The South American Guarani Indians saw their numbers dwindle from 400,000 in the 1500’s to just a few thousand by the mid-1600’s. European Colonization, the slave trade and small pox ravaged their villages. Jesuit missions set up to protect the Guarani unintentionally served as an opportunity for slave traders to capture large numbers of Indians with far less bloodshed.
In the 1986 movie The Mission, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) encounters slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert Di Niro) in one of the Jesuit colonies. Mendoza is ravaged with guilt after having killed his brother. Mendoza is powerfully converted to Christianity and joins Father Gabriel as a Jesuit. Despite the faith in Christ they now share, they see the world through two different lenses. One is tempted to operate by the sword; the other is committed to operate by the Cross.
The movie raises all kinds of questions about cultivating peace. Do you protect vulnerable people with force? Or through transformative non-violent means? A similar question could be asked about our contemporary culture wars: do you mandate morality by law to force compliance? Or do we leave such decisions for individuals to decide so long as no harm is done to others?
There is no one answer to this kind of debate; everyone has a different view. People who otherwise share the same faith will differ as is evidenced in The Mission. When slave traders descend upon the Jesuit colony, Mendoza takes up his sword. Father Gabriel peacefully gathers the Guarani children. The Portuguese troops enter the campground with massive firepower.
When I first saw this film and these final scenes played out, I knew Mendoza could not hold back the troops. I thought he might be able to kill them one by one for a while, but they came into the camp too forcefully. My heart allegiance switched to Father Gabriel – surely God would honor his peacemaker approach; maybe the innocent Guarani children would cut to the “father heart” inside the pro-slavery invading troops. I will not spoil the film for you, but the ending leaves a huge question mark about whether there is a “right” way.
Regardless of whether others choose war or peace, we must keep our eyes on one thing – living our lives in submission to the Kingdom that transcends – and transforms – the kingdoms of this world. Father Gabriel chose peace not because it was the “right” way: rather, he was simply allowing Christ to flood out of his soul regardless of his situation – and regardless of the consequences. Quite a calling.
The final scenes of The Mission challenge me to keep my eyes on Christ no matter what culture does around me. He is the way. If we do want to symbolically choose Mendoza’s approach, it might be best employed against our own need for transformation – after all, “we” are part of this culture too and prevalent partakers of the evils it offers. If we want a transformed culture, let it start with peace toward others and a war against our own sins.
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