Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Mission And Liberation Theology

For the past 2 Weds. we've been watching the film---The Mission---which we will discuss next Wed. Vick Griffin's handout consisted of this information:

The Mission

[edit] Historical basis---Wikipedia
The Mission is based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, in which Spain ceded part of Jesuit Paraguay to Portugal. The movie's narrator, "Altamirano", speaking in hindsight in 1758, corresponds to the actual Andalusian Jesuit Father Luis Altamirano, who had been sent by Jesuit Superior General Ignacio Visconti to Paraguay in 1752 to transfer territory from Spain to Portugal. He oversaw the transfer of seven missions south and east of the Río Uruguay, that had been settled by Guaranis and Jesuits in the 1600s. As compensation, Spain had promised each mission 4,000 pesos, or fewer than 1 peso for each of the circa 30,000 Guaranis of the seven missions, while the cultivated lands, livestock, and buildings were estimated to be worth 7-16 million pesos. The movie's climax is the Guarani War of 1754-1756, during which historical Guaranis defended their homes against Spanish-Portuguese forces implementing the Treaty of Madrid. For the movie, a re-creation was made of one of the seven missions, São Miguel das Missões.[1]

Father Gabriel's character is loosely based on the life of Paraguayan saint and Jesuit Roque González de Santa Cruz.

The waterfall setting of the movie suggests the combination of these events with the story of older missions, founded between 1610-1630 on the Río Paranapanemá above the Guaíra Falls, from which Paulista slave raids forced Guaranis and Jesuits to flee in 1631. The battle at the end of the movie evokes the 8-day battle of Mboboré in 1641, a battle fought on land as well as in boats on rivers, in which the Jesuit-organized, firearm-equipped Guarani forces stopped the Paulista raiders.[2]

-Released in 1986, starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons;
-#15 on Arts & Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films list;
-Nominated for 7 Oscars; won for Best Cinematography;
-Directed by Roland Joffe [nominated previously for The Killing Fields]
-Screenplay written by Robert Bolt, whose credits included Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons; Bolt won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for both Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons;
-The Guaranís were actually portrayed by a village of Colombian Indians [the Waunanas], who were transported 1,000 miles to the site of the production;
-In the blockbuster animated film Madagascar, Alex the lion gets a cross-shaped cactus stuck to his back. He then falls down a waterfall referencing the opening scene of The Mission ;
-Soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone [nominated for 5 Oscars, Honorary Oscar in 2007]. Composed and scored music to over 500 film and television projects during his career.

My Thoughts---

Watching this film, one can't help but pick up on themes of quasi-Liberation Theology especially in the thoughts and actions of the Jesuit priests. This is mainly because Liberation Theology was born out of the theology of Roman Catholic social thought known as "the preferential option for the poor." Jesuits have been known for their support of streams of thought within Liberation Theology such as in this article or in this Blog post: Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit: Marxism, Liberation Theology And The Lack Of Liberty from

Major themes of Liberation Theology included in The Mission are:

In Robert DeNiro's character:
Matthew 10:34-49 NRSV

Not Peace, but a Sword 34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

See But to bring a sword, Jon Sobrino, Jesuit theologian, to be disciplined by Vatican and Matthew 10:34 and Liberation Theology for more details.

In Jeremy Irons' character:
Isaiah 2:1-5 NRSV

1The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

See The Future of Liberation Theology , Culture and international relations By Jongsuk Chay and Isaiah 2:4 and Liberation Theology for further information.

Other thoughts on The Mission and Liberation Theology include:

The highly problematic, revisionist portrayal of South American history during the mid-eighteenth century in The Mission calls for even more scrutiny. Two Jesuit missionaries, played by high-profile Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, participate in the resistance against the intermingled conflicts with Spain, Portugal, the Pope, and many a merchant whose monetary concerns dictate their actions. The end result is "calamitous . . . : the Battle of Caibale (1756), during which [the two Jesuit leaders], several other Jesuits, and some 1500 Indians die," according to Michael Dempsey. Speaking of the seemingly licensed fictionality of the two key Jesuit characters, Joffé refers to "liberation theology" in saying that "The film in that sense is intimately concerned with the struggle for liberation in liberation theology, and that's why the historical perspective is very important, because what it's actually saying is that these people haven't come out of nowhere" [emphasis mine]. It is then Joffé and his team's historical perspectives that enable them, as Dempsey aptly puts it, to "re-oppress the people with overbearing film technology and appropriate their story for a grandiose prestige spectacle." (For full context see: Roland JOFFÉ)

[And in dealing with non-violent Atonement (another theme in the movie) and Liberation Theology see this Blog post: Nonviolent Jesus: Fernando Lugo and the Rebirth of Liberation Theology from].

