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Of Gods and Men - The Film and True Story

Posted by thethousandmarch on May 4, 2011 at 2:05 AM

I recently saw the movie Of Gods and Men; a French movie just released in the States based upon the true story of Seven Trappist monks from the monastery of Tibhirine in Algeria, killed by terrorists. It is certainly the best movie I have seen this year and the most inspiring and beautiful movie I’ve seen in many years. It is superbly crafted and superbly acted in every way. It is a life altering film. In it we see an incredible example of God’s faithfulness, justice and love displayed through the lives of a small group of monks as they served their Muslim neighbors and resisted the violence that swept through Algeria.


The movie is slow paced but this is not because the director Xavier Beauvois is trying to be artsy. The slowness of film is absolutely necessary to the story; it helps establish the characters. We see and begin to feel the simplicity, tranquility, hardship and joyfulness of the monks’ lives. We experience who they are and how they live. As well, it contrasts sharply with the violence that begins to surround them. Every moment we see the monks in, what may appear to be simply the minutia of, their daily work and worship – and in a lesser film that was desperately trying to be important and artistic would simply be toilsome art for art’s sake – every moment is essential to the story, and moves the narrative forward. Throughout the movie we see the intense struggle that the monks go through as they decide as a community how to respond to violence and injustice. And we see the powerful testimony of God’s faithfulness and love that they display to their neighbors.

The film seems to assume the viewer has a familiarity with the basic events. For example, that this story takes place in Algeria. Most Americans will not know that Algeria was very recently a French colony and only won its independence in 1962 after a long guerilla campaign. It is interesting to note that the main character the film focuses upon, Brother Christian de Cherge, was raised in Algeria in a military family and served in the French military fighting against the Algerian independence fighters before he became a monk.

Some other background information that is helpful to know is that in 1991 Algeria held their first round of democratic elections. The military declared these elections invalid (an election they appeared to have lost), they canceled the second round of elections and declared martial law. They then forced the president to resign and banned all political parties based on religion; the party that had won the election was an Islamic party. A civil war followed, which lasted until 2002 and claimed the lives of at least 160,000 people. Many civilians were killed by terrorism, but many believe that the government is responsible for at least some of this violence, blaming the rebels in an effort to build popular support for their own cause.

In the movie we are shown some of the violence that engulfed Algeria. We learn mainly of Muslims being killed by other Muslims. Then we see a group of Croatian road workers, who worked near the monastery, executed by the fundamentalist rebels. This event is shown to be the point in which the monks begin to fear for their own lives. I’m assuming that most of this history would be common knowledge for a French audience. But, what I discovered, and which I was surprised the movie did not tell us, is that fundamentalist rebels had first kidnapped three French consuls; they released the consuls after a month while also stating that all foreigners must leave the country in one month or they would be killed. The month ended, and murders immediately followed including the Croatian road workers. Watching the movie we knew that the monks were in danger, but we did not know that their choice to stay was not just a choice to risk possible danger, but a refusal to give into a direct threat.

In the movie, as in real life, the monks also refuse to accept the protection of the corrupt government. They refuse to take sides, or hate their enemies – instead they maintain compassion for their enemies and persecutors. Brother Christian even prays for a dead fundamentalist who he knows is responsible for the death and torture of innocent people. He does this in front of a military official, which leads to the army also causing trouble for the monks.

In 2009, the retired French general Francois Buchwalter, who was military attache in Algeria at the time, testified to a judge that the monks had accidentally been killed by a helicopter from the Algerian government during an attack on a guerrilla position, then beheaded after their death to make it appear as though the GIA, [a.k.a the Armed Islamic Group,] had killed them. Ex-GIA leader Abdelhak Layada, who was in prison when the monks were killed but was later freed under a national amnesty, responded by claiming that the GIA had indeed beheaded them after the breakdown of negotiations with the French secret services. (1)

However, it is also claimed by some that the GIA group that kidnapped the monks was actually working for the military. So, it ultimately seems the Algerian government was responsible for their deaths.

