The Gethsemane of the Monks

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The eminent evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak has just published SuperCooperators, a book offering his theory of why natural selection may paradoxically favor altruism. The Harvard scientist's insight is that evolutionary success is not simply a matter of "survival of the fittest," but also in some cases requires co-operation -- which is to say, a degree of self-sacrifice. Put another way, Nowak argues that the values taught by Jesus Christ are encoded within human biology.

It's a provocative idea, but I don't think it can adequately account for how Christ ended his life. To suffer and die for one's family and friends is understandable. But for strangers? That's harder to conceive. And beyond that, to forgive one's killers, even in one's dying breaths? To do that requires something far beyond mere biological instinct, or rationality. It requires a superabundance of altruism. It requires a love so pure it cannot be explained.

The mystery of this kind of love is what Christians confronted Easter weekend. It began in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus sweated blood in agonized anticipation of his arrest. The Gospels tell us that Jesus, in his terror, asked God to spare him the cup of suffering, but "not as I will, but as you will." In this account, Jesus wishes to be spared from his passion, but not if it means going against the will of God.

The story then moves to his trial, scourging, and crucifixion on Good Friday. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," Jesus said as the life drained from him. The narrative ends with the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, the miracle of all miracles, which, in Christian belief, won eternal life for all who unite themselves to him.

It is a breathtaking story, even if taken as myth, but it's also one whose familiarity in Western culture has drained away much of its transformative power. The tidy, Sunday School answers we grew up with fail to convey the radical significance of the Passion. Sometimes, we have to experience this old story in new ways to make it live in our moral imagination.
Paradoxically, literary archvillains, from Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor to Flannery O'Connor's murderous Misfit, have a better grasp of the Jesus they reject than many of us who call him Lord. They realized how the bizarre tale of the God-man who loved so fully he accepted an unjust death and renounced vengeance.
Jesus, said the Misfit, "thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then its nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can ... ."
So says O'Connor's escaped convict, who understands better the cost of Christian discipleship than many of us disciples of Christ, who live our religion as ideas to be understood by reason rather than mysteries to be embraced with self-sacrificing love. Religious truth is the kind of truth that can only be fully known by living it out. Despite what we say and think, we live as if the last Christian died on the cross.

That's my story. That might be your story too. But it's not the only story of the church

In 1996, Islamic terrorists waging civil war in Algeria kidnapped seven Trappist monks from the Tibhirine monastery, held them hostage for weeks, then murdered them. If you see this event, as I did at the time, as another sad chapter in a long, cruel history of Islamic persecution of Christian minorities, you haven't really seen it at all.

This is why you have to see the French film "Of Gods & Men," a fictional version of the Tibhirine monks' martyrdom. It is also one of the greatest works of Christian art ever made. Such is its power to astonish, to unsettle, and to convict, that, as the critic Steven Greydanus wrote, this is a film "that you do not judge -- it judges you."

The movie shows us the monks' Gethsemane. These Trappists have lived among the rural Muslim villagers for decades, sharing their friendship, their poverty, their joys, and their suffering. Friar Luc, who is also a physician, provides rudimentary medical care to the poor, who would otherwise have nothing. They are monastic brothers, of course, but as one of them says, "brothers to all."

When Islamist terrorists start a campaign of violence against the Algerian government and Muslims who disagree with their fundamentalism, the jihadists order all foreigners to leave the country or die. The military warns the Christian monks either to accept army protection or to run for their lives. The narrative concerns itself with the terrible choice facing these peaceable men of God in the face of violent death.

The Trappists are neither naïve nor serene. They cannot easily decide whether or not to refuse the cup of suffering being forced upon them.

So they pray, and they chant, and they talk with one another, and they contemplate the obligations that love of God and love of the Muslim villagers, who are also being terrorized, puts on them. And endure from moment to moment.

"Day after day, we had to resist the violence," Dom Christian de Cherge', the abbot, says. "And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It's to be born."

And so, when death comes, as we know it will, the monks have prepared their souls. They have accomplished what is called, in Islam, the "greater jihad" -- a holy war against oneself, and all within that separates oneself from the will of God. The "lesser jihad" in Islamic theology is sanctified violence against the world -- and it is precisely this that the monks reject as a living death.

"Of Gods & Men" ends with a passage from an astonishing document Dom Christian left behind, and that was opened after his death. It was his last testament, written in anticipation of martyrdom. In it, the abbot writes that it grieves him to think that those he would leave behind would blame Islam or Algeria for his murder. He says he saw sanctity lived out among God's Muslim children, and that he was honored to give his life for them.

Dom Christian acknowledges playing his own guilty role in sinful humanity's tragedy, and thanks God for the "JOY in everything, and in spite of everything. And then, to his unknown assassin:

And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:

Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too, because in God's face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

This is not a Hollywood script, or the testimony of a saint whose memory has been burnished by the passage of time. These are the actual words of a martyr, a son of the modern West, who died only 15 years ago.

What do you do with this? The luminous lives of these murdered monks are more powerful than the grave that claimed them, and the light that shines through their story is more powerful than the darkness that overshadowed their mortal lives.

"May we meet again, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both." What would compel men to live and to die in the service of others, refusing to meet hatred with hatred, and violence with violence, and even forgiving the murderers in advance for not knowing what they do? But you can recognize that while it is not possible to understand the mystery of such sanctity, it is possible to live it, because it has been done before.

The Tibhirine martyrs did it. They did it because Jesus did it. And they chose to live and to die in imitation of Christ, because countless generations of men and women unknown to them heard the Passion story, believed it, and told it to their children.

We humans do not mold our lives by the framework of syllogisms, but rather form them according to the shapes of meaningful stories. The Trappist martyrs lived by the stories of the Bible, most of all by the story Jesus of Nazareth ("You've already given your life," the abbot says to a friar looking for answers. "You gave it by following Christ."). They saw Jesus in the stories of the ordinary people among whom they lived, and they made their own lives an imitation of his grand narrative of rebellion against the standards of the world, and renunciation of any selfish claim on his own life, in hope of resurrection.

"Of Gods & Men" offers the resurrection of hope; the blood of these monastic martyrs can be the seed of peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims -- if we embrace their story and give it a claim on our own lives. Prof. Nowak, the Harvard biologist, says that the animal world has many creatures behaving altruistically because of "direct reciprocity" (i.e., treating others the way they treat you), but very few examples of "indirect reciprocity," or treating others the way one would want to be treated.

"For efficient indirect reciprocity, you need to be able to tell a story," he told the Telegraph newspaper. What makes humans virtually unique among all creatures, Nowak continues, is our ability to tell stories, and to treat them as having the authority to teach us how to live.

This is good news! When I emerged from the theater and into the daylight after "Of Gods & Men," my overwhelming thought was a simple one: "I want to be like them." No sermon or lecture or learned volume ever moved me to desire to be like Christ as much as this film did. The tale of the Tibhirine monks made me want to learn how to love so selflessly, and to forgive so willingly. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who has written powerfully about the loss of virtue in postmodernity, put starkly the necessity of narrative in building character: "I can only answer the question, 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'"

The Tibhirine martyrs knew what to do because they knew Whose story they were a part of. And now, they are another chapter in His story, a story we are invited to take into our own moral imagination, to embed in our hearts, to tell with our tongues, to love with our minds, our bodies, and our souls -- and, ultimately, to live, even if it costs us our lives.

This poor old world, weary of words and endless strife, religious and otherwise, doesn't need more theological books, sermons, doctrinal discourses and debates. It needs more saints. And more storytellers.


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