1675) What Shall I Give? (part four of four)

            (…continued)  The other story comes from the Japanese prisoner of war camp made famous in the 1957 movie The Bridge over the River Kwai; which won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of the Year (and six other Oscars).  It is a great movie, but was based on a novel that varied much from the real story.  The story that follows is true, but is not told in that movie (see EmailMeditation #1542).

     The prisoners in this camp were American and British soldiers.  They were forced to work like slaves building a railroad through Southeast Asia.  Labor was extremely difficult, weather was unbearably hot, disease was common, and workers would often faint from exhaustion, and oftentimes then beaten to death by guards.  80,000 allied soldiers died building that railroad, their bodies left lying in the jungle where they fell.  Men lived like animals, and life was reduced to the survival of the fittest. There was no generosity, no sharing, and very little companionship.  The strong stole food from the weak because one could hardly live on the daily ration, let alone work all day.  Self-interest and hatred were the main keys to staying alive.  It seemed obvious that no one could not afford the energy to care for anyone else.

      One time, at the end of the work-day, the guard, as always, counted the shovels.  He shouted out that one was missing, and angrily demanded to know who was responsible. When no one confessed, he screamed, “All die, all die,” and aimed his rifle at the first man in line.  At that moment, an enlisted man stepped forward and said, “I did it.”  The guard went at him with a savage fury, hitting him again and again with the butt of his rifle.  Even when the soldier was down and obviously dead, the guard kept on hitting the man until he was a bloody pulp.  When the beating finally stopped, the other prisoners picked up the corpse and they all marched back to camp.

     Back at camp, the shovels were counted again.  It was then discovered that a mistake had been made, and no shovel was missing.  The man who was beaten to death was innocent, but had confessed in order to save the lives of the others.  They all stood around, still in shock, but now in awed respect for their fallen comrade.  One of the soldiers recalled a Bible verse, reciting John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

     That very day, inspired by this man’s sacrifice, attitudes in the whole camp began to change.  The strong started caring for the weak, not abandoning them and stealing from them.  Prisoners started looking out for each other, rather than only for themselves.  Selfishness, hatred, and pride, started giving way to self-sacrifice, mercy, sympathy, faith, and heroism.  Surprisingly, the overall well-being of the camp began to improve.  Still, there was much disease and death, but the men found strength in caring for each other, rather than destroying each other.

     What had disappeared after the greedy act of a few at the Shangtung Compound, began to appear at this POW camp, after this heroic self-sacrifice of one man.  Prisoners organized themselves to care for each other, share tasks, settle disputes peacefully, and even organize entertainment and education for each other in the evenings.  Life was still harsh and there were still men who behaved badly, but the whole spirit of camp life was changed.

     Just like there are no easy and direct applications of the stories in the Bible stories of those two poor, but generous widows, there are no easy or direct applications to these prisoner of war stories.  In the previous meditations, two women generously give all what they had to live on.  In the second prison camp story, an innocent man gives his life for his friends.  No specific instructions come with any of the stories, but an attitude is shown and a way is pointed– a way that looks very much like the way of Christ, who himself went to the cross, giving his all for others.


John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

Psalm 37:27  —  Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.

Romans 5:17-19  —  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.


Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not seek for rest,
to labor and not look for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

–Prayer of St. Ignatius


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