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"Hacksaw Ridge" and The Dignity of the Human Person

"Hacksaw Ridge" and The Dignity of the Human Person

Pope Benedict said in 2011: “The Christian believes in God whose face was revealed by Jesus Christ.”

Yet we might ask ourselves, what does this mean? How can we see the face of Christ today? How can we reveal the face of Christ to others?

The most visible way to reveal Christ to others is through witness and action. When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name of Francis as our new pope, he made an act of continuity with Benedict by carrying forward the theme of Christian witness and revealing Jesus’ life and teaching in the Gospels as did St. Francis of Assisi: by remembering the poor.

In Fatima for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary to Lucy Dos Santos and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, the siblings he is canonizing on this pilgrimage, Francis talked about God who “dwells in the midst of the poor yesterday, today and for all eternity."

Where is Christ's face more authentically revealed than in the faces of the hungry, the naked, the sick, the sad in spirit, the refugee, the homeless, women and children caught up in trafficking and sex slavery, and those caught in wars they did not create?

Out of the abundance of scripture scholarship, study of sacred tradition, moral theology, reason and experience, have come a body of doctrinal principles to guide us in our living of faith in service of the poor “Catholic Social Teaching.” These themes first came to notice in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 when he addressed the working class. This was followed up as recently as 2009 when Benedict wrote Caritas in Veritate or “Charity in Truth” and Francis wrote Laudato Si, “On Care for Our Common Home” in 2015.

The themes of living faith are expressed as:

  • The Life and Dignity of the Human Person. We are called to love one another. Every human person has value. Wars hurt people. We are not to kill anyone and to find non-violent ways to solve problems.
  • Call to Faith, Community, Participation.  We are social beings called to live in respect for one another without distinction. The laws we make to organize society, especially those about money, are to be fair to everyone.  We are to take an active part in building a just society.
  • Rights and Responsibilities. Everyone has a right to food, housing, education, a job, and to worship God freely. When people lack any of these things we are called to help them.
  • Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.  This means that the needs of those who do not have food and a place to live come before our needs.
  • The Dignity and Rights of Workers. Everyone has the right to work and to make enough money to live a life that is decent and happy.  We are to work to make sure work is safe and the rights of workers are protected.
  • Solidarity. This means that we are all brothers and sisters who are called to love one another regardless of differences. It means to work together to make the world a better place for everyone.
  • Care for the Earth and God’s Creation. When we care for the earth and the environment we are showing love for God and neighbor. The only way people will have a future is if we care for the earth and God’s creation.

If we look around us, in our neighborhoods and parishes, towns and communities, we can find a way to live our faith and witness to Jesus, to reveal his face to the poor and vulnerable, through Catholic Social Teaching. Sometimes, it helps to stop and be silent so we can see the face of Jesus in those around us.

Each of the seven essays in this series on Catholic Social Teaching will explore one of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching through the lens of a major motion picture. The first theme, the life and dignity of the human person, is illustrated in Mel Gibson’s 2016 Oscar-winning film Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge and the Life and Dignity of the Human Person

Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce; Andrew Garfield) grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and loved to roam the hills and climb the mountains with his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero; Nathaniel Buzolic). The family attends the Seventh-day Adventist Church. His father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), a World War I vet, drinks and beats his wife (Rachel Griffiths). He probably suffered from shell shock or what we would now call PTSD.

As a teen, Desmond witnesses one of Tom's assaults on his wife. He grabs a gun, aims it at his father and almost pulls the trigger. When the shock of realizing what he almost did hits Desmond, he resolves to abstain from violence and never to touch a gun again.

After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in December 1941, most of the young men in the county volunteer for the army. Tom warns Desmond not to volunteer, but the young man is a patriot and determined to serve his country. He signs up as a conscientious objector and wants to serve as a medic. Sent to Fort Jackson, SC for training, an error sees him assigned to a combat unit. Before leaving he proposes to Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse he met at the town hospital.

At Fort Jackson, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) trains the men and is tough on them because he wants them to be ready for the horrors of war. The other recruits and volunteers welcome Desmond at first but when he refuses to touch a gun, they beat him up. Their fear is that he won't be able to protect them in the foxholes of battle. He does not defend himself.

Arrested and held for court martial, the officers encourage Desmond to quit and go home rather than risk military prison or even death for treason. This leads to a tense standoff but Desmond sticks to the conviction of non-violence and they allow him to serve as a medic. He and Dorothy marry before the unit is shipped to the Pacific. She gives him a small Bible that he treasures. Christ’s teaching about love of neighbor motivates him.

The battle for Okinawa is fully engaged when Desmond's unit lands on the beach. Men descend by a rope grid from the 400-foot high cliff where the Japanese army is entrenched above. The next day Desmond's unit climbs the cliff to engage in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The fighting is terrible.

Desmond, not as robust as Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) or his buddies Smitty (Luke Bracey) and Hollywood (Harry Greenwood), runs from man to man, doing what he can to stabilize the injured and dying.

As the fighting ends for the day, the men retreat down the cliff but Desmond hides up top in order to protect the wounded from the Japanese. Over the course of the night he carries 75 men, including two Japanese soldiers, to the edge of the cliff and lets them down using ropes. Often on the edge of exhaustion, he prays that God will let him save one more, just one more. Desmond's actions would be inconceivable and unbelievable if they were not true.

Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling true story of the power of moral courage and human dignity in the face of all the horrors men can inflict on one another. Through his faith in God and humanity, Desmond Doss is able to navigate the inherent paradox in the war – and the film - that pits violence against Christ’s teaching on non-violence.

Desmond Doss was an earnest, humble, sweet, vulnerable, committed and brave young man who saw the face of Christ in everyone and loved his neighbor in imitation of Christ - to the point of laying down his life for them. He lived his Christian masculinity in love and self-sacrifice, not in dominance or aggression.  Desmond Doss recognized his own dignity and that of others because he saw the face of Christ in every person he met.

(This commentary is adapted from Sr. Rose’s original essay about Hacksaw Ridge as it appeared in its original form in the National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2016. Used with permission.)





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