Essay

Of Gods and Men

By January 27, 2012 One Comment
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“The 150 evangelical leaders who met behind closed doors on January 14 to anoint a Republican candidate for President were wise not to have invited me.”  So wrote David Neff of Christianity Today in what I thought was a brave overview of Christianity and politics in this country, and, daringly, a clear repudiation of the shining stars of the religious right in the muddled mess this country is in.

What he’s talking about is the Texas confab of prayer warriors who got together to choose a candidate for the Republican nomination.  Most of the heavyweights were there.  Sadly enough—or maybe providentially—they couldn’t agree; so what emerged from the meeting was a fractured decision—some of the Christians like Mitt the Mormon, some wanted Newt the repentant prodigal, others Rick Santorum, the Roman Catholic home-schooler.  No candidate came out of that powerhouse meeting “the chosen,” making some pundits claim the famed religious right is in decline, having lost its juice, its own power.  They failed to anoint a king.

“I believe that Christians have an urgent duty to engage the social, economic, and moral threats to a healthy society,” Neff wrote in an on-line editorial.  “That requires a wide variety of political action.  However, one thing it doesn’t call for is playing kingmaker or powerbroker.”

I can’t help but think of ye old childhood hymn, “Dare to be a Daniel.”  It’s really difficult for me to believe that someone like David Neff would dare take on James Dobson, et al, but he did.  He may well get burned, too; but what Neff is criticizing is the will to be seduced by power, political power, something he says should never be the goal of Christian political action.  He quotes James Davison Hunter:  “Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.”

I’m no political scientist, and I don’t claim to stake out the absolute here.  But after watching CT’s own choice for the numero uno film of 2011, Of Gods and Men, I have great sympathy for Neff’s argument.  A handful of Trappist monks, belovedly integrated into their Muslim neighborhood—in fact, a village has grown up around the mission because of its gifts to the people—find themselves in deep danger when a bloody civil war breaks out around them.  On one hand, they fear the radical Muslims; on the other, the government—both sides seething for power.

In the middle sit and stand and pray eight monks whose average age is maybe 70.  The question they face is vividly clear:  with our lives in jeopardy, should we stay?

The grace of this story, of this film, is that it avoids dopey sentimentality that’s so easy to conjure in a story like this:  these old monks as idiots or angels or holy fools.  The incredible strength of the movie is that these old men are totally human—they’re scared to death, they’re really not sure of their role or calling, and for most of the story they’re not of one mind.  After all, both options—life and death—make sense.

Leaving means reneging on their calling, abandoning the defenseless people, the poor they’ve come to love and serve.  But then, staying means putting their own lives and cause in jeopardy.  As some of them admit, they didn’t join the order to die.  What’s more, there’s nothing saintly in seeking one’s own martyrdom.

A decision doesn’t come easily because the right answer is not easy to come by; but right there, in the means by which they formulate their own determined response to the horrors  of the war around them, Of Gods and Men takes the Christian faith with deadly seriousness, in a fashion that’s as rare as true commitment.  I thought the film to be absolutely wonderful.

I don’t know what might have happened in Texas on January 14, had all those saints watched Of Gods and Men before their righteous caucus.  Don’t know what might have occurred if they’d read David Neff or James Davison Hunter before attempting to anoint a candidate. Probably nothing.  We’re not all alike, as they painfully discovered that night themselves.

What seems clear to me, however, is those  Trappist monks in Algeria in Of Gods and Men have a decidedly different view of the definition of power than did the Saturday night gathering of saints in Texas.

Praise the Lord.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

One Comment

  • Eric says:

    Thank you for this thought provoking post

    For me it spoke about how we fear difference. A threat, perceived or real, often invokes a call for Unity (often a false one based on the power of a few who offer some false Salvation) – yet can also reveal something at first more threatening than that, that we are not One with others. Often we might speak of this as The Enemy within, more terrifying than any external threat.

    Particularly as Christians we need to begin with our difference as part of our basic self understanding. The fact that we do not acknowledge it as a foundational truth leads to all sorts of difficulties. Theologically the fact that others are different to me is also a reminder that I am not God. That God is The Other, The Different One. The Threat that difference poses is as always a reminder that all our troubles are rooted in our 'estrangement' from God

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