In southern Mexico the church has been outlawed and one lieutenant has made it his life’s mission to rid the area of priests. Normally stories have a protagonist and an antagonist. Very cleverly Greene plays with this dynamic in The Power and the Glory. This lieutenant bent on eliminating the priest seems to be a very moral man. He is generous even to prisoners and cares for the next generation. He seeks a better life for them than the one he had growing up at the mercy of a corrupt church. Almost like Christ weeping over Jerusalem he mourns over the peasants, “Why won’t you trust me? I don’t want any of you to die. In my eyes you are worth far more than he [the priest] is. I want to give you . . . everything.” True, he does take hostages and lives are lost under his watch but he is always faithful to his moral code and his vision of freedom. As we are told at the end of the story, his is a love spoken at the end of a gun.
The priest on the other hand, who is clearly the main character, is a very unlikely protagonist. He is a hypocrite, preaching the goodness of suffering when he can hardly bear a little pain. He is despairingly addicted to alcohol, the father of an illegitimate child and he would even fight a broken dog for a scrap of meat. Although he never pulls the trigger to kill anyone others die to keep him alive. And yet, it is the whisky priest who stands for something larger than himself. Only the priest can, “put God in a man’s mouth,” and he fears that if he leaves the people it will be as if God has left them. He is torn within himself between his duty as a priest and his own character. He feels an obligation to serve as a priest and yet he fears that if he is put to death as a priest the church will be mocked because of his reputation.
As the story progresses every physical distinction of the priesthood is stripped away. He loses his books, clothes and even the communion wine and he is left only with the consciousness that God is still present. God’s image is in every man. In prison he thinks, “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always feel pity – that was the quality that God’s image carried with it.” But it is very hard to see God’s image in some people – people like the falsely pious woman in prison or the traitorous half-caste. Although the priest knew that he ought to have a generous and all embracing love like Christ’s he could not muster it. And yet, although his heart is full of doubt he finishes his life by acting out of such love. He follows his duty, his commitment to the priesthood, back to his death so that he can hear the last confession of a dying murderer. It is a confession that never comes. His martyrdom would seem useless except for his profound conversations with the lieutenant about love and justice and most especially for the profound effect of his death on “the boy”.
“The boy” had been listening to the story of a Christian martyr just as we, the readers, have been listening to a story about a Christian martyr. As in Hamlet, there is a play within a play. The contrast is striking. One seems so very proper but so very contrived and the other seems messy and unpleasant but as real as a documentary. What kind of a story should a Christian tell? Artists and writers have long argued about whether true art should present the world idealistically or realistically. Perhaps this story reveals what Kierkegaard pointed out in The Sickness Unto Death, that we are an imperfect synthesis of transcendence and immanence all the while longing to be fully in the image of God and to embrace both. We long for ideals but we also need reality. Perhaps this side of heaven the kind of story that Graham Greene tells is the most human – when presenting human dignity and human wretchedness together the friction sparks the fire of God’s grace.