The first time I encountered the movie 'The Mission' was in a hostel in Berlin. My wife and I were backpacking across Europe and we met up with a couple of friends at our Hakeschermarkt hostel. One of them was listening to the film's score and he shared it with me. It was beautiful, moving, and immense.
When I got home I watched the movie and found it intriguing and visually stunning. This week I was able to 're-read' the film by watching it again -- this time through the lens of the study of religion in Latin America.
Besides proving that Liam Neeson is a bad ass even in a monk's habit and showing Robert De Niro can't stop the wild and volatile nature of, well, himself, this film is an invitation to recapture the human element of our records of the past and a challenge to the narrative of "the inevitability of history." These are two very important points that, I contend, we must recapture to address pertinent crises of our own today.
First, a short overview of the film (go watch it, seriously...do it now). The film is set during the Jesuit Reductions in South America, specifically in the border regions (Tres Fronteras) between Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. The Jesuits have set up missions independent of the Spanish state in order to reach the Guarani people and to avoid political oversight or removal when the Portuguese are handed the territories within which they operate.
Throughout, the film deals themes of violence, peace, and transformation (warning, spoilers ahead). The Guarani kill one missionary only to receive another -- Father Gabriel -- (played by Jeremy Lyons) who comes with music and peace. A mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) kills his brother in a love triangle in the colonial city Asuncion, which is built on a slave economy. Gabriel seeks to redeem Mendoza and leads him, through trial and travail, to join the Jesuit order and the mission "above the falls."
The work of the mission, however, is threatened by political developments. The Spanish and Portuguese crowns have signed a treaty that transfers the territory where the missions are located from Spanish to Portuguese jurisdiction. Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), an emissary from the Pope in Rome, arrives to decide whether the missions will remain under the protection of the Church. Tension and disagreement ensue as various interlocutors (the missionaries, colonists, and the Guarani) all contest the handover of land. The central issue is whether or not the Guarani will be forced off their land.
While Altamirano is impressed by the missions among the Guarani he also recognizes that the missions pose an economic threat to the European (Spanish or Portuguese) plantations. Thus, Altamirano tells the Indians that they must leave and orders the priests to accept the transfer of the mission territories. In private, he explains to Gabriel that the future of the Jesuit order in Europe depends upon their not resisting the political authorities in South America.
The Guarani, unmoved by political arguments and unable to understand what Altamirano says is the will of God, decide to defend their home. Mendoza, encouraged by an Guarani boy renounces his vow of obedience as a Jesuit and chooses to fight alongside them. Gabriel discourages him and instead decides to lead mass with women, children, and older men as European troops descend and the mission is destroyed, the Guarani killed.
Near the end of the film, Cardinal Altamarino and the Portuguese political representative (Don Hontar) are discussing the events that unfold and the latter laments that what occurred was unfortunate, but inevitable. He says, "we must work in the world; the world is thus." To this, Altamarino replies, "No, thus have we made the world. Thus I have made it."
In this one line is the point of the film that I am trying to highlight -- that history is not inevitable, that human actors play a key role in all historical events, forces, or movements. Cardinal Altamarino recognizes that the massacre was not predetermined, but instead that human actors had made it so by their thoughts, words, and deeds.
A similar point is made in another work concerning colonial South America -- Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World by Irene Silverblatt. Interrogating records from the Inquisition in colonial Peru, Silverblatt argues that rather than being a paragon of pre-modern religious fanaticism, the Inquisition was a thoroughly modern, and some might say 'civilized,' affair engaged in bureaucratic wrangling, a fidelity to procedure, and a magical process of modern state-craft built around race-thinking. She argues throughout the book that in order to see the Inquisition as such we must plumb the historical depths of the records to find a) that the accused, the inquisitor, the witnesses, and the participants in the autos-de-fe were all human and b) that the Inquisition was not inevitable as such.