Many Christians have been caught between two corrupt powers, their only hope being Jesus. Many Christians have risked, or given their lives, in various ways embodying the love and faithfulness of Christ. Of Gods and Men tells the story of a small group of monks who did this in a very incredible way. These men lived out as best they could, through the power of the Spirit in them, discipleship to Christ. Not because they were trying to earn their salvation, but because they knew they were sinners who had been loved by God and their gratitude and devotion to Christ drove them to love others. Their knowledge that they too were sinners enabled them to love their enemies, because they knew they had once been enemies of God and had done nothing to deserve God’s mercy. This is how they were able to extend mercy and compassion to others.

These men did not want to die. They didn’t seek, in some misguided way, self-glorification in martyrdom. But, because they had already given their lives to Christ, they had already died with him, because they had devoted their lives to loving their neighbors in Algeria, they could not leave. They had no other lives to live.

When the Abbot General of the Cistercian Order reminded Christian that the order needed monks and not martyrs, Christian replied: “there is no difference.” The monastic life prepares the monk for death and is itself a form of dying—a dying to the illusion that life is his to control or keep. The monk who has already surrendered the claim of ownership of his life finds in death, especially death that is for the other, no threat or victimization, only a continuity with the dedicated life upon which he has already embarked. (2)

This group of missionary monks had to remain faithful to Christ, and to the people Christ had given them to love.

The movie ends with the reading of an edited version of the actual last testament of Brother Christian. Here is the complete version:

When an “A-DIEU” takes on a face. If it should happen one day — and it could be today — that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the Sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me — for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to link this death with the many other deaths which were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the “grace of martyrdom,” especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience By identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel, learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims. My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naïve, or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills— immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences. For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which sums up my whole life to this moment, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you, my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families, the hundredfold granted as was promised! And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. In sha ‘Allah.

Algiers, December 1, 1993 – Tibhirine, January 1, 1994. (3)

There are many striking points made by Brother Christian in this letter. I’m moved by Christian’s refusal to see himself as an innocent victim. He recognizes his own complicity in the corruption and injustice of this world. He does not, and he does not allow us to blame Algerians, Islam, or even fanaticism. He does not allow himself to be viewed as the innocent martyr and his assassin as the guilty murderer deserving of eternal damnation. He challenges us to realize that we are all guilty – as one monk in the movie says, “No on is righteous before God.” 

Christian asks for the grace to be able to forgive the one who ends his physical life in the very moment it happens. He calls this, as yet to be seen, man his friend and hopes that they will meet in paradise as "happy thieves". He can extend this hope to the man who will kill him, because he knows that he himself will be a thief in paradise – one who does not deserve to be there, but is their only because of the grace of God. It is inspiring to hear of a man so transformed by the love of God that he, like Christ on the cross, can forgive those who abuse and murder him. And like Christ he does not lose sight of the precious soul that each human bears, no matter how corrupt that human has become. I would hope to emulate such a man who is follows Christ. I would hope to emulate Jesus who while we were still his enemies died for us so that we may be reconciled with God (Rom 5:10).

1. Taken from the Wikipedia page: Assassination of the monks of Tibhirine.

2. Karl A. Plank, “When an A-Dieu Takes on a Face”: The Last Testament of Christian de Chergé, O.C.S.O, Published in Spiritual Life 53/3 (2007): 136-147. http//www.davidson.edu/academic/religion/PLANK/Christian%20de%20Cherge%20revised%20pub.pdf - I highly recommend this article; it is not long.

3. Ibid, As translated by Donald McGlynn, “Atlas Martyrs,” Cistercian Studies 32/2 (1997):188-89.

For Further Watching:

Into a Great Silence: “An examination of life inside the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order in France.” (IMDB discription) A very beautiful (and slow) depiction of the monastic life.

The Mission: Staring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and featuring a young Liam Neeson. “18th century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.” (IMDB discription) Also watch the director’s commentary on the movie – it is incredible and shifted one of my paradigms (Ooooo! Special; that doesn’t happen very often). I first watched this movie when I was in elementary school. My brother and I thought it was an action movie – it’s cover makes it look like one. We did not get what we were expecting, but we still liked it. It also has some incredible music by Ennio Morricone.

Categories: Grace, Of Gods and Men, Movies