By Joyce Kang
How far are you willing to go for freedom? Is it ever right to use violence to protect one’s freedom? Or is freedom only rightfully attained through peaceful means? The 1986 film The Mission can help us shed some light on these questions. The film tells a captivating tale that explores many complex issues, such as politics of the church, sin and redemption, and whether violence or nonviolence is the preferred means of securing freedom for the oppressed. The story takes place in the South American jungle during the 1750s, where Jesuit priest Father Gabriel builds a mission to convert the indigenous Guarani people to Christianity. He is joined by former mercenary Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, who takes vows and becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel after undertaking a suitable penance for killing his brother in a duel. When Spanish and Portuguese colonists, who seek to enslave the Guarani, threaten the sanctuary of the mission and its inhabitants, Fathers Gabriel and Mendoza are both willing to risk their lives in order to defend the mission. They are, however, divided as to the best means to do so. Even though the use of violence goes against God, Mendoza decides to break his vows in order to defend the mission against the attack. By contrast, Father Gabriel chooses nonviolence, and he marches peacefully into a sea of bullets and flaming arrows while carrying the monstrance, the sacred vessel of the Eucharist. The debate between violence and nonviolence in the film is very intriguing because it is not immediately clear which course of action is the better or the right. Both men are devout Christians, but in the face of overwhelming oppression, they choose two strikingly different ways of defending the community to which they are devoted. In this discussion, I will analyze their opposing rationales by drawing on the ideas of Simone Weil (a pacifist who converted to supporting force) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (one of the most influential leaders of nonviolent resistance in America). Through this analysis, I will show that justified violence can arguably be used to fight off a powerful and hostile aggressor, but only repeated acts of nonviolence can change the oppressor’s mind and win ultimate freedom.
French philosopher Simone Weil was an ardent pacifist in her early years, but she later rejected pacifism in favor of the use of violence against Hitler during World War II. It is important to clarify that the term violence is used interchangeably with the word force, and, in Weil’s discussion, both refer to the force that kills (not violence in the sense of breaking windows or throwing a “violent” rage). In her essay “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Weil defines force as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing . . . it makes a corpse out of him” (3). Violence neither negotiates nor engages with its target; rather, it dehumanizes that human being by extinguishing and eliminating it. Therefore, violence is the utmost rejection of the value of human life. Weil goes on to say that force is a double-edged sword, one that turns both its wielder and its victim into stone (25). In the Iliad, violence seems wasteful and unproductive—both the Greeks and the Trojans suffer tremendous losses to the point where neither is truly the victor. As a young girl, Weil saw firsthand the destructive nature of violence in the mutilation of the male population in France wrought by World War I. Eight and one half million Frenchmen went into battle, and almost six and one half million were either killed, wounded, imprisoned, or missing in action (“World War I”). Therefore, it is no wonder that, in the years leading up to World War II, Weil initially favored appeasing Hitler in order to avoid another destructive conflict. She proposed that Hitler be given rights over Sudetenland in the hopes that yielding to his immediate requests would keep the situation from degenerating into violence (Doering 35).
Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, however, convinced Weil of pacifism’s “inadequacy for stopping an adversary determined on forceful domination” (Doering 23). As she watched the black swastika fly over the palace in Prague, she realized that a policy of nonviolent appeasement would not work against a foe like Hitler. From that moment on, she “spurned pacifism as no longer having validity for the current circumstances and believed she had indulged in wishful thinking” (Doering 39). Following her rejection of pacifism, Weil sarcastically said that “if Mr. Gandhi can protect his sister from rape through non-violent means, then I will be a pacifist” (Liukkonen). In Gravity and Grace, Weil asserts that “we must strive to substitute more and more in this world effective nonviolence for violence” (“Violence” 85). The words strive and effective are key, for Weil does not simply state that “nonviolence should always be substituted.” In her choice of the word strive, Weil implies that while nonviolence is still the ideal choice, it is not necessarily the most practical course of action in all cases. Furthermore, in her use of the word effective, Weil warns that if nonviolence is ineffective for the specific situation at hand, then it should not be substituted for violence.
