13 June 2012

An Account of the Cristiada

Plutarco Elias Calles, 31 October 1924
(National Photo Company, Library of Congress)
“In order for Christians to show forth the New Man they must demonstrate a positive practice and exhibit a caring Christian community in the group and care beyond the Christian group. But showing forth the New Man also means a standing against the law of the state which would destroy the very things Christians should produce in society. The civil disobedience forced upon them by the tyranny of the state is an essential part of being the New Man, because to obey would destroy both what Christians should be and also what they should be producing in society.”

When Francis Schaeffer wrote “A Christian Manifesto” in 1981, he contrasted the Christian idea of fallen humans redeemed and remade with the Marxist idea of a new humanity produced by economic revolution. But his argument for the possibility of civil disobedience—and his idea of religious freedom for all religions—he traced from a Christian belief that God, not the state, is absolute. 

Just 55 years earlier, Catholics in Mexico had found themselves in just the situation Schaeffer described. Mexico’s constitution of 1917 included anti-clerical provisions and restricted religious education, but these laws were nominally enforced until president Plutarco Elias Calles came to power in 1924.

“For Greater Glory” gives a fictionalized account of the 1926-1929 war between president Calles’ federal government and the Catholic fighters. 

It’s hard to comprehend a single battle in 145 minutes much less an entire war, and this task becomes even more difficult when the audience isn’t familiar with the country where the war occurred. There is so much background and the story involves so many characters, the dialogue often sounds like poorly disguised narration. But the script gains traction as Andy Garcia’s Enrique Gorostieta Velarde comes to the fore. 

Participants in the 1926 boycott protesting Calles policies
(Museo Nacional Cristero, Public Domain)
The National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty recruits Gorostieta to unite their splintered forces. Influenced by his wife’s belief—and his boredom—Gorostieta agrees. And soon after Gorostieta meets devout, 14-year-old Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio, played by Mauricio Kuri. The rest of the movie follows their intertwining paths.

To director Dean Wright and writer Michael Love’s credit, they do not ignore Father José Reyes Vega’s most notable atrocity, ordering a train and its passengers burnt after his brother was killed in battle. They also portray some complexities of the American-brokered agreement that ended hostilities. 

Thus, despite some glaring oversimplifications the movie gives its viewers a fleeting glimpse of a people tossed together by circumstances, inconsistently supported by Church hierarchy, experiencing skepticism, moral misgiving, and depravity, but united by some idea of religious freedom. 

At a time when Americans can’t form consensus on Mexico or religion, a film that explores both deserves some credit for trying.

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