Here is another reference:

The temporal and the eternal

This is not to say that Fr. Gabriel is concerned only with his converts’ eternal state but not with their temporal condition. On the contrary, St. James’ exhortation to look after the bodily needs of the poor as well as their spiritual needs was the whole point of the ambitiously utopian Jesuit reduccion mission communities.

During Altamirano’s inspection of the Guaranís’ living conditions on their reducciones, a haughty Spanish official opposing the Jesuits’ resistance to the slave trade sniffs, "I see no difference between this plantation and my own." Whereupon Fr. Gabriel answers emphatically: "That is the difference: This plantation is theirs." It is precisely this for which Fr. Gabriel contends, and for which he is willing in the end to die — though not, as a priest, to kill.

In fact, concern for the temporal is so evidently a theme in The Mission that some Christian viewers have been concerned about possible "liberation theology" implications in the film. In its more extreme forms, liberation theology was a purely temporal ideology that merged into Marxism. Yet to me at least it seems clear that the admirable figure here is the gentle martyr Fr. Gabriel, not the armed warrior Mendoza; the film doesn’t seem to be an apologia for armed revolution. Nor is it possible to limit the scope of the film’s interest, like that of Marxism, to the merely temporal; clearly the spiritual matters here as well.

It’s probably a moot point anyway; liberation theology is effectively dead, at least in Catholic circles. To charge a particular film with promoting liberation theology is like saying that The Three Musketeers promotes dueling: That might have been an issue once, but not today.

The Mission is not a perfect film, but it is a rich, challenging one that explores the spiritual and the temporal, and the relationship between them, in a thought-provoking way. It contains moving images of despair, penance, and redemption that are among the most evocative ever filmed. It offers a positive depiction of Catholic missionaries as selfless champions and defenders of indigenous peoples and their ways of life rather than as oppressors or imperialists. It begins and ends in martyrdom — in bearing witness, signed in blood. It deserves attentive watching and thoughtful reflection.

And one more interesting article:


The Serra beatification highlights the issue of what kind of message the Church wants to send today to the world, especially the Third World, where the church would like to strengthen its hand. One Southern California priest has referred to the Majorca-born Serra as an "affirmative action saint," offered to a church that, in the Sunbelt at least, is becoming increasingly Latino. In downtown Los Angeles and other urban centers THE MISSION was shown with Spanish subtitles.

And while the debate over evangelizing people in the Third World may be settled, the related matter of obedience is not. Father Daniel Berrigan, a rather rebellious Jesuit who has said "no" many times to the powers that be of this culture, and who plays a bit part in the film, suggested in American Film that there is a direct line between the Jesuit reducciones portrayed in THE MISSION, and the "Christian base communities" now being created among the poor by some priests in Latin America.

Others make the connection between priests who cast off the cloth and became revolutionary guerrillas in the 1960s, as well as the more moderate adherents of "liberation theology," which has been criticized by the Pope. Joffe recently told the Los Angeles Times that while filming the picture, "I became fascinated with liberation theology." Several members of the ruling Sandinista directorate in Nicaragua are former priests, and were publicly chided by the Pope during his 1986 visit to Managua.

Those clerics like Berrigan and his brother Phillip, a former Jesuit, who ally themselves with the poor and politically dispossessed and against the established order continue to run into trouble, as evidenced by last winter's meeting of U.S. bishops in Washington, which backed the Vatican in temporarily disciplining Seattle Bishop Raymond G. Hunthausen. Two American Jesuit priests have been forced from their order in the past year because of teachings and acts alleged to be at odds with dogma, especially in the area of sexuality. For a brief period, the Pope personally appointed the order's governing Superior General in Rome, an unprecedented break in the Jesuits' history of electing their own leader.

Addressing a crowd at Corrientes, Argentina, the Pope John Paul paid a kind of backhanded (and inaccurate) tribute to the Jesuits of THE MISSION, saying, "the missions and doctrines of the Jesuits constitute, without a doubt, one of the most worthwhile achievements that unified the Spanish, Portuguese and native worlds." In the audience were many Indians, who hold an annual procession for the Virgin Mary, whom they call "the Queen of the Guaranis."

There is evidence, apart from the Serra beatification, that that the commitment displayed by the Jesuits in THE MISSION does have a place in the sainthood process. Supporters of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in El Salvador because of his opposition to the authoritarian regime then in power — an incident roughly recreated in the film SALVADOR — are now asking Rome to declare him "venerable," the first of the three steps to sainthood.

One other thing to note is the echoes between this film and the film version of Oscar Romero's life, which was produced in 1989. You can watch the whole film Romero in an earlier post of mine: TheoPoetic Musings: Romero-The Movie.

1:58-7:55 is similar to the last scene of The Mission part of which can be seen at 1:30 in The Mission's trailer: .

Thoughts? Comments? Questions?

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