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The Power and the Glory | Context

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The Mexican Revolution

Early 20th century Mexico was a site of significant social and political upheaval. Since the days of the conquistadores in the 16th century, Mexico had been sharply divided into a wealthy upper class, comprising people of Spanish heritage, and impoverished lower classes, comprising indigenous people and mestizos (part-indigenous, part Spanish). Although mestizos formed the majority of the Mexican population, they suffered under the leadership of Porfirio Díaz, president of Mexico for more than 30 years and himself a mestizo. A powerful politician, Diaz largely ignored the Mexican Constitution, set up a strong central government, and instituted policies that took land away from the people. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910, but opinions vary on its end date. Officially it lasted until 1920, but some reforms were not implemented until the mid-1930s, the time period in which The Power and the Glory is set.

From 1910 to 1920 Mexico experienced incessant fighting and a series of leaders, many of whom were assassinated. When Diaz was forced to resign in 1911, Francisco Madero became president, remaining in office only a few years before he was arrested and assassinated. Victoriano Huerta, who succeeded him, proved as much of a despot as Diaz, and a revolutionary group—including General Alvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa, and Venustiano Carranza—rose against him. After a power struggle, Carranza became president and oversaw the writing of a constitution granting the president considerable power, limiting the power of the Catholic Church, and returning land to the people—issues that arise in The Power and the Glory. After Carranza was killed, Obregon took power only to lose it. In 1934 Lázaro Cárdenas became president, and the reforms of the 1917 Constitution were finally implemented. This seems to be what the lieutenant refers to in the novel, as he keeps thinking back to "five years ago."

The 1930s

Published in 1940, The Power and the Glory is set in 1938 during the period of the Great Depression, when many countries still suffered under the economic hardships that began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929. As a result, the appeal of socialism gained popularity. As people lost jobs and savings and struggled to support their families, capitalist countries, such as the United States and Britain, faced bank failures, worker strikes, and various manifestations of government instability. In the United States, for example, President Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to disperse a group of veterans peacefully protesting because the government had not paid them what they were owed after World War I (1914–18).

In the 1930s the Communist government appeared to be creating a utopia in Russia, largely based on communist/socialist principles. Of course, 1930s Communist Russia was far from what the government-controlled media claimed; but unaware of the reality, many people in Western countries became convinced that socialism provided the answer to the world's problems.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, some of the intellectual enthusiasts of socialism began to rethink their beliefs. Details emerged from Soviet Russia that suggested it did not match the socialist utopia some imagined. In Spain, the Civil War demonstrated that socialists and communists could turn on each other in difficult times. In Mexico, where Graham Greene visited, the socialist government frequently experienced a state of turmoil, which could turn vicious toward its own people. Although writing specifically about Mexico in The Power and the Glory, Greene raises universal questions about beliefs and power and their influence on human behavior.

Early in the book, Greene's priest expresses frustration with defeatist ideologies: "everyone says ... you do no good ... hear them saying it all over the world." Published in 1940, The Power and the Glory came at a time when England was fighting a lonely battle against the Nazis. The United States was heavily isolationist, reluctant to become involved in a "European war."

Socialism and Religion

One of the central conflicts in the book is between socialism (the government, represented by the lieutenant) and religion (represented by the priest). Socialism is a political and economic system in which the government—with consent of the governed—owns and controls most aspects of the production, distribution, and exchange of goods. A socialist system generally results in more even distribution of wealth than a capitalist system, which tends to create large gaps between owners and workers. In the 1930s Soviet Russia was the largest socialist country in the world, although its socialist principles extended to Marxism, based on the ideas of Prussian philosopher Karl Marx, which had no use for religion and, in fact, outlawed it. The Mexican Revolution (1910–20) incorporated socialist ideologies, including a reduction in the power of the Catholic Church.

Nikolai Lenin, one of the leaders of the revolution in Russia, described religion as oppression. Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto (1848), saw it as the "opium of the people" because many church leaders taught their followers to be obedient and unquestioning toward their masters and to give their money to the church. The church, therefore, operated like a drug on the poor and perpetuated the expectations of the rich. Church leaders, who often were well educated and lived comfortably, had more in common with rich landowners than with the poor who attended their parishes. Priests implored poor believers to be patient with their suffering on Earth because they would be rewarded in Heaven. Greene uses some of this rhetoric in The Power and the Glory as the priest gives his homily during Mass.

Because the Catholic Church tended to support owners rather than workers, socialists saw the church and its representatives as the enemy, going so far as to advocate for the elimination of religion, particularly religions in which churches held immense wealth. When socialist revolutionaries took over in Mexico, they tried to eliminate the Catholic Church from the country, with varying degrees of success.

Catholicism

In The Power and the Glory, the Mexican government has outlawed the practice of Catholicism and, consequently, priests from doing their work. Priests are expected to live differently from ordinary people, the vow of celibacy being among the major differences. Catholic priests are not permitted to marry or have any kind of sexual relationships, because their love and devotion belong to God. Priests also are expected to behave in a respectable and dignified manner. The whisky priest in The Power and the Glory meets none of these expectations. Furthermore, some priests may take a vow of poverty, meaning they choose to live simply and spend their money helping those in need. The whisky priest and the others he knows have not taken such a vow—or if they have, they do not follow it. On the contrary, they live comfortably and are well provided for.

Until the mid-20th century, the Mass was said in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. Not until the 1960s could priests say Mass in the native language of their congregation. The Mass is one of the central events of Catholic life, and Catholics are expected to attend Mass every week. The priest reads from the Bible and gives a lecture about the reading, followed by the Eucharist, also called Communion. The Eucharist is a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper, at which Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples as a way to bond with them before his capture and crucifixion. Because Catholics believe the priest transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, called transubstantiation, strict rules govern the handling of the bread and wine, and this is brought up in The Power and the Glory.

Catholics also believe in the concept of sin. When people sin, they do something wrong in the eyes of God and thus cause disappointment or anger. Serious sins are known as mortal sins, whereas more trivial ones are venial sins. A person should not take communion while in a state of sin. To remove sin one must go to confession, at which the sinner tells the priest what wrongdoing was committed. The priest then gives an assignment for penance—usually prayers to make up for the wrongdoing. The whisky priest struggles greatly with hearing people's confessions when he is in a state of sin himself, mortal sin, in fact, that can lead to eternal damnation.

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