(All media is telling you something. This is the third post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahibity blah. I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes on Jesus and Christianity. Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned! Previous entry in series: Wings.)
Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Writing – 1982
“Where there’s injustice, I always believed in fighting. The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish? For myself, I’ve found we’re all such sinners, we should leave punishment to God. And if we really want to change things, there are better things than derailing trains or slashing someone with a sword.” – Gandhi
Some biopics are dedicated to a subject simply because they impersonally think that the person’s life makes great spectacle. Gandhi is not that kind of biopic Gandhi honestly thinks that Mohandas Gandhi was a fascinating, great man – and it thinks you should think that to. That this biopic is just really into the guy it is portraying is evidenced by the fact that the first scene of the film is dedicated to a written lamentation that so few scenes from his life could be selected, the director/writer funded the movie himself, and the film clocks in over 3 hours, among others. Gandhi was once asked what message he would share with the world and he stated that his message is his life. This movie respects that wish by not trying to tell you about that life but show you it.
There’s a reason this couldn’t get funded in 1982, however. In all honesty, Gandhi isn’t easily palatable for a heavily Christian audience.** For that reason, Gandhi tries very hard to portray a digestible Gandhi to a heavily Christian audience. It does so by focusing mostly on his actual references to God. For example, the film quotes him as saying, “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” It also quotes him saying “I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want! Stop it! For God’s sake stop it! “. Gandhi, at least for a large portion of his life, could perhaps be best described as a Deist. The film doesn’t hide that. However, towards the end of his life he allegedly softened that and turned more philosophical about the life force in all of us. Gandhi ignores this, emphasizing things like the first quote, which occurs rather early in the film, and other sayings Christians would heavily relate to Christ. These comparative ideas that hint at synchronicity with Christ appear many more times and the effect is subtlety intensified by adding a sympathetic Christian minister (played by a familiar Christian mouthpiece: Ian Charleston) who aids Gandhi. The film even quotes his last words (which are supposedly controversial) as “he ram” which means “Oh God”.
The film stays away from most potentially controversial things in Gandhi’s life, choosing to focus on certain actions the man took. From that, we learn that Gandhi agrees that despite your religion, you should live in peace. Gandhi believes in non-violent protest as an effective methodology for social change (although selectively). Gandhi is entranced with the community lifestyle lived by Gandhi. It believes in it as a beautiful way to live and thinks his brazen humility would solve a lot of inequality in our lives if we accepted it. Ultimately, Gandhi accepts that there is an invisible minimum line of human dignity that we all, regardless of race or religion, will see clearly in humility.
Gandhi’s desire to be palatable to Christianity does not mean that it does not challenge Christians. Early in the film when Gandhi, an Englishman, is faced with inequality in South Africa, he is befuddled because that inequality opposes Christian belief. In this is a challenge to those of us who live in Christianity based countries to consider why we allow repression of certain people when Christ certainly would and does not. Another challenge lies with non-Christian marriages not being accepted in South Africa at the time. In the movie, Gandhi points out “No marriage other than a Christian marriage is considered valid. Under this act our wives and mothers are whores. And every man here is a bastard. “ Gandhi believes that the purpose of these laws are humiliation and the purpose of humiliation is control.
What interests me about its approach is how differently a modern movie would approach this subject. The Gandhi of 1982 is, much like the man would do himself it seems, gently petitioning reconsideration of what we silently approve by seeing the results. If this movie was made today I imagine that a lot of the writing would bluntly portray villainous Christian caricatures to oppose him. There is little of that in Gandhi. As a Christian, it is refreshing. Perhaps those who believe Christians are out of line with morality could learn a lesson from Gandhi in how to approach real change instead of just a shift in the balance of power.
As a Christian, our kingdom and citizenship is heaven. We must, however, live in a social compact with others around us. Some of those people will disagree with us. Living with a foot in both worlds causes moral conflict because of temporality. Do we choose actions to do some good now or perhaps a greater good later?
Jesus understood this conflict and speaks of it often. Jesus’ life is his best message though. He lived only for God. God strategically chose moments for Jesus to face punishment for breaking or challenging terrestrial law that conflicted with the “invisible minimum” – or His law. So, Jesus paid the temple taxes, even though it was an unlawful charge, by giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s. However, he did not give his obedience to men despite the law and gave to God what was Gods. That obedience to God led him to a cross. Gandhi’s life mimics this (he was an admirer of Jesus) even if he doesn’t claim Christ solely.
It seems from the conduct and writings of the New Testament, along with the actions of Jesus, that our focus is to be on a kingdom that is chosen and then born into (God’s ) rather than a kingdom we are born into and then decide whether we choose. It also seems from the same sources that our method of change is one of hearts, not laws (the Bible calls even the most perfect law given by God himself on Mt. Sinai “powerless”), and that we change those hearts by letting men make bad choices and confronting them with our broken bodies as evidence of their injustice. This is not diminishing Paul telling us that the government is given the “sword” by God (although it should be noted that the sword in that case was being used against Christians and Paul himself) or that God is just and there will be judgment (the film actually portrays Gandhi as believing in hell and I believe scripture teaches it too), it is just stating that I believe the emphasis is on the former when it comes to our part and the latter is focused on being God’s part.
In the end these discussions usually come to nothing because they exist only in intellectual arenas. Few are willing to really stick their neck out on the line to prove their point. That’s what I love about Gandhi and why I love the films portrayal of him. It takes the debate out of the realm of philosophy and makes it real. We can see that these principles he used have a power all their own. In short, they worked! They work because Christ is in them, regardless of whether the person claims Christ or not. Gandhi is not a threat to Christian faith; he is confirmation of its deep abiding truth like a deep reservoir waiting to be tapped across the face of the earth.
Imagine the sweeping change across the earth if we tapped into that by obeying a greater invisible truth than instead giving our loyalty to the earth born status quo.
“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. Not my obedience.” – Gandhi
* A note about the process. When delving into what a biopic thinks, I’m looking to do three things in particular. I attempt to articulate what the film makers think of the subject of the film and not what I think independently. I look at which events were selected and which were left out historically of the portrayal. Finally, I put more weight than usual on how other characters in the film react to the protagonist.
** I believe that the issue isn’t with the morality of his actions. Most people would agree that his actions were beautiful, moral, and a bit mesmerizing. The problem is the sticky questions it brings up for Christians with a mindset that is obsessed with determining who is saved and who isn’t. It also raises uncomfortable questions about how a man who didn’t claim Jesus was better at following his lifestyle than people who do claim Him.