The Mission, a new film from Fernando Ghia and David Puttnam (producer of the Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire), uses a bloody slice of South American history to pose questions about the church’s role in dealing with oppression: Are we called to fight the world with the world’s weapons? to respond to earthly pressures by trying to live at peace with the powers that be? to offer potentially suicidal nonviolent resistance and ignore questions of effectiveness in favor of faithfulness to an ideal of love and justice?

In 1750 the Spanish and the Portuguese redrew the boundaries of their South American empires. Seven Jesuit missions to the Indians had been under Spanish rule; now they found themselves in Portuguese territory where there were no legal restraints on the lucrative slave trade. Ordered to abandon their missions, and with the threat of all Jesuits’ being expelled from Portugal and all her colonies as well, the missionaries stood their ground—and lost their lives.

Moral Options

The option of nonviolent resistance is represented by Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary who is committed to love, sacrifice, music, and the Guarani, an endangered Indian tribe. Played by Jeremy Irons (“Brideshead Revisited” and The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Father Gabriel, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, attracts the Indians with his oboe. Says the film’s narrator, “With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the whole country.” When the papal legate (under political pressure from the Portuguese) orders the mission shut down, Father Gabriel disobeys and resorts, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., to nonviolent resistance.

The option to fight the oppressors with their ...

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