Nonviolence is no good unless it is effective. Hence the young man’s question to Gandhi about his sister. The answer should have been: use force unless you are such that you can defend her with as much chance of success without violence. Unless you possess a radiance of which the energy . . . is equal to that contained in your muscles.
– Weil, “Violence” 85
Simone Weil’s conversion from absolute pacifism to the advocacy of the use of force when necessary helps to explain Rodrigo Mendoza’s decision to use militant violence to defend the Guarani. In the beginning of The Mission, Mendoza is portrayed as a man of violence. He makes his living as a mercenary and slave trader, and he kills his own brother in a duel after finding him sleeping with his fiancé. Feeling extreme remorse for his actions, Mendoza does penance by dragging a heavy load of his old armor and weapons up the side of a towering waterfall on his way through the jungle to the Guarani mission. After this act of repentance, Mendoza is a changed man—he rejects the use of violence, even adamantly refusing to slay a wild pig during a hunting trip with the natives. The only reason he chooses to take up violence again is because of his love of the Guarani. In Mendoza’s view, the Guarani will be slaughtered if no one fights for them, so violent force is justified: “They want to live, Father . . . and they need me” (The Mission).
Mendoza’s use of violence to defend the mission is not the same as the destructive violence of his past life. Rather, it is a justified use of force to achieve liberation against a violent and oppressive enemy who is not afraid to use force. Like Weil, Mendoza sees nonviolence as an ideal to strive toward, but not a steadfast rule to follow at all times. He uses force in this situation because he is not certain that he can defend the mission without it. Mendoza believes that meeting violence with violence is the only path to defend the mission against such powerful opponents as the Spanish and Portuguese colonial armies. He actually does succeed in holding back the attack for a while, but he is fatally wounded in the end, and the mission is invaded.
Father Gabriel is the foil to Mendoza because Gabriel believes that force is never the answer. His peaceful nature is evident from the very start of the film. When he approaches the natives for the first time, he sits down and plays such a beautiful melody on the oboe that the guarded Guarani lower their weapons and allow him to join their community. When the mission falls under attack, Father Gabriel rejects Mendoza’s use of force because it goes against the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. He says to Mendoza: “If you die with blood on your hands, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love” (The Mission). Father Gabriel chooses to stage a nonviolent demonstration instead. When the attacking soldiers enter the mission, they are slowed by the singing of Father Gabriel and the Guarani women and children, who march in the procession behind him. At first, the soldiers are reluctant to fire at a Mass, but their commander orders the attack. Father Gabriel, the rest of the priests, and most of the Guarani are gunned down in what is essentially a massacre, and only a handful of natives escape into the jungle. At first glance, Father Gabriel’s peaceful march makes him look like a sheep sent to the slaughter. Why does he choose nonviolence even though it seems to be a hopeless cause?
In order to better understand Father Gabriel, we may look to another admirable leader who supported the use of nonviolence over force: Martin Luther King, Jr. After much reading and exploration, King came to his philosophy of nonviolence from a synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi (Colaiaco 24). In his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” King discusses how he came to his doctrine of nonviolence by reading about Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, or love-force (43). Over time, he realized that the “Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance” was one of the most powerful weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom (43). In contrast to violence, nonviolent resistance does not necessarily expect immediate results. It is a gradual process:
So the nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.
