Threatened by Terrorists, Nine Monks Made an Amazing Decision

Last week, I opened my email to continue a conversation about the new Star Wars movie, and I was immediately derailed by “breaking news” about deadly violence. And then another headline appeared, informing me that American leaders were quickly condemning the violence.

My plans to discuss Rogue One suddenly seemed so… trivial. So I scanned the official statement:

“ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad. These terrorists … must be eradicated from the face of the earth.”

On another occasion, I might have indulged the same impulse and said, “Eradicate our enemies!”

But a haunting gallery of faces appeared in my mind’s eye: Nine soft-spoken monks, gathered around a table in prayer, seeking God’s guidance. Back in 1996, in the Atlas mountains of Algeria, the French Trappist monks of Tibhirine offered a response to violent Islamic extremists. And what they did stays with me, challenging me to search my heart and ask what Christ would require of me if ISIS advanced on my home.

To be more precise, these faces I see are actually just actors from the 2010 feature film Of Gods and Men. It’s a film that has made a lasting impression on me, altering the way I think about Christian responses to terrorism. And it isn’t just any “Christian movie.” It has a 92 percent positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and it won a long list of film festival awards, including the Grand Prize and the Ecumenical Prize from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. I’m confident it will make an impression on you, too.

Of Gods and Men follows the true story of monks who were serving Algerian villagers in a variety of ways when intolerant Islamic extremists decided to drive them out. Assembling in the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, they were faced with a decision most of us cannot imagine: to abandon the people they served (who were, in fact, Muslims); to take up arms to defend their neighbors from oppression; or to leave the region and make a difference somewhere else in the world.

Director Xavier Beauvois isn’t interested in mythmaking or crowd-pleasing. He’s a professing atheist, but one profoundly fascinated by what these Christians chose to do. And he sticks to the well-documented truth about quiet, humble men who, loving a community of fearful people, served God not with heroic speeches or charisma, but with gentleness and generosity.

Last week, I introduced Of Gods and Men to my film class. (I have the privilege of teaching home-schooled high school students online, introducing them to films from around the world.) After we watched it, we wrestled with hard questions about how these monks chose to answer the threat of terrorism. Students were impressed with how these monks were more inclined to demonstrate their faith through action than words.

These monks are not heroes of the faith known for grand speeches. These men had unglamorous routines. They made honey. They fitted their neighbors with shoes. They treated their wounds and diseases. The conclusion of their story was abrupt and, for the rest of the world, offstage.

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Threatened by Terrorists, Nine Monks Made an Amazing Decision