We all paused longer last week, didn’t we?
Whether at home or at school, at work or in the street, the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour allows a special pause – to reflect, to remember, to recall, to give thanks, to muse, to cry.
During this special Remembrance in November 2014, 100 years after the conflict began in Europe, which engulfed millions in its appalling enmity and pain, I was also reflecting on what I saw four months ago – row upon row of graves of American soldiers, sailors and airmen and women in Tennessee Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Knoxville.
I stood beside the graves of those who had died in Afghanistan in 2012, the Gulf War of 1991, Vietnam in 1969, Korea 1953, Germany 1944, France 1917.
As we remember every man and woman who has died in conflicts across the world and today in Iraq and Syria, let us continue to strive for what those brave ordinary, yet extraordinary citizens died for – peace in the world, peace in the hearts and minds of men and women.
Out of the tragedy and misery of war there come individuals with stories to tell of a life changed, a life saved, a life begun – such was the situation of Louis Zamperini, who survived the Second World War against all possible odds.
In 1943, a US bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. After an agonising delay, a young Lieutenant bobbed to the surface and struggled aboard a life raft. With two others, his crew, on a failing raft, he survived thousands of miles, became a PoW under Japanese torture and survived the war...just.
The reconciliation which we all long for after conflict was eventually received by Zamperini by the most extraordinary route.
Before the war, he had been an Olympic athlete but a rebel too. After the war, he struggled with depression and alcoholism until a change came over him.
His life was turned around by his conversion to Christianity through Billy Graham. In 1998, 53 years after the end of the war, he was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch in Japan for the Winter Olympics and, before he flew to Japan from US, he wrote a letter on his computer: “Dear Matsuhiro Watanabe – As a result of my POW experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post war life became a nightmare.
“It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance. Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a PoW but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end. The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said: “Forgive your enemies and pray for them.”As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1942 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo prison...I asked then about you, and was told you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear.
At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope you would also become a Christian.”
Louis Zamperini offered an olive branch to the man who had attempted to break his spirit but who had failed.
Zamperini’s success as a human being lies in his heart, which he offered to Jesus Christ: Christ alone could, did and can still change a life. How about yours, in peace or war?