– King, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”
In the passage above, King implies that nonviolence is not a passive acceptance of whatever fate is to come; rather, it is a tremendously active resistance that draws upon the inner resources of courage, patience, and faith. Although it may be passive physically, nonviolent resistance is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Furthermore, there is something about nonviolence that is contagious. With every act of faith, the nonviolent approach continues to strengthen the resolve of the resistor until at some point this love-force is able to penetrate into the mind of the oppressor. When this happens, something “stirs [the oppressor’s] conscience” and moves him at a visceral level from within. King acknowledges that the nonviolent approach cannot instantly reform an oppressor’s way of thinking—only after a long and intense struggle over a long period of time can nonviolence possibly lead to reconciliation. In choosing the word conscience, King reminds us that even the worst oppressors have some degree of goodness inside them because they possess a conscience by virtue of being human. Whereas violence turns man into a thing, nonviolence reaffirms man’s value as a living being. Since all men, whether oppressor or oppressed, have some amount of goodness in them, we must “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31), even if our neighbor comes at us bearing weapons and hatred.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, King cautions his supporters to “not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” In this metaphor, the cup of bitterness and hatred symbolizes using violence to fight for freedom, which must be avoided at all costs. By saying that “in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds,” King implies that the end does not justify the means: even if the ultimate freedom is won, it loses its validity if it was achieved through violence towards others. Furthermore, it seems like King believes that they would not be able to win freedom by violent means in the first place. He continuously advocates for nonviolence in all cases: “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” His use of the phrase “again and again” reinforces the knowledge that the overall effort will take a very long time, but the diction “rise to majestic heights” hints that when the ultimate success is finally achieved, it will be a majestic and glorious one. He urges his supporters to continue to have faith that unearned suffering is redemptive, telling them to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Atlanta, go back to South Carolina . . . knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed” (“I Have a Dream”). King recognizes that a nonviolent approach may not be as effective in the sense that it does not bring about the immediate and tangible results that force can deliver, but he believes that nonviolence can and will bring about true and enduring change in the long run. Although neither Martin Luther King nor Father Gabriel live to see the completion of their work, their efforts live on through the work of others. For example, following the Ferguson grand jury decision regarding the Michael Brown case, college students across the country staged walk-outs, marches, and other forms of nonviolent protests demanding racial justice. Likewise, near the end of The Mission, a final title declares that many priests, inspired by faith and love, continue to support the rights of the Indians of South America, even today.
In conclusion, the debate of whether to use violent or nonviolent resistance against an adversary can be quite complicated when freedom is at stake. Whereas Simone Weil and Rodrigo Mendoza advocate for the use of force against a violent aggressor who threatens their freedom, Martin Luther King and Father Gabriel refuse to use violent means to secure freedom because it goes against the Christian law of love. These two opposing philosophies can perhaps be resolved by considering situational differences. Both World War II and the Spanish and Portuguese conquests have in common the need to fight off a powerful and violent aggressor. Mendoza and the Allied forces took up arms to defend a freedom that they already had but that the aggressor wished to take away from them. By contrast, the Civil Rights Movement was not a war—it was about going on the offensive to claim a freedom that the black community did not already possess. This suggests that violence can justifiably be used to defend a freedom threatened by an enemy determined to take it away, but nonviolence is the best course wherever and whenever possible because the use of force corrupts the soul of the wielder. In this sense, Father Gabriel and Mendoza are both heroic in their own way, and we can understand why each chose to act in the way he did.
In the very last moment of the film, the following text from John 1:5 is displayed: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is strikingly similar to the final sentence of King’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”: “In a dark, confused world the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.” Here, we come to understand that an overall struggle to gain freedom outlasts one individual event. Using violence against a powerful oppressor is a revolutionary act that can perhaps win a war or hold an enemy at bay for the time being, but it cannot fundamentally change an opponent’s mind. The only effective method of reforming a way of thinking is through repeated acts of nonviolence over a long span of time that can stir the adversary’s conscience. Even if lives are lost and pain is suffered, ultimate redemption will come with patience and faith. Today, we live in a world of overwhelming darkness—injustice, inequality, oppression, discrimination—but we must have faith that the light of love will ultimately prevail and that the universe is on the side of justice.
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The Mission. Dir. Roland Joffé. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. Columbia-Cannon-Warner, 1986. DVD.
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