As events in the Middle East continue to unfold, there is growing concern about the treatment of minority Christians by majority Muslims. Sadly, that anxiety is being stoked by the more antediluvian elements of both faiths. A film that will soon be playing in major U.S cities deals with this issue forthrightly, but tells quite a different story — a story symbolized by the recent media coverage of Christians and Muslims protecting each other when they prayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Of Gods and Men won the Cannes Grand Prize du Jury last year. It too, is a story of Muslim-Christian solidarity. The film tells the true story of a group of French Trappist monks living in an impoverished Algerian community who must decide whether to leave or stay when threatened by a band of terrorists during the “Black Years” of the 1990s.
Despite pleas from the Vatican, French, and Algerian authorities to leave their monastery for a safer place, the monks stayed out of a sense of mutual dependence and deep friendship with their extended family of Muslim villagers. The Trappists had lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors since their community was established in 1938 — a harmony that continued until their kidnapping and murder in 1996.
After the monks remains were discovered, the Algerian government honored them with all the pomp of a state funeral. Letters from chagrined Algerians flooded the Catholic bishop’s office in Algiers: “It’s disgraceful…Islam’s teachings are clear about the sacredness of live, love of neighbor, hospitality to the stranger….Pass on to our Christian brothers and the families of the victims our message of fraternity and friendship.”
A woman doctor wrote, “We must water the seeds bequeathed by our monks. Our duty is to pursue peace, love God and respect people who are different.”
This part of the story is sadly missing from an otherwise wonderful and true-to-life film. Do such people sound as if they are in a war with Christianity? Why were these monks so honored by the vast majority of Algerians, even by Islamists, if a clash of civilizations is occurring?
Because the clash — if there must be one — is less between East and West, and more between religious and secular. As men devoted to pleasing God, the monks often felt more at home in Algeria among Muslims than in secular France. In the West generally, people who take their religion seriously tend to be viewed as odd, even radical. Such a person threatens the materialistic assumptions of the consumer society and challenges the modern idols of democracy and the nation state.
But if Muslims love Christians so much, why were the monks killed? The question is like asking how Christians can be good people who embrace universal love if they spawn the Ku Klux Klan, kill abortion doctors, preach assassination of heads of state, and hatred of other faiths? Once the labels “hypocrite” or “bigot” for Christians or “fanatic” for Muslims are accepted caricatures, thinking ceases. Let the cartoons begin!
It was said of the monks’ abbot, Christian de Chergé, that he would judge specific acts, but not people or whole governments. Condemn the sin but not the sinner. He was an optimist who believed that under the right influences people and governments can change.
Universal fraternal love may seem laughably naïve in a post 9/11 world. But “love” has nothing to do with sentiment and everything to do with good will, justice, and respect for others who are different. Dehumanizing labels help soldiers to commit the unnatural act of killing people, but empathy is needed to understand and progress.
A Trappist monastery is a microcosm of the world: A community of men or women, different by temperament, class, education, race and nationality who make a life-long commitment to love God by practicing the art of loving their neighbor. And it begins with a very rational precept, The Golden Rule: As you would want to be treated, so treat others. What a revolution if governments learned to do the same.
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