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One of the first thoughts that may strike viewers while watching For Greater Glory, an epic-scale historical production, is, did the producers skew the facts of the film to score political points? The second will be, because if they didn't, how have I never heard about this before?
In 1926 state hostility toward Catholics reaches a fever pitch in Mexico. Using armed federal forces to carry out his orders, President Plutarco Elias Calles begins seizing church property, shutting down religious schools, expelling priests, and demanding that Christians publicly renounce their faith in Jesus Christ or face execution. This all, brief expository dialogue explains, follows years of eroding religious liberties as a jealous state tries to usurp the church's role. Perhaps only fans of Graham Greene's 1940 novel, The Power and the Glory, will recognize the story line thus far.
Yet if these events seem to fit a little too neatly into modern narrative, seem almost too ready-made for current controversies over what the government can demand of Christian organizations and individuals, a few minutes' worth of research confirms the essential truth of the story.
The secular Mexican government did indeed begin, in the name of separation of church and state, by outlawing any teaching of God or religion in schools and prohibiting priests and ministers from proselytizing outside of church buildings. It did, in fact, move on to massacring Catholics. This eventually prompted networks of Catholic mothers, fathers, lay priests, and even some outlaws to join together to work secretly against Calles. And this network did, at last, hire a renowned general to lead them to war against their own government, taking up arms in the name of Cristo Rey. (See "Timeless struggle.")
Given the persecution that sparked their actions and their bravery in the face of the administration's might, it's impossible not to root for the Cristeros, as the rebels call themselves, and to feel inspired by their passion and commitment. (The bloody punishments they endure at the hands of Calles' forces account for the film's R rating). Andy Garcia, who plays Gen. Enrique Gorostieta, the military mastermind the rebels hire to lead them, is particularly effective as an agnostic man of action. Though at first he fights for liberty in general, the example of a 14-year-old boy who will not bow to the golden calf of the state soon has him considering that religious liberty is the first and most important freedom of all as all others spring from it.
Director Dean Wright maintains that he didn't orchestrate the film's release to coincide with fights over contraception and healthcare mandates or for its depiction of how quickly a government's mere antagonism toward the church can turn to outright aggression to seem like a warning. But it would be hard for any believers paying attention to recent events not to shiver when Calle's Federalis offer the Cristeros clemency if only they will declare, "Death to Christ the King, long live the federal government." This doctrine in particular is so prescient and disquieting, it almost serves to justify every effort the Cristeros take to depose it. Almost.
Horrific as Calles' actions are, the rebels' response may be troubling for Christian viewers. Neither Christ nor his disciples called for violent or belligerent rebellion to the entrenched government. There aren't early church examples of martyrs taking to battlefields before mighty Rome took their lives (that type of rallying seems more in line with Simon the Zealot before his encounter with Christ). On the flip side, the same logic could be used to argue against the cause of the American revolutionaries. And certainly citizens of an established nation have some responsibility for seeing that nation preserved as founded for future generations.
How Christians should respond individually and collectively to state oppression has for most of U.S. history been purely hypothetical. But as For Greater Glory demonstrates, the winds of ruling restraint can change quickly and we must prayerfully, meditatively consider what Jesus would have of us when they do.