Thailand, where the Kingdom can be found

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 17, 2010

Growing up, I remember watching the patriotic movie, Bridge Over the River Kwai, based on the true story of POWs during World War II.

I can still hear the soldiers whistling as their Japanese captors marched their forced laborers to build the huge wooden bridge. In his new book, Rumors of Another World, author Philip Yancey tells about the Japanese torture of POWs building the Burma-Siam railway.

The railway was constructed through the dense jungle swampland of Thailand for possible invasion of India. British POWs were among the thousands forced to work in 120-degree heat.

If a prisoner appeared to be lagging, a Japanese guard would kill him in front of the other prisoners. Most soldiers died from exhaustion, malnutrition and disease. Approximately 80,000 men perished building the railway, 393 lives for every mile of track.

One day, after the Japanese guards counted the tools at the end of a day’s work, a guard shouted that a shovel was missing and demanded to know who had stolen it. When no one came forward, the guard raised his rifle at the front of the line and yelled, “All die!”

Instantly, an enlisted man said, “I did it.” The guard beat him to death and then kept kicking his body. His fellow POWs carried his lifeless body back to the camp. Later, the work crews inventoried the tools again and found a mistake had been made. No shovel was missing.

Afterwards, something remarkable happened among the prisoners. One of them recalled the verse, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Their attitudes changed from looking out for themselves to looking out for each other.

The POWs now organized proper funerals and burials, marking the graves of the fallen with a cross. A British Army officer named Ernest Gordon nearly died of diphtheria, but fellow soldiers nursed him back to health.

Gordon, whom they knew had studied philosophy, was asked to lead a discussion group about the urgent question of their minds – how to prepare for death. The officer turned to the faith of his childhood. Though he’d thought little about God for years, Gordon became the unofficial camp chaplain and the POWs built a tiny church.

Later, he described those days, “Faith thrives when there is no hope but God.”  The discussion group led to a “jungle university” with the expertise of other prisoners. Courses were offered in history, economics, mathematics and nine languages, including Latin, Greek and Russian. Music and arts followed with bamboo woodwinds and charcoal from cooking fires. The camp eventually held concerts.

After surviving captivity, Ernest Gordon became a Presbyterian minister and, in time, the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University. As Yancey puts it, “Two worlds lived side by side in the jungles of Thailand in the early 1940’s.” The POWs endeavored “to build a community of faith, beauty and compassion; nourishing souls even in a place that destroyed bodies.”

Philip Yancey wonders if this is what Jesus had in mind about the kingdom of God. Even in our violent, disordered world, we can align ourselves with another world, while we’re waiting and hoping for our liberation.