(This sermon was preached in 1998 in the Wabash Christian Church (DoC). Unfortunately, the message in the sermon is still relevant today as the persecution, displacement, and slaughter of native peoples in Latin America continue in 2020.)
The Mission is one of my favorite movies. This film is powerful and intense; the music is exquisite; the scenery is breathtaking; and the acting is superb. The movie presents Christianity at its best and at its worst. The entire process of making this film was a labor of love. Unfortunately, the American public for the most part ignored this gem.
What is also compelling about this movie is that depicts a true story–a story that can be documented from various sources. This story unfolds around 1750 along the borderlands of what are now Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Spanish and the Portuguese are carving up a whole continent for self-serving reasons. Spain controls part of South America while Portugal controls the rest. Portugal desires to enlarge its empire while the Spanish want to ensure that they are not threatened by this move. Technically, within the Spanish territories, slavery is outlawed. However, within the Portuguese territories, slavery is encouraged. The slaves, of course, are the native people–the Guarani. The Portuguese landowners want to expand their holdings and have access to more slaves. The Spanish slave traders would also benefit from any development which would allow them to capture and sell more slaves to the Portuguese in the New World.
And then there is the church. With the imperial armies of Spain and Portugal came the Jesuit missionaries. These missionaries reached out to convert and minister to the Guarani. Over a period of years, trust was built between the missionaries and the Indians. Each side learned from the other, and a series of remarkable missions was built which perhaps came as close as the church has ever come to creating heaven on earth. These missions enjoyed remarkable success, and they served as sanctuaries for the Guarani, protecting them from the slave traders. They were communities of sharing, worship, joy, music, family nurturing, and peace. Because the Guarani shared equally in their labors (instead of being worked to death as slaves), the missions’ agricultural endeavors flourished, much to the dismay of plantation owners who relied on slavery. These wealthy landowners were offended by this “paradise on earth.” And so, the days of this Eden in the New World were numbered. This partial fulfillment of the Lord’s Prayer (“on earth as it is in heaven”) was under threat.
Far away the kings of Spain and Portugal had signed the Treaty of Madrid giving Portugal more territory. The missions were included in this transfer. The plan of the Portuguese was to expel the Jesuits, destroy the missions, and enslave the Guarani. To carry out this evil plan the Portuguese and Spanish required the cooperation of the pope. To secure the sanction of the papacy, the Spanish and Portuguese kings won over the pope with this threat: “If you don’t order the Jesuits to abandon the missions, we will expel all the Jesuits from Portugal and Spain and will pressure all other Catholic countries to do the same.” The pope, fearing what this would mean for the church (not to mention the Jesuit order) acquiesced. A cardinal was sent as a papal legate to expel the Jesuits and disband the missions (leaving the trusting Guarani to face annihilation or slavery). In the midst of these political and economic entanglements unfolds our story.
One of the slave traders by the name of Rodriguez (played by Robert De Niro), ruthlessly enslaves the Guarani for financial gain. He sells these Indians to the Portuguese. To him, as to the Portuguese, the Guarani are mere animals. But Rodriguez’s life abruptly changes when in a fit of passion, he kills his brother in a duel over a woman. Since it was a duel, the law could not touch him, but he is eaten up with guilt and remorse. For six months he languishes away in self-imposed imprisonment. This time gives him opportunities to review his life and slowly he realizes how wrong his brutal treatment of the Guarani has been. He decides to starve himself to death.
A priest named Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) is sent to Rodriguez to minister in whatever way he can. Gabriel is a Jesuit missionary who has been in charge of the missions and has labored long and hard for their success. He knows Rodriguez and has seen the brutal results of the slave trader’s work. When he tries to console Rodriguez, the slave trader responds, “Do you know who I am?” Gabriel responds, “You are a mercenary. You are a slave trader. And you have killed your brother. And I know that you loved him.” The priest tells Rodriguez there is a way out of his misery. He allows the former slave trader to choose his penance. Rodriguez chooses to carry all his weapons and instruments of war and violence to the Guarani and to ask for their forgiveness. Incredibly, the Guarani forgive him and symbolize their forgiveness by cutting the ropes that bind his instruments of violence to his exhausted and bleeding body and throwing them over the escarpment. It is obvious in this scene that the only ones who can forgive Rodriguez and set him free from his overwhelming guilt and depression are the Guarani. As he is embraced by the Guarani, he weeps for joy as his tears begin to wash away his guilt and depression. (For perceptive Christians viewing this film, this scene demonstrates how powerful forgiveness is and how often it alone can allow life to begin again.) This former slave trader stays with the Guarani to serve them and eventually becomes a Jesuit.
