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Missions of power and peace

I frequently start First Day mornings with the soundtrack to The Mission playing. Movie soundtracks aren't usually inspiring, and this one has seen unfortunate use in coffee commercials and elsewhere, but somehow this soundtrack rises to convey hope, struggle, and even failure.

The movie itself is one piece of my path to Quakerism, raising difficult questions about issues like:

  • the relationship of worldly power and church

  • the difficulty of the choices between war and peace

  • the possibilities lost through racism and dehumanization

  • the question of obedience: who to obey, how to choose, and what obedience mean.

  • questions of redemption

I don't think the movie answers any of these questions, which may be why it's rarely pronounced a classic. Rather, it poses them, in a context most Americans have never heard of, the suppression of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay in the 1750s. (At about the same time, Quaker legislators were deciding whether to stay in the legislature or leave as it became clear that Pennsylvania's historically good relations with Native Americans were about to be shredded in the French and Indian war.)

Robert De Niro's portrayal of a slave-trader turned murderer turned penitent turned missionary turned military leader is, despite the mere two hours in which it takes place, both plausible and compelling. Jeremy Irons' character is much more consistent, as a man devoted to God and his order, and the conflicts between the two of them fuel the movie as much as the horrifying takeover of the missions by the Spanish and Portuguese. The Guarani people aren't merely adherents, but play a more active role than the Spanish or Portuguese wanted to admit.

The movie may well have idealized the missions and the Guarani - not everyone is so fond of the Jesuit missions. Though it doesn't mention it explicitly, the movie also foreshadows the very real future devastation of Paraguay a century or so later in the War of the Triple Alliance.