Cruciform Stories

17 02 2009

As a follower of Jesus, I love the cross. Not the pieces of wood Jesus died on. Not the cross as a symbol of religio-military violence, or jewelry on the neck of someone who may know nothing of Jesus. What I mean is, I love the indescribable love of Jesus, love that accepts death so others can stay alive, love that makes me want to love as nothing else can.

Yet sometimes when I picture the crucifixion scene in my mind it doesn’t impact me as much as I’d like. It can seem foreign and ancient, and (to my dismay) my heart can remain unmoved. But my callous heart tends to melt when I see the spirit of the cross, the laying down of one’s life for friends, replicated in a contemporary context. Jesus’ propitiatory self-sacrifice comes to life in new ways. I’ve begun collecting such true accounts and calling them “cruciform stories.”

One cruciform story comes from the Japanese prison camps of World War II in the early 1940s. Sixty-thousand Allied prisoners of war and 270,000 Asian workers were forced to build the “Railway of Death” for their captors. It was 415 kilometers long and cut through impossible terrain. About 393 workers died for every mile of track. As time passed the prisoners descended into anarchy, survival of the fittest. The weak and sick were trampled on, stolen from, taken advantage of. But then something happened. In the darkness and death, life began to shine. True stories of sacrificial love between prisoners began circulating in the camps. Here is one of those accounts, related by Ernest Gordon in his book To End All Wars:

The day’s work had ended; the tools were being counted, as usual. As the party was about to be dismissed, the Japanese guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He insisted that someone had stolen it to sell to the Thais. Striding up and down before the men, he ranted and denounced them for their wickedness, and most unforgivable of all their ingratitude to the Emperor. As he raved, he worked himself up into a paranoid fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. No one moved; the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence.

“All die! All die!” he shrieked.

To show that he meant what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it to his shoulder and looked down the sights, ready to fire at the first man at the end of them. At that moment the Argyll [a Scottish soldier] stepped forward, stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, “I did it.”

The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hate; he kicked the helpless prisoner and beat him with his fists. Still the Argyll stood rigidly to attention, with the blood streaming down his face. His silence goaded the guard to an excess of rage. Seizing his rifle by the barrel, he lifted it high over his head and, with a final howl, brought it down on the skull of the Argyll, who sank limply to the ground and did not move. Although it was perfectly clear that he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when exhausted.

The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, shouldered their tools and marched back to camp. When the tools were counted again at the guard-house no shovel was missing.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jesus, from John 15:13).




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