by Linda Tiessen-Wiebe
Why does suffering exist? You might argue that random genetics or natural disasters causes suffering, that this is an inevitable implication of natural selection. But what about suffering caused by human neglect or intent? Global warming. Religious intolerance. Gossip and slander. All the social and individually petty ways in which we sow seeds of violence instead of building peace. With all our knowledge and education and technology, don’t we in a sense know better? Certainly the state of our world today is a compelling question for believers: “Why does God allow suffering?” Whatever philosophical or religious slant on life you take, you can’t avoid grappling with the question of suffering. The movie Of Gods And Men allows us a unique view into how persons of faith existentially live this question.
The movie tells the true story of a group of French monks living in an Algerian monastery during a time of revolution in the 1990’s. The monks live humbly alongside their Muslim neighbours, sustaining themselves through farming and beekeeping, and providing a clinic for the villagers. They are part of the villagers lives, and have been for several generations. There is mutual respect between the monks and the village elders as they share social events and discuss local politics. What sets things in motion is a series of random terrorist attacks that prompt the local government to suggest to the abbot, Brother Christian, that they abandon the monastery. A principled man, Christian declares that the monks will stay in solidarity with the villagers, much to the politician’s dismay. At the common meal back at the monastery, the other monks react to Christian’s apparently autocratic decision, saying he didn’t allow for their input into the decision. In short, they were afraid. And so begins the process that is the center of the movie, how will the monks truly answer this question of whether to stay or leave?
Director Xavier Beauvois allows the viewer an intimate portrait of monastery life. The movie is placed slowly, to allow you to get into their daily rhythm, the counterpoint between mundane tasks and poignant prayers. The everyday scenes of ministry and labour are interspersed with their communal prayers, some of which are achingly vulnerable. The movie is not an apologetic for Christianity; rather it allows us to see how human the monks are as they grapple with the implications of their professions of faith.
Each monk must struggle with the opening question of theodicy: where is God when suffering happens? And what response does one make? For Brother Christian, who is well versed in the Bible and the Koran, the answer seems clear: Christ calls us to love our enemies and to take care of the poor and weak. To follow Christ in this way will inevitably involve suffering. Some of the monks say they would do more good if they were alive (somewhere else), others feel it would be cowardly to leave, some don’t know. Most of them are afraid and not as certain as Christian. Although convinced they have no choice but to stay, Christian submits to a consensus, which at the beginning is they will wait and see. And as the movie unfolds you see how each of the monks comes to reconcile himself with suffering. Or perhaps the inevitable suffering of living in our world seeks out each of these men and asks to befriend them.
One of the themes that emerges is the common gap between professing and living a life of faith. Not that these men were hypocrites, in the obvious sense. Rather that often learning to live from faith involves being confronted with how you are not living from faith. These monks made sacrifices when they joined the order, a form of suffering and a sign of their dedication. They didn’t necessarily sign up to die in the cross-fires of a revolution, though. But life happens, and they find themselves at the monastery accompanying the villagers in their poor, humble life. Brother Christophe has a crisis of faith as he starts to reassess what exactly he’s signed up for. He doesn’t want to die, much less die violently. And as his fear crystallizes, his doubts start to solidify. Does he still believe in God? And why does God allow this capricious violence towards innocent villagers? God is infuriatingly silent at Christophe‘s heartfelt questions in prayer. And here we can so understand him. He is confessing that he wants to live more than he wants to be faithful. Suffering is not appealing in any way. There is nothing intrinsically noble about it. In fact, embracing suffering seems to be masochistic, and maybe even condoning violence. Following Jesus, what he has shaped his whole adult life around, suddenly seems the least appealing thing. In his own way Christophe prays “let this cup be taken from me...”.
Brother Luc is one of the ones who at first doesn’t know whether to stay or go. He runs the village clinic. He faithfully tends to their needs, whether medical, practical or pastoral. He is a patient man, but over time he becomes worn down by an increased work load. He is seeing increasing signs of stress in his patients as they too must live with the anxiety of imminent violence in their midst. Things come to a head for him when the revolutionaries terrorize his patients as they wait in front of the clinic. As the soldiers barge in demanding medicine, Brother Luc gets angry in a truly prophetic way, chiding these men for taking from women and children. In a way this incident consolidates his own perspective. Although worn down, he seems at peace with his decision to stick it out. In a sense he is most alive following his vocation and so he isn’t afraid to die.
Over the next months we get inside each of the monk’s personal journey as they chat with the abbot. Brother Christian meanwhile undergoes a different kind of suffering. He has a keen sense of what the community of monks should do as a faithful witness, and a deep sense of compassion for the villagers who depend on the monastery (the birds to their tree, quote). But he is also responsible for the spiritual care of the other monks. He could pull rank, as all the monks have taken a vow of obedience. But it isn’t in his nature, so he has to wait as the other’s wrestle with the decision. He wisely doesn’t impose his will, which might have divided the brothers at a crucial time. In a small way he mirrors God’s action in inviting humanity to covenant, but allowing them to freely choose, at great risk to creation. The risk of evil.
