I (John Lovell) love to watch movies, but not simply for entertainment. In fact, I rarely watch movies for their ability to amuse me. I’m more interested in watching thought-provoking movies as an intellectual stepping off point and as a way of leading me and those I love into a more intentional and greater thought life.
As I've become more and more a father (I admit it’s a gradual process) and have settled into the role of dad, I watch movies with my kids, with remote in hand, so I can pause at key points in the movie and ask my children to think critically. These could be cartoon movies or more, so called, serious films.
I’ll pause and ask “Hey boys. What is this movie about? What’s going on here?"
Often what a movie pretends to be about isn't necessarily what the movie is actually about. I recently sat down with my boys and watched a movie from the 80s called "The Mission." This is an incredible film. The protagonist, Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro, is a 16th century slave trader in South America trying to capture natives to sell them into slavery. At the same time, there’s a Jesuit order traveling to the same area for very different reasons—namely, to hike into remote villages carrying the Gospel to the Amazon.
Though they’ve lost one priest already to martyrdom, the other priests are pushing forward, prepared to give their lives for the cause of Christ.
"The Mission" depicts the worst of humanity—slave traders—and the best of humanity—those willing to risk their lives for the message of eternal life with God.
Mendoza was a hired mercenary, a slave trader, a consummate warrior, an emotionless hardcore dangerous dude. He ended up killing his brother, who’d stolen his girlfriend, in a public duel. Riddled with guilt, now he wants penance, though doesn't believe there's anything he could ever do to atone for his own crimes. But then one of the priests suggests he work out his salvation and forgiveness through self-inflicted suffering.
So Mendoza goes on a mission to the tribe he was formerly working to enslave. But he also has to do something else—bundle up all his weapons in a ruck and carry that burden through jungles, up cliffs and mountains, sort of like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
When he reaches the tribe, they recognize him as the slave trader. It looks like they’re about to kill him, but they cut the burden off his back instead. Very cool symbolism indeed. He breaks down and weeps at this forgiveness. It’s beautiful. I really wish they taken that extra step of seeking forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It was an Apostle Paul moment. Receiving forgiveness from the very people you were abusing. What should have been his execution ended up being his rebirth from certain death.
It’s a beautiful scene.
Then it all turns into a classic, crappy situation.
The Political Tide Turns the Jesuit Mission to Crap
The European political powers then decide enslaving the natives is just fine, and all the tribes who’d converted are now being forcibly removed from the Jesuit mission where they’d re-established their lives and their families.
So then it turns violent as some of the natives choose to stay and defend themselves. Some of the priests and monks join them. And of course the now-converted Mendoza returns to his warrior days, but in the opposite direction. He’ll take up arms against the foreign army. He’ll lead the charge.
And of course you have the peaceful protesters marching into battle with nothing but crosses.
No matter though. They all get cut down to ribbons by bullets and swords.
And the question I ask my kids, among others throughout the film, is “what’s the right thing to do? To carry a cross or a sword?”
It’s not so easy to disentangle when it comes to actual historical events.
You saw some of the beauty that the kingdom of God can bring—peace, unity, love, forgiveness, selflessness, and good, honest work in community. All that up against man's power lust and lust for wealth. and wealth lust as well.
In the movie you’re introduced to the amazing Bartolomé de las Casas who was battling in the courts against the atrocities of the conquistadors, and, conversely, the ruthless policies that sanctioned that greed-driven bloodshed.
Martyr or Soldier?
What would you have done—die a martyr or die a soldier? The movie holds a pretty good tension there, as it should. It's just not so straightforward, even though our initial response seems so righteous.
The point here that I posed to my boys and that is worth consider is, whenever you find somebody looking back into a historical period and saying they would have been on the side of the righteous, it’s important to gently caution them.
C.S. Lewis calls this "chronological snobbery." Beward this trap.
In the actual flow of history, white men killed Indians and the Indians killed white men and both side engaged in terrible crimes against humanity.
Native tribes ripped each other to shred. The Aztecs would go to war against other tribes, take them captive and sacrifice their children every morning so that the Sun God would bring up the sun each day.
It’s dangerous trying to prop one identity group up by completely denigrating others. Revisionist history isn’t just an interesting thought experiment. It’s dangerous. And it's only the ignorant folks, only the intellectually unsophisticated, who make lots of claims and have no footnotes.
That’s why I added my commentary when watching with my kids.
What Is a Just War?
As you probably know, a piece of Just War Theory is not to fight when defeat is guaranteed. In the case of Mendoza and the mission, they were guaranteed to lose. So should they have fought or taken the martyr route?
Neither is always right. Even Ecclesiastes says this: There’s a time for peace and a time for war. Pacificism for pacificism’s sake isn’t necessarily righteous.
Personally I would have helped the Indians flee deeper into the jungle and to safety.
But there are other situations when it’s evil not to pick up the sword, because innocent lives are being threatened. As a man of God, I’m going to protect the innocent. Active shooters, ISIS, Hamas, the Third Reich? They need to be put down.
In those instances, violence is the virtuous action. But in Mendoza and the mission I think I would gravitate a little bit more toward the martyr route in this case.
In that case, you're walking the paths of the apostles, who could have picked up swords if they’d wanted to. Jesus could have done the same and laid waste to everything. Or take missionary Jim Eliot. They had guns with them, but they refused to use them.
And what was the result? The battle was the Lord’s, and he defeated them in a different way, by transforming their hearts through the truth of the Gospel.
There are countless examples, like Martin Luther King Jr. He had the masses behind him, they would have followed him anywhere, perhaps even into violence.
But that would have led only to bloodshed instead of to the greater worldwide revolution that happened in hearts and legislatures.
So when it comes to those Portuguese soldiers attacking the mission—which one of these responses would have had the greater impact? The soldiers who fought and lost or the innocents mowed down while carrying the cross?
If Jim Elliot had mowed down the Auca Indians, that would have been the end of the story. But God’s story was being told through their self-sacrifice. By showing restraint and love instead of force, Elliot’s crew allowed God’s power to be revealed.
Not only did his murderers repent and turn to Christ, but they sought forgiveness for what they had done while in their spiritual blindness.
Battles can be changed by soldiers, but God has transformed cultures because of martyrs.
How Often Do You Think About the Roman Empire?
And that’s why I think about the Roman Empire pretty regularly. Rome only knew how to subdue the world, and that’s why Christianity totally confused them and took root.
Rome defeated enemies through force, but Christianity transformed enemies through beauty. And that beauty spread like wildfire. And it’s still spreading across empires and continents and millenia.
Can swords be used? Yes. To protect the innocent. Swords will never convert. They’ll just drive the conquered people underground, still worshipping their gods while using Christian lingo.
Watching Movies with a Remote
And this whole tome is why I watch movies with my boys with a remote close by. I want them and us to think critically about what goes into our minds.
What's the hidden truth here?
And what's the sneaky lie?
What are they telling you right here?
It’s like Where's Waldo for my boys.
They're on the hunt for how we're being manipulated and coerced against the truth. They’re always building this bulwark against antithetical values.
Rather than hiding them from the world, we’re teaching our boys to be Warrior Poets, engaging the world with their minds and with truth. And that takes training.
Train Hard. Train Smart. Live Free.