Sunday, June 12, 2005
Set in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, Beyond the Gates of Splendor tells the story of the Waodani, a violent and isolated tribe, and five North American families who contacted them. All five of the North American men were killed (Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully). Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of one of the men, and Rachel Saint, the sister of another, went to live with the Waodani. Later, Steve Saint, the son of one of the slain men moved his family from Florida to live with the same Waodani family that had killed his father.
The Waodani were not just a fearsome foe to outsiders, but were also prone to settling their interpersonal conflicts with spearings and machete murders. Anthropologists who later studied the tribe were able to trace back five generations of the Waodani, and determined that 60% of all adult deaths over that time were caused by homicide perpetrated by other members of the tribe.
Like many accounts of missionaries' experience, it skewers the myth of indigenous life being an Eden-like idyll. Here is one reviewer's description:
The filmmakers are able to communicate the brutal nature of the Waodani existence because surviving tribe members agreed to be interviewed. They tell mesmerizing tales of a seemingly endless string of spearings, and each tale is punctuated by specific descriptions of how many times the deceased was speared, where the spears entered and/or exited, if entrails were exposed, how long the spear-ee lived after the spearing, and most stories end with the natives gesturing and saying (in their own unique language) that "it happened right over there under that tree"...or "they speared my father in his hammock while I was sleeping on his chest"...or "so-and-so was acting crazy, so we had to kill him and when he was dead we were happy". These killings are related with what seems like about the same amount of angst a typical American would have when relating the story of a non-fatal car accident...shaken, but not stirred.
In Hollywood, this would be the end of an interesting, but often told, tale. But in this case, the reality is that these killings were just the beginning of the story.
Based on the book by Jim Elliot's widow Through the Gates of Splendor the movie tones down the origin Christian message, but the poignancy of their sacrifice comes through. What struck me when I saw it was a statement by one of the men when they explained to their families that they would go to meet the tribe unarmed because they "...we at least know we are going to heaven..." This wasn't an expression of spiritual superiority, but sincere concern about taking the life of one who hadn't heard the Gospel, proven by their willingness to lay down their own. I doing so they fulfilled Jim Eliot's motto: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."
This of itself would be sufficient to counter the conventional wisdom that missionaries are a type of spiritual big-game hunters who view souls as trophies. But the real power in this story is the reconciliation that happened afterwards. Again, from the Clever Donkey review:
After the killings, the wives decide to stay in Ecuador to continue their missionary work. Then, some time later a group of Waodani women emerge from the jungle, saying that they have fled the tribe out of fear for their lives. One of the surviving tribeswomen relates the harrowing tale of fleeing the jungle and heading for the area of the foreigners, and having them raise their rifles as she approached, but she simply shut her eyes and ran at them even though she thought they would kill her. When they didn't shoot her she signaled for the other, younger women to come out.
The missionary widows hear about these tribeswomen and end up meeting and befriending them, and beginning to learn about the language and culture (and horrors) of tribal life. It turns out that several years earlier another Waodani tribeswoman had done the same thing, and was now living the life of an Ecuadorian peasant rather than a jungle tribeswoman. The widows and the expat tribeswomen bond, and soon another delegation, made up of men and women, exit the jungle and approach the missionaries. They express remorse for the killings, as they found they were triggered by stories that they later learned were untrue. They invite the widows to come and visit them, and one of them does, taking along her five year old daughter.
Incredibly, they end up living with the Waodani for years, and they are also joined by some of the other missionary widows. Through their interactions with the Waodani, they express the horror with which most of the rest of the world views murders, and actually begin to convince the tribe that the vendettas and revenge murders have to stop, or it will spell the end of the Waodani. Astonishingly, village by village, the Waodani agree to stop the killings.
The anthropologists who later studied the Waodani express that this was an amazing cultural transformation. The Waodani way of life was unchanged except for this facet, no new tools were introduced, no technology, no farming techniques, none of the hallmarks of cultural dilution. Just the stopping of the killings, with the transformation going from the first village to the last in the course of a few months. And the change has been permanent, at least to date.
One of the women ended up living out her life with the Waodani, leaving only for cancer treatments, but returning to the tribe to die when she learned she was terminal. The five year old daughter lived there for years, and later returned when she was baptized because she wanted to be baptized in the river by the village, and she wanted her adopted Waodani family there. In an astonishing case of irony or joyfulness, the two Waodani who held her arms and leaned her back for her baptism were two of the men from the party that killed her father.
As a grown man, the son of one of the murdered missionaries returned to the Waodani with his two sons, and lived with them for years, as well. When his son returned to the States and was graduating from high school, he asked that one of the Waodani elders come to his graduation. He called this Waodani "grandfather" in the Waodani language. In another ironic/joyful instance, this man he called grandfather had also been in the party that killed his grandfather.
What the world (and often Christendom as well) doesn't get about the Gospel is this power of reconciliation and forgiveness, which in its essence is love. It is universal, and has the ability not only to heal a tribe, but the world itself.