump more.” It’s more a shaming rebuke than a real exhortation to prayer. But his was a genuine question.
As a result, I prayed more for Trump yesterday than any other day I can remember since this whole [insert your word here] began.
I’ve been very vocal that we should shelter in place, listen to and support our doctors and nurses, and protect others’ lives by helping flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. We’ve all seen this go from uncertainty to concern to conflict to hostility. Today, conspiracy theories are circulating that the shelter in place and face masks response is an organized effort to increase government control and/or strip our liberties. I have good friends asking me what is true and what is distortion, clearly because I play a doctor on TV. (I don’t really.)
“Help them as a priest!”
Okay, I’m a pastor, not a priest, and I don’t currently hold an official position or title as “pastor.” I still know what I am and who I am. People ask me because I’m their friend and their pastor. Jeremy was right; I need to pray for Trump more. In this crisis, I need to call us to the way of love, not the way of violence. I’m not saying we should stop speaking up about the situation–political or pandemic–because we must speak up; I’m saying we can’t answer hatred for hatred, attack for attack. I can’t. I’m tempted to. It’s easy to dismiss, ridicule, and, when people attack me personally, fire back.
At the conclusion of the above scene, Gabriel states: “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”
I think about this often, too. It reminds me of Paul’s quote: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 19:13) I believe in Love, not the fuzzy, feel-good, greeting card sentiment that means little (other than for marketing) in the “real world” of dollars and politics and power but the water-in-the-desert, stronger-than-death, worth dying for and worth living for Love of God because God is Love (I John 4:8). God loves us and therefore we have the power and the calling to love one another. I know billionaires are getting richer from this pandemic. If people who love money more than other people have this world right and making the most matters most, if might is right, then I have believed the wrong stuff and I deserve pity because I’ve squandered my chips in the only real game.
But I don’t believe that. If love has no place in the world, then I don’t think it’s a world worth living in, anyway. I don’t believe we were supposed to teach our children that dog eats dog, kindness is weakness, and they need to get ready to fight to the death, to add to the ugliness all-too-present in our world. I hope you don’t believe that, either.
I’m not urging people to stay home and protect themselves and–more importantly—our more vulnerable neighbors from COVID-19 because I’m trying to “bring down the President.” I’m praying for Donald Trump today. His actions and words are bringing him down, not me. I am staying home and doing what I can to keep the virus from spreading, to follow Jesus and love my neighbor. I know we’re all in crisis here and I am offering what help I can, using the means Jesus taught and modeled.
Jeremy caused me to ask myself, sincerely, have I let myself slip into fighting hate with hate? Have I, like Mendoza, renounced my commitment to Jesus’ way of love? The most insidious version of this, of course, is when we take up violence but tell ourselves we’re not, or we convince ourselves that we’re justified and this is still the way of love.
I spent a long time yesterday evening talking with my friend Debbie, who is an ICU nurse. She described how precarious our local situation had been, how close the hospital came to being swamped and overwhelmed by our local COVID-19 cases. I had no idea. They had to pull personnel from other departments to join in ICU and separate the Intensive Care Unit into two parts, one for COVID-19, the other for everything else. She told me how much money the hospital is losing because so many other departments have been shut down. She also explained how a member of her family is suffering because of the shut down of his small business. All of these things are true.
A close friend is flying today, on the one flight still available, hoping and praying to reach his father’s side before his father dies. My friend oversees pharmacies in nine hospitals (he’s with the pharmacists, not Big Pharma, to be clear) and has kept me updated from his perspective on how we are faring with the onslaught of COVID-19 cases. At one point he worked forty-two days straight or some such ridiculous number. He told me the news of his father last night. He knows the risks of contagion better than most. He would not be traveling if it were not literally his last chance to see his father alive. All of these things are true.
“Then help them as a priest!”
Now I’m talking to you, not just me. Jesus followers are the priesthood of believers. We incarnate God’s spirit–God’s spirit of Love–and offer it, offer ourselves, to this weary, beaten, brutal world. That’s what we do. That is our calling as Jesus’ image, those who live and bring God’s Kingdom here and now.
Help them as a Jesus follower. Help them as the priests we are.
If you’re struggling–of course you’re struggling, not “if”–then let that struggle be part of what you offer, your own empathy, our shared sorrow and grief, and even your anxiety. You don’t have to be “strong” or pull it together to help others as a Jesus-follower-priest. Jesus gave himself in weakness. So do we. It’s one of the things we are most tempted to dodge in this calling.
People are angry. Dear friends have let me know I have no idea what I’m talking about and a few have implied, if not stated, that I’m a dupe for a threat that either is not real or else is horribly, manipulatively overblown. “Help them as a priest.” I’m not screaming back. I’m not attacking. I’m not even defending (in case you need evidence of God’s existence, this happens to be a miracle). I’m praying. I’m breathing. I’m trying to understand what they’re feeling that they respond this way. I may be wrong. Clearly I, too, have limited understanding and limited information.
I have tried, throughout this crisis, to urge everyone to take the threat seriously and to protect one another. None of my friends in the medical profession (and I realize, when I stop to count, I have a surprising number of those) have expressed in the slightest that our response to this pandemic is disproportionate. I have had several express that we’re not taking it seriously enough. When I read the epidemiologists’ reports and models for the second wave, the threat is far from over.
I hate how much everyone is suffering and that we have a situation in which all of our possible choices will cause suffering. I am still convinced that the better we exercise precautions now, the sooner we will come out of it. I’ve communicated a lot of information about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, to urge others to take this pandemic seriously enough. I realize (with some friends’ help) that too much information can also be unhelpful, when people already feel overwhelmed.
“Help them as a priest!”
How do I, as a Jesus follower, help you? How do you help me? How do we love, help and, when necessary, carry one another through this crisis?
I don’t have all the answers to these, but I know now I’m asking the right questions.
Thanks, Gabriel. Thanks, Jeremy.
*On second thought, The Mission is intense with depictions of tragic violence, and since I got feedback that even reading Charlie was a bit much right now, you may prefer to hold off. I leave that to you, but thought I should mention it. I’d also be interested what you think of it, if you decide to watch it. Does it successfully critique colonialism or reinforce the White Savior Complex?