“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's live for one's friends”
John 15:13 NIV.
The cost to construct the Burma-Siam railway was astronomical-393 fatalities for each mile of track laid. POW's: enlisted men and officers labored under inhumane conditions. Oppressive heat, tropical diseases, stinging insects, inadequate food, clothing and shelter exposed workers to the harsh elements of the Thai jungle. Many succumbed to the brutal environment. Others, suspected of lagging, were bayoneted or decapitated by sadistic guards.
Like frightened, cornered animals the men adopted an extreme survival mentality. Prisoner on prisoner crime skyrocketed. Men were motivated to live fueled by fear and hate. A shovel changed everything.
A routine inventory of supplies indicated that a shovel was missing. The prisoners were assembled and a guard demanded that the thief confess. Silence. Furious with their perceived insolence, the guard announced, “All die! All die!” Suddenly a man stepped forward, “I did it.”
Determined to set a precedent and send a warning, the guard beat the man to death in from of the other prisoners. Later that day another inventory revealed a simple mathematical error – there was no missing shovel.
One prisoner remembered Jesus' words in John's Gospel. This, coupled with the realization of the man's sacrifice so that the rest would live, sparked a radical change in the camp.
“Death was still with us – no doubt about that, but we were slowing being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-intelligence, laziness and pride were anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity and creative faith, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in the truest sense. These were gifts of God to men...True there was hatred, but there was also love. There was death, but there was also life. God had not left us. He was with us, calling us to live the divine life in fellowship.”
Ernest Gordon, To End All Wars
One man's selfless sacrifice revolutionized the camp's atmosphere. Many sought out answers about how to prepare for death; not funeral arrangements, but matters of eternal significance. Ernest Gordon became the unofficial camp chaplain. A small church was erected and prayer was held nightly. “Faith,” Gordon said, “thrives when there is no hope but God.” God didn't disappoint.
Jungle University sprung up. Prisoners of different backgrounds taught classes. Artist made materials and mounted an exhibition of their work. Musicians crafted instruments and held recitals. Gardeners tended beds of medicinal plants. Prisoner on prisoner crime dropped dramatically. So complete was the transformation in some of the men that upon liberation they extended kindness, and not revenge, toward to their former captors.
The impact of the unnamed man's sacrifice on the camp is a snapshot of the power of Christ's death to transform lives. It changes everything. We can focus on eternal realities in spite of horrific, present-tense circumstances. Neither their status as prisoners nor their captors' attitude toward them changed, but the men were no longer the same. Salvation in Christ offers to all the same opportunity. In the world, but not of it, we rise victorious over the direst of circumstances. Stronger than ever, we're fueled by the greatest power source available-Love.
How has this history behind the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai impacted you? How do you think you would hold up under such horrible conditions? How would your relationship with Christ make a difference? What lessons can you take away from this example of the Gospel in action under the worst of circumstances?