I just saw an extraordinary film: "Of Gods and Men." This is based on the true story of a group of French monks living in Algeria in 1996 when Muslim fundamentalist terrorism was just taking hold in the country. At the time, Algeria was (as it is today) a mostly Muslim country, but the monks living there were accepted because they reached out to the locals, dispensing medicine to children, for instance. We see these monks talking with the children as they help heal them, and learning more about the culture that they live in the midst of in this way.
The film is especially remarkable because it contains none of the familiar "mood music" that directors insert to manipulate our emotions. Instead, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions about what is going on–to feel sad when sad things happen onscreen. Aside from one short musical interval (which I will describe below), all the music in the film consists of the monks’ chanting, and most of these chants revolve around the notion of "love."
Some Muslim soldiers break into the monastery and demand that some of the precious medicine be given to them to treat their soldiers, who have been wounded in the fight. When the monks try to prevent this, they are killed. But before this happens, there is a touching scene in which one of the brothers receives a care package from home, containing medicine, wine (of course), and also a recording of "Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" ballet. As they drink the wine, they listen to the recording with smiles all around–obviously caused by fond memories of home.
As I said, the moviemakers let us figure out the meaning of the film for ourselves, and I concluded from this scene that it is love which is the basis for modern civilization, and Christianity–being a religion of love (at least when it is professed in the right way)–is a is what it has led to the miraculous Western-style society that so many of us are lucky enough to live in today. When we see images on the nightly news of insurgencies in Iraq and tribal politics in Afghanistan–of revolutions in various Middle Eastern countries–we begin to appreciate this as never before. Swan Lake could not have been composed in a world governed by the kind of strict rules that seem to exist in Islam, where specific punishments are meted out for specific deeds. In fact, I would probably be given a fatwa of stoning or beheading, especially as a woman, if I were writing this in a Muslim society.
The sad thing about all this is that our current pope wants to impose and return to many of the strict rules of Christianity that existed in the past–as if all the freedom that we feel in the West to explore other ideas and religions is somehow dangerous, as if we are too eager to share our "medicine" with "foreign children" (and learn from them in return). He fights for this even though Jesus himself was notoriously "loose" when it came to that sort of thing, and often says that he came to break the rules, not to enforce them.
You can read these sayings in Luke 13: 10-17, where Jesus says it’s OK to heal on the Sabbath And in Matthew 12: 1-13 (where he again says it’s fine to heal on the Sabbath and also defends his disciples’ picking grain ("ears of corn," meaning wheat) on the Sabbath. Love is only able to shine through like sunlight when we stop being obsessed with the murky clouds of rules that are made by the human beings who want to control us–about who is good or bad, Dark or Light–and start approaching everyone as an equal in the eyes of God and man, although since some people are definitely dangerous, we should not be naïve about his. However, freedom of spirit is NOT dangerous. In fact, it is the only thing that can create the cultural heights that have formed Western civilization which we have all grown to treasure much. And that freedom of spirit is based on love.
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