As a child, I was impressed with the story (possibly via this book) of David Livingstone, the “first white man to travel to the interior of Africa.” I was impressed for a number of reasons, and a number of facts stuck in my head. Of course, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” But also, as a young preacher, he had prepared three or four sermons ahead of time. When he preached his first sermon, though, he spoke so fast that he went through all three at once. Or the excitement in my childhood mind at being the first person to see certain things in the world (which was certainly not possible anymore at the time I was a child, let alone now). Or the fact that he died in prayer, kneeling in his tent. Or the fact that, as testimony to his effect on the people, his heart was buried in Africa, while his body was buried in Westminster Abbey.
How much of that was airbrushed with Christian piety, I do not know. Though I have read another fictional account of the people who were with him on his last exploratory journey, I have not read an “adult” biography of Livingstone. How much of his motivation was evangelism and how much was simply the adventure of exploration, I am unsure. He does seem to have been motivated to explore and map out Africa in large part to help bring an end to the African slave trade.
Our desire—more and more, it seems—is to characterize historical figures as simplistically as possible. Either this or that; on the “right” side or the “wrong.” The goal appears to be, or is in the end, the elimination of nuance. No one can be complicated or have internal contradictions or even conflicts. We will, at any cost, eliminate every hint of hypocrisy, and neatly categorize every person whom we know from history books.
Ironically, this simplification comes as the result of historical complication. We learn rather simple narratives when we are young, leaving out much of the detail that would entail difficult questions of first grade teachers. Of course, that is probably how we learn everything: we proceed from the simple to the complicated by way of increasing detail, nuance, and complexity that will not bend to our desire for childish simplicity. One would think that this would be the usual process of human maturity.
And yet, the more we learn about various historical figures (the typical course of education), the more “problematic” they become. In turn, by a strange regression, there is a strong push to reduce people to their worst or best traits—measured, of course, by whether this or that word or action fits our current definitions of moral uprightness. In light of our historical purification, we must then engage in a legalistic and intolerant drive for absolute contemporary purity, based on constantly changing standards. This is accompanied by a Stalin-esque pattern of denunciation, which eventually swallows up all its proponents.
The point is that our ancestors will never fit neatly into the boxes we construct for them after the fact, and neither will we fit what our descendants would perhaps desire of us. And the complicated pictures painted with historical data are bundles of contradictions, because it is the data of flawed and multi-faceted humans.
The Mission (1986; on Kanopy or for rent on Amazon Prime) is full of the complications and contradictions of history. In the middle of the story is Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Jesuit missionary who establishes a mission among the Guaraní people around the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. These are the same people whom we see at the beginning of the film tie a missionary to a cross and send him over the waterfall. This time, in part because of his music, most of the people welcome Gabriel.
My suspicion is, if this film were made now, the story would be much simplified. It would become a simplistic and uncomplicated story of “white” colonialists who are interested only in making use of the resources of the Guaraní, while giving them “white” religion. The film gives us a much more complex, and therefore more realistic, picture of just how tangled are the webs of motivation in any endeavor. The reality is that individuals are not so simplistic, let alone multiple people from the same organizations or of the same nationalities.
Here there are conflicts between Portugal and Spain; between the State and the Church; between Spanish missionaries and the broader Roman Catholic Church; between Jesuits and those in authority over them; between Christians, slave-traders, and those who claim to be both; between Spanish or Portuguese Christians and indigenous Christians. The corporate conflicts are reproduced and adjusted between and within individuals, in the movie especially between Gabriel, who will die unresisting, bearing witness, and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a convert and new member of the Society of Jesus, who decides to fight alongside the Guaraní. (In one of the more powerful scenes, after Mendoza has attempted to assuage his guilt over killing his brother by dragging around his armor and sword as penance, one of the Guaraní cuts him free from his burden, and shoves it into the river.)
This is a familiar conflict, in which the viewer is caught, trying to decide who is pursuing the right(eous) action: the one who refuses to resist, or the one who refuses to let the people be killed and driven from the mission without a fight? Gabriel says, “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”
Finally, Gabriel’s action is, I think, the more powerful. Though Lutherans have always opposed mere processions with the consecrated Host, in the film the Eucharistic procession becomes a powerful image. This is an attack on the Body of Christ, the Church, and so an attack on Christ Himself. As Gabriel falls and the monstrance is picked up by one of the Guaraní, we see the impossibility of victory over Christ and His Church. The movie both begins and ends with a crucifixion of sorts: a literal crucifixion of the missionary at the beginning becomes the “crucifixion” of Jesus in the person of Gabriel. But Christ cannot be destroyed or killed. The Body lives and the gates of hell cannot overcome Him.
This happens apart from, and often in spite of, human action. Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) at one point suggests that, with everything that has happened, it might have been better if no one had come to the Guaraní. When Hontar (Ronald Pickup) says, after the soldiers kill the missionaries and the Guaraní, “We must work in the world, your Eminence. The world is thus,” Altamirano responds, “No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.” Even though the separate allegiances produce conflicts, especially among Christians, we can’t take an easy comfort in that fact in order to justify our actions. The world is the way it is because people have made it the way it is—because I have made it this way. That the world is full of these contradictory loyalties is no excuse for picking the wrong side.