It is at this time that the cardinal who serves as the papal legate arrives in the New World. At first, he chooses not to reveal that the decision has already been made to destroy the missions. In fact, he agrees to visit the missions knowing that the Jesuit priests are hoping that when he sees the result of their labors, the missions will be spared. Nothing had prepared him for what he finds as he visits one mission after another. He witnesses the hope, trust, love, joy, health, beautiful music, deep spirituality, and devout prayers of the Guarani. Among these missions, he finds heaven on earth—a community truly shaped in every way by the spirit of Christ.
But finally it is time to announce the fateful decision made in Europe and blessed by the pope. When the cardinal tells the Guarani they must abandon their missions, they refuse and vow to fight for what is theirs. The cardinal then orders the Jesuits (on the threat of excommunication) to abandon the Guarani and leave the missions. Some priests obey, but others, including Gabriel and Rodriguez, refuse. They will not abandon what has become their beloved family, but they choose two different paths in expressing their solidarity with the Indians. Rodriguez renounces his vows as a Jesuit and prepares the Guarani for war against the Portuguese. Gabriel, committed to the principles of love, peace, and justice, refuses to take up the sword. Both men, however, stand excommunicated.
One by one the missions fall to the brutal slaughter of the Portuguese soldiers. Men, women, and children are slain or enslaved and the missions are burned. The final mission to be destroyed is the one of Father Gabriel. The Portuguese military and Rodriguez, leading the Guarani who choose to fight, both prepare for battle. Gabriel and the peaceful Guarani, however, celebrate Mass and then leave the church with Gabriel leading and carrying a cross. Initially, the Portuguese soldiers pause when they see the unarmed Guarani and the priest. But the soldiers obey their commander and fire their guns and their cannons. All of the Jesuits and almost all of the Guarani are slaughtered, most of them unarmed in the act of worship. A few Guarani flee into the jungle. The destruction of the missions and the murder of the innocent Guarani become one more occasion when horrible evil is done in the name of God.
In the closing scene the Portuguese and Spanish ambassadors report to the papal legate who is appalled by the slaughter. The Portuguese diplomat says, “You had no alternative, your Eminence. We must work in this world. The world is thus.” The cardinal replies, “No, Senor. Thus we have made the world. Thus have I made it.” The fate of the missions represents a choice regarding human freedom and responsibility to make the world a heaven or a hell on earth. Thus we decide, and thus we make it.
The movie ends with a brief printed statement reminding the viewers that even today millions of native peoples in the world and particularly in Latin America continue to suffer and die because of the greed and violence of the powerful. Four days before last Christmas (1997) in the Mexican state of Chiapas, forty-five Indigenous Indians were slaughtered by paramilitary groups encouraged by wealthy landowners and with the blessings of certain government officials. Most of those slaughtered were women and children. They were shot and hacked to death. (This tragic event is referred to as the Acteal Massacre.) The oppression of peasant groups throughout Latin America continues to this day. Native people are slaughtered so that landowners can have more land to feed cattle and to grow commercial crops. The United States is complicit in this tragedy. We will have our beef and fruit at cheap prices regardless of the human cost. We have even trained soldiers and paramilitary groups in the art of war and torture to secure our selfish and economic interests throughout Latin America. Repeatedly, our government has chosen to back dictators and demagogues who rob, kill, and torture peasants and indigenous people. (The School of the Americas based at Fort Benning, Georgia is where many of these thugs have been trained.)
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul?” In those tragic events in the 18th century, some sought the whole world and lost their souls. Others lost their lives being faithful to the gospel. But what Jesus said is not only true for individuals. It is also true of groups–even nations and even the church. We can gain the whole world with all the success imaginable and lose our souls and blaspheme the gospel. Or we can make the world–at least our part of it–heaven on earth. And just as in the 1750s so today, lives depend on what decisions we make.
[The DVD edition of The Mission has a second disc which tells the sad and tragic story of native peoples in South America. The suffering of the poor and native peoples continues to this day.]