Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Chance to Die*

This could be a tricky post because easily misunderstood in too many ways, but then I do a lot of tricky posts.

I just saw a movie on Netflix, Brothers with Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, made in 2009. Good cast, good acting, touching story, believable. It's an American remake of a Danish film done a few years earlier. I have that one up next to watch in my Netflix queue. It occurred to me I should wait until I've seen it to write anything, but after reading the reviews I don't think I need to. I gather the main incident in the American version doesn't occur in the Danish version and that incident is what I want to comment on. It's the "explanation" offered by the American version for the mental breakdown of a soldier returned from war, and apparently no explanation was needed in the Danish version to make the story of his breakdown believable. I'm sure that's so. There are plenty of things war can do to people to tear them apart psychologically, making any particular explanation unnecessary. (Tue Mar 1: I did see the Danish version last night and it's exactly the same story, and the same incident IS at the center of it).

This incident got hold of me and I can't stop thinking about it completely apart from the fabric of the film.

Maguire plays an American marine in Afghanistan whose helicopter is shot down and he's reported to his family as dead. But he survives and is taken POW. After enduring months of imprisonment in a cave with another soldier he is made to kill that soldier, a friend. He's told it's either him or the friend, either getting to see his family again or dying. At first he throws down the pipe they've given him to use against his friend, but then they threaten him again with a gun to his head and he ends up using the pipe to beat his friend to death. Eventually he's freed and goes home only to find he can't adjust, has paranoid thoughts about his wife and his brother being together during the months they thought he was dead, is tense, depressed and angry, unable to get back into the old life. This is not an uncommon story for returning soldiers, but in this case the explanation is his guilt for having given in and killed his friend.

Here's why I wanted to write about this: The family are portrayed as Christians, at least they are shown together in church for the funeral of this marine, singing a hymn that is apparently familiar to them.

I can't help thinking what a Christian witness it would have been if the marine had stuck it out to the end as a disciple of Christ, on the Christian principle, Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. This is what Jesus did for His friends, and since the servant is not greater than the master it may be asked of His followers as well. At the very least, of course, Thou shalt not murder is a clear enough directive for a Christian, and to obey it under that kind of duress would also show great faith, but to lay down your life because Jesus did, with that much faith in Him, would be powerful witness to his torturers. THIS is the witness that brought people to Christ when the Christians were under severe persecution in the Roman Empire, the faith that is shown through the willingness to die. Which is all the more powerful a witness if the love of Christ for the torturers shines through.

I have in mind Tertullian's famous line, The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church and the article at this website, Reformation Theology, says it very well:

We have no trouble thinking of persecution and martyrdom as a great obstacle to the spread of the gospel which will not, however, be successful in hindering Church growth. We would have no problem affirming that the blood of the martyrs is a hurdle which, by God’s grace, can be overcome. But to say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is an altogether different concept. If martyrdom is a surmountable obstacle to the growth of the Church, then the Church might advance just as well, even better, without it. But if the blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the Church, then without it, the Church does not grow. Without martyrdom, the Church would never have taken root in the world of Tertullian. Without martyrdom, the Church would not have spread to the Auca Indians in South America, or to China or Burma or the islands of the South Seas. The blood of the martyrs is a necessary means for the worldwide application of Christ’s great redemptive accomplishment. This is the full force of Tertullian’s insight ...

Without the martyrdom of Stephen, forgiving those who were stoning him to death, while the young Saul of Tarsus looked on, the church of Christ might never have been born, would never have spread as it did in those early days.

And that is the perfection of Christian testimony down the centuries. Josef Tson comes to mind, the Romanian pastor during the reign of Ceaucescu who was able to love his interrogator who beat him, who was able to overcome his distress when the police confiscated his valuable library, to the extent of remembering to be a good host and offer them coffee. Tson also wrote a book about the importance of martyrdom which I have yet to read. It is good to read stories like Tson's (or hear him speak -- a number of his talks are at You Tube or maybe Google video), like Foxe's Book of Martyrs, the story of John Bunyan in prison having to commit his wife and children to the care of God rather than give in to the demands of the authorities which would have set him free, or many of the little books you can find about various missionaries and other Christians around the world. The Russian woman's prayer for God to forgive the young KGB thug who was about to club her over the head was the beginning of his salvation (read about it in the little book The Persecutor).

And remember, the word martyr is a Greek word that means "witness." What we think of as witnessing is a pretty pale reflection of the original meaning in Christian history.

I love those stories, they ring true in a way that makes so much of today's comfortable Christianity ring dull and flat if not outright false. But who am I to talk of this? I grumble over inconveniences in my own life, grumble over my aches and pains, grumble over insensitive neighbors, grumble at insults I get on the internet. I'm not laying down my life for anyone. All I can say for myself is that I catch myself at it and make resolutions to do better, to love my enemies and so on. I can also say for myself that I have this knowledge at least -- I know that this Christian life I fall so short of really IS as demanding as to ask that we lay down our lives, AND I know from experience that when I have done that, on those rare occasions, too many of them long ago by now, THEN I HAVE SEEN GOD MOVE as a result in ways that would not have happened otherwise. I mean the "little" layings-down of life as in take up your cross and follow Me, as in hate even your own life for His sake, I mean as in counting others as more worthy than yourself, as in Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. Doing these things in the power of the Holy Spirit does bear fruit. But you have to FEEL it kill you or it's just a sham, it has to be HARD to do, it has to HURT, it has to COST. When you bear the cost willingly THEN it bears fruit. Fruit in deepening of your own spiritual life at least, but also fruit in effect on others.

So I'm preaching to myself first of all, I REALLY need to be reminded of this.

The willingness to die for your friend doesn't necessarily mean you WILL die, it's the willingness that makes the difference spiritually. The marine might yet have come home, God might have intervened in a miraculous way for both him and his friend, or both might have died. To die for the sake of Christ rather than hurt your friend would nevertheless have to be a powerful witness to the Afghans torturing them and standing around watching. There could have been a young Paul in the gathering, just as there was when Stephen was stoned to death calling for the forgiveness of his persecutors. Think of THAT fruit. However understandable the marine's reaction in the movie, think of what was lost by it if he was a Christian acting in the flesh instead of trusting in Christ.

Of course the movie wasn't a Christian movie, it was all about a mental breakdown that wouldn't have happened under the scenario I'm imagining. Mustn't forget, however, also to point out that the guilt-ridden marine himself needs Christ. At the end of the movie he is wondering if he can ever live again, and the only REAL answer is Yes, through Christ, Christ the forgiver of sin, Christ the redeemer of humanity. His guilt is exactly the burden Christ promises to relieve -- Matt 11:28: Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Last thought: Most movies are of course stories about fallen humanity. I often have the thought while watching a movie how differently things would have turned out if a certain character had been a believer.

* My post title, A Chance to Die, is the title of a book by Amy Carmichael, who began her dying for Christ as a young Irish woman by moving across the world to India where she spent her life rescuing girls from temple prostitution and bringing them up in a Christian environment.