Miracle on the River Kwai

Opening line: ‘I was dreaming, and I was happy with my dreams.’

Thus opens the first chapter of Miracle on the River Kwai, ominously titled ‘The Death House’. Ernest Gordon, an officer in the 2nd Battalion, 93rd Highlanders — or the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders — was deployed with his regiment to fight the Japanese during World War II. Miracle on the River Kwai is his first-hand account of his capture by the Japanese and his experiences as a prisoner of war over the next three years until the end of the war. One of the prisoners forced to build the Death Railway and the bridge over the River Kwai, Gordon recounts the appalling, horrifying conditions and treatment suffered by the P.O.W.s, including his own very near encounters with death. Through retelling his experiences, Gordon demonstrates the very depths human beings can reach — and the very height. For while toiling in the jungle, surrounded by death, Gordon and his fellow prisoners found Hope. Unbidden, unsought, the faith of two men who cared for Gordon led to his own spiritual awakening and of others’. The revolution of hope was Christ revealed in those prison camps.

I had known a bit of Ernest Gordon’s story, having once seen the film To End All Wars several years ago. That did not make the story in Miracle on the River Kwai any less powerful. What I appreciated most was Gordon’s sincerity: free from ‘churchy’ lingo, skeptical of religion as a crutch in hard times, he wrote with honesty about how in the blackness of a P.O.W. labour camp in the jungle of South East Asia, he encountered Christ and came to be a disciple. It wasn’t easy. How does one love one’s enemies, especially when they are so near at hand, at whose hands one experiences only brutality and hate? And yet nothing is impossible with God. Near the end of the war — even if the prisoners didn’t know it yet — Gordon tells of a group of emaciated prisoners tending, of their own volition, the wounds of dying Japanese.

‘We were beginning to understand that as there were no easy ways for God, so there were no easy ways for us. God, we saw, was honouring us by allowing us to share in His labours, aye, in His agony — for the world he loves. God, in finding us, had enabled us to find our brother.’ (218)

What a message for the Church today — for Christians in this safe, Western world! There are no easy ways for God; there are no easy ways for us. Faith isn’t supposed to be easy. Faith takes us, human and flawed and broken as we are, and transforms us, over time, through trials and challenges, into the perfect image of Christ. To share in God’s work is to share in Christ’s agony. I pray that my own faith would be as brave as that.

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