By Bill Mefford
One of the primary ways I have experienced God in my life is through films. Now, I can learn something from almost any film, but there are films where I feel like I leave the movie genuinely transformed. I see something in a completely different way, or even more, I approach some area of life with an entirely new vision and renewed sense of purpose and passion. This is one of the reasons why I have always loved movies.
One of the most transformative films for me was The Mission, a film starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro that was released in 1986, though I did not see it until early 1987. The movie is about the colonization of South America, particularly in what is now the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil in the mid-18th Century. Briefly, the story is about committed Jesuit priests who evangelize a people called the Guarani and build a mission that becomes their refuge from the colonists – the Spanish and the Portuguese who are engaged in slave trading. Though much of the missional history of the church is riddled with confluence between the church and economic and military interests of the State, The Mission shows a much different story, at least among the Jesuits and their sanctuary for the Guarani from the slave traders. I cannot urge you strongly enough to see this film. I have seen it probably more than 20 times and it rips me a part every time.
The confrontation in the film comes when an emissary is sent from Rome to peacefully transfer the territory where the Guarani live from the Spanish to the Portuguese. The high-ranking church official is also trying to save the Jesuit Order which, in some mysterious way, is threatening to European nations that see its’ missions as encroaching on the colonial economic and international interests. The missions are taking away the wealth that could be stolen by European nations from indigenous peoples and they are reminding people of their intrinsic value, thereby fomenting rebellion against European rule, which values the lives of indigenous people as little more than farm equipment to be used to produce wealth for Europe.
There is so much in this film that just devastates me: the transformation of a former slave trader into a Jesuit priest through repentance and forgiveness from the indigenous people, the debate between resisting state-sponsored terror nonviolently or by any means necessary, and the never-ending missional deliberation between the exploitation of indigenous people that always occurs when the interests of commerce and State are primary versus the appropriate contextualization of the gospel in a way that does not rob indigenous cultures of their identity and sovereign existence, but rather, sees God as already present and actively involved long before there is any missionary presence.
As a nineteen year old college student who was rediscovering my passion for Jesus while maintaining a lifelong institutional suspicion towards the church this movie hit me like a freight train. I was angry about this film for weeks afterwards, if not months; if not years. Hell, I am still pissed about what happened for in truth, the struggle for independence for the Guarani is something that is still being sought. But at that time, and still today, when I watch the film the driving theme is whether our lives individually or collectively as a church will be ruled by the passionate pursuit of the mission of the church or whether that will be sacrificed so that the institutional priorities can be maintained. And yes, missional priorities and institutional priorities are not one and the same. Indeed, the emissary sent from Rome openly states this his purpose for his trip to South America is to sacrifice the mission and thereby the lives and lands of the Guarani so that the Jesuit Order and the authority of the church might be maintained.
I am sure I will never be able to effectively and fully articulate the anger and grief I felt after watching this film the first time, or even every time since then. Sadly, I feel like there have been many times in my life that I have watched the church of today make the same decisions, though far less dramatically, as the institutional church did in the film. Sacrificing the mission of the church for the institutional well-being of the church, particularly the elites who run it, is anathema to the gospel of Jesus. However, I think we have all seen for too much evidence of the church being all too willing to sacrifice its mission for its own institutional survival.
And sadly, this happens at every level of the church – from individuals to local churches to denominational levels. It was during The Mission that I was confronted with the idea that within the church as well as within every follower of Jesus, is the battle between our passion for sacrificial love and missional engagement to serve others and our continued distraction to serve ourselves, to place the welfare of ourselves above the welfare of others even when that means others’ lives might be destroyed.
When the denomination decides that its’ coffers can best be filled by planting churches in wealthy areas of a city’s expanding suburbs rather than the poorer areas of the city whose resources are so often extracted for the gain of those who do not live there, we are opting for institutional maintenance over the mission of the church.
When local churches say we need to care for our buildings and therefore we cannot allow too many or the “wrong kind” of neighborhood kids into the building, we are opting for institutional maintenance over the mission of the church.
When followers of Jesus talk about their “marketability” and seek out potential ministry positions as opportunities to expand their “skill sets” in order to build their “career” towards higher ranking positions in the church rather than faithfully serve in the most out-of-the-way-hole-in-the-wall for no fame or fortune or headline or book deal, but just because God is actively present and moving in the most out-of-the-way-hole-in-the-wall, then I have to question whether we are opting for our own welfare and maintenance over the mission of the church.
I was reminded when I watched this movie this past weekend that regardless of whether it was 1987 or 2017, I am still challenged to passionately pursue God’s mission for the world rather than institutional preservation or my own preservation. Thirty years have passed for since I first saw this film and was blown away. I am no less blown away now and I need this lesson now no less than I did when I was 19.
God still speaks.