She wrote of looking at the records, "we read about disputes, errors, missed chances, and disastrous calculations; we read tales of human strength and courage, about moments of extraordinary valor and acts of profound dignity; and sometimes we can even find flashes of humor." (p. 23) She intimates here that in looking to the historical sources, we must find the characters to not be some mindless figures caught up in fixed forces, but as "human beings -- replete with foibles, strengths, and shortcomings -- who act in ways not always predictable or anticipated." (p. 22)
Likewise, in her book Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos Kay Almere Read approaches the bloody system of sacrifice in the Mexica cosmos and takes a novel approach compared to other historical overviews and explanations. Rather than assuming that the entire Mesoamerican civilization was full of sadist-psychopaths who enjoyed murdering one another, let's assume that it's not just about sacrifice and that these human beings of the past were engaged in, what they thought, was a world-ordering and moral affair engaged with the fundamental powers of the universe (time and space). Let's try to understand their point of view. At the same time, Read perhaps goes too far in underestimating the level of resistance to this system of sacrifice in order to illustrate the rationale of it. Certainly, peripheral communities within the Mexica world resisted their capture and the sacrificial system, even though they may have bought into the rational of the cosmological narrative. Again, history is not inevitable.
This same dual emphasis could be applied to other epochs of history -- investigating the "Golden Era of Islamic Science," the "Galileo Affair," the development of Mormonism in the U.S., etc. In each of these instances we can read them according to their headlines, or we can listen to the small voices of history and try to recapture the human elements of each story. Doing so, we will find true believers and dissonant rebels, people on both sides of the conflict and certainly some in the middle. We will discover conflicted characters and moments when maybe, just maybe, things could have gone a different way.
Essentially, we can read history in a black-and-white, "this was always going to happen," manner or we can nuance the story, romance its miscellany, and find the tangible, fallible, and flesh-and-blood stories of men and women wrestling with the worldview of their day to bring about the events that we now read as "inevitable history." In doing so, we will find that these events were anything but assured, but that history could've turned on a dime.
Why is this important? Today, we are dealing with myriad crises. Whether we are in Ferguson, Missouri; Mosul, Iraq; Paris, France; or Monrovia, Liberia we must never lose sight of the human elements of each of these stories, and, likewise, must not assume that there are inexorable forces at work that fate these circumstances to play out in a certain way. Black lives can matter and police work can be respected; violent extremism and sectarian religious communism can be combatted, and disease can be eradicated. There is no need to throw our hands up in the air and either a) ignore the problem or b) act as if there is only one unfortunate outcome.
The way to address these issues with an open mind and for a possible positive outcome is to actively remember, and recapture, the human element at every turn.
We must not think of the protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) as an "us v. them" drama, but a story of a family who lost a child, a police officer who took a life, a community that feels social pressures that they feel are outside of their control, and political, religious, and social leaders trying to lead toward a peaceful future.
We must not think of ISIS or other terrorist elements in the world as mindless drones caught up in a tidal wave of "Islamic extremism." These are men and women who feel isolated, de-territorialized, and confused in a chaotic mess of identity crisis wherein they are forced to choose between false binaries of being modern or Muslim, European or Islamic, etc. We must also remember the refugees and the soldiers on the ground with their lives, families, religious sensibilities, and daily concerns. We must also not forget the victims and their hopes, dreams, and aspirations cut short or derailed by violence.
We must not think of Ebola as an unstoppable disease or the cultures wherein it is wreaking havoc as backwards or unable to cope. Diseases have been eradicated before, plagues have been stopped. Throughout, we must remember that those effected are more than bodies, they are embodied beings whose heart beats with similar passions to our own, but are forced to live in a context of fear, suspicion, and death that we can only scarcely imagine.
In conclusion, it is my contention that remembering the human element will often lead us to more level headed, compassionate, and deeper understanding of not only historical events, but contemporary crises. By considering the movie "The Mission" and the study of various eras in American hemispherical history we are invited to recognize that these stories are not of individuals caught up along some inhuman wave of social forces or inevitable metaphysical dramas, there is an ontological, chaotic, dynamic relationship between event and human.
We must never forget the human element. If we do, we will often misconstrue history and/or contemporary events to the point that we assume that the people involved have no humanity to defend, that they were simply good/bad, evil/heroic, and that history dealt with them accordingly. Likewise, we must never ignore the history of a people. As William Loren Katz wrote, "Those who assume that a people have history worth mentioning are likely to believe they have no humanity worth defending."
Appreciating the history, and humanity, of people, stories, and events, on the other hand, will lead us to greater understanding, dialogue, and eventually, hopefully, to compassion as we consider the story, as we wrestle with its implications, and we draw lessons to learn from the past and the present to confront our common future.