Christian’s clear moral sense doesn’t make him self-righteous, though. He is very aware of how violence begets violence. Even though the rebels are terrorizing the villagers, he responds to them with integrity but compassion when they storm the clinic one night to steal medicine. He only talks to them outside the gates, because he believes guns have no place in the monastery. He refuses their demand for medicine, but explains the reasons: the meagre supply is for the needy villagers. He quotes from the Koran a passage that speaks of Christians being a help not a drain on the villagers. And he tells them the significance of that night, Christmas Eve. The Koran tells of al-Masīḥ, the prophet Jesus. His words and demeanor strike a chord with the rebel leader and for a time there is a kind of protection from him for the monastery. Later Christian shows compassion on the corpse of the slain rebel leader, inviting the scorn of the police, who want to abuse the body of the man who caused so much suffering among them. Christian has taken to heart the vow to love the enemy.
Although the men are all at different places of faith, they come together in their daily prayers, and the words of these prayers often seem expressly written for their circumstance. These scenes seem to illustrate how living faith is girded by acts of confessing our human weakness before each other and before God, and trust in God’s gracious accompaniment, mirrored in communal life. This is captured in a striking scene of the prayer time being interrupted by the sound of a helicopter hovering close to the church. The monks’ chanting is drowned out, but they cannot see the craft. A trick of acoustics makes it appear the helicopter is everywhere. As they gaze fearfully all around them, they slowly stand closer in a circle. Even though they seem to be overpowered, somehow they are sustained. Even though many of them are still struggling with whether to stay or go, no one panics. In a strange way, the episode galvanizes each man. In their own way they are coming to understand the deeper meaning of following Jesus who was crucified before being resurrected. Jesus knew fear and dread, but also found himself getting in touch with a love of God that was deeper than his fear, just when the threat was at its greatest. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prays, “not my will be done by Thine.”
And the will of God is to heal all of creation, to gather all people together in unity. Which must be an amazingly painful vision to have. There is something about a suffering God, a God who suffers with creation, that moves us. If creation is truly free to realize itself, if God truly does step back to allow humanity free will, then suffering occurs. But when God in Jesus submitted to this suffering out of love for God, it was as if God was willing to suffer with humanity rather than turn away. And only this kind of God sustains us in our times of alienation and lostness. Like Job who was answered not through logic, but through experience of the Divine (“I had heard but now I see”) we are sustained, literally, by God’s presence with us. And out of gratitude we desire to return the love in kind and live different lives. This desire to love more deeply is eventually what frees all the brothers to embrace their calling fully, whatever it may mean. Brother Cristophe comes to this as he meditates on a painting of Christ, placing his hand on the “heart” of the painting. He realizes his grateful desire to return Christ’s love is deeper than his fear, and he is set free. All the brothers seem to gather around this time for a celebratory meal at the unexpected visit of a fellow monk. Brother Luc mischievously interrupts the meal time prayer by playing a cassette of Swan Lake and opening a bottle of wine. Suddenly there is laughter, and then tears, as the significance of this meal sinks in for each monk; surely the last supper?
In December of 1996 eight monks were abducted from the Monastery Notre-Dame de l'Atlas of Tibhirine and never heard from again. Of Gods and Men ends with these monks being marched in a snowstorm through the forest, fading from view. And then the voice of Brother Christian reads the remarkable letter he wrote weeks earlier, as he possibly foresaw what might happen. His concern had been with what would happen to the muslim villagers, and how the West would misinterpret the random violence of a few men to represent all of Islam. In an amazing stance of humility, Christian admits his own complicity in the violence that led to the revolution. And he calls on the world to be fair and open to the Islam he has come to love over the years. In the end he addresses his future executioner as a fellow thief on the cross beside Jesus. To the end Christian was in touch with a faith that desired love not hate to be the final word, his own version of “forgive them they know not what they’re doing”. By God’s grace he was able to bring his brothers fully alongside with him.
Back to our opening question. When we are faced with the violence of our days, not just on T.V. but also within ourselves, the question of why suffering begins to turn. It is only through suffering love that any kind of redemption is possible. As Christians we only are able to live a trusting life of faith as we know and then offer forgiveness. For Jews, the suffering servant is the one through whom all Israel, and through them the world, is healed. Because there is such anguish in our world, because everyone, every creature, all creation, is groaning until things are put right, the only way to truly stand for life is to embrace life deeply, including the suffering that inevitably comes. We may have a journey, like that of the monks of Tibhirine, to get to this place. But my hope is that the love of Christ takes such a deep root that it becomes stronger than our fear.