I just finished watching Tears of the Sun with some friends. A scene at the beginning of the film made Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 come alive:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Lt. Waters (Bruce Willis) and his team of commandos enter a small village in the Nigerian Jungle where they are supposed to rescue a doctor, two nuns, and a priest from before the rebel forces get there and kill everyone. The doctor and a group of the people from the hospital and village leave with the U.S. commandos; the priest and two nuns stay with the Africans left behind.
The soldiers are bewildered at the seemingly foolish choice of the three Catholics. They were given a free pass out of the approaching rebels bent on ethnic cleansing and they gave it up to stay with the people and inevitably die with them. What is that all about? It is all about the kingdom of God, “foolishness to those who are perishing.”
Those who do not know Christ cannot comprehend the way Christ-infused people live, the way our lives are a proclamation of the kingdom of God. To Lt. Waters and his commandos, those Catholics who stayed behind are fools. By staying with those of the village, the priest and the two nuns are condemning themselves to death. Why would anyone choose earthly death? The answer only makes sense to those who take up their cross and follow the One who was crucified (Luke 14:25-27), who proclaim “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Those three Catholics stayed to die with those condemned to die because they grasped the reality of the “message of the cross.” At the cross we see the God-man putting everything on the line for us. In Jesus Christ God shares in our humanity. God saw our suffering existence and did not leave us to our own devices. God became human and “moved into the neighborhood” (Eugene Peterson’s Message, John’s prologue).
So how does the kingdom of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, inform the priest and two nuns’ decision to stay? The answer is found in looking at the incarnation as a call for us to practice the virtue of presence (for “virtue of presence” see McClendon, Ethics, chapter 3). Just as the incarnation displays God’s presence with us in our suffering, so do the three Catholics display God’s presence with those who would die by staying and suffering the same death. (random thought: Could this virtue of presence play a role in the Liberation theologian’s emphasis of solidarity with the poor as the proper starting point of theology?)
Yeah, the decision to stay and get killed with a bunch of people who are already going to get killed seems like it doesn’t make any sense. But that is buying into the logic of the world instead of the logic of “Christ crucified.” The world lives in fear of death, doing anything for one more day on earth. But, as Christians, we don’t have to live under the bondage of death. Remember, our Lord did what he had to do even though he knew it would get himself killed.
Christ has given us “eternal life” (John 3:16), so lets lets live in that “life” today by not letting death dictate our existence. In Hebrews we read of our freedom from death:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
The commandos could not think apart from their slavery to death. That is why they considered the nuns and priest who practiced the virtue of presence foolish. Once realizing the gracious gift of Jesus Christ, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), and his promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:19-20), how could those nuns and priest accept God’s gift of Immanuel and turn and abandon the villagers?
Tears of the Sun is just a movie. How about considering the life of Paul. He gave his life for the sake of the Gospel. Suffering and death did not discourage him from proclaiming the hope of Jesus Christ. Paul, compelled by the gospel, pressed on to Jerusalem even though he knew he would die (Acts 21:10-14). The kingdom of God is worth our lives. Listen to Paul words:
So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. (2 Tim. 1:8-12)