I love finding this gospel message outside the walls of the church, off the pages of the Bible, and presented by people who aren’t professional religious specialists. The recent movie The Railway Man is one example. (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT.)
Colin Firth plays a veteran of World War II, who was tortured by the Japanese and forced to build a railway through impossible conditions. He can barely cope with his memories more than four decades after the end of the war. Nicole Kidman is his wife, steadfast in her love for him and longing to see him move past the pain. Firth finds out that one of his torturers, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is still alive and makes a living offering tours of what was once his prison camp.
This movie is soaked in themes of grace, judgment, redemption, forgiveness, and above all else, reconciliation. There are three moments in particular that vividly brought the gospel message alive for me. I’m not technically capable of putting them online, so my own description will have to suffice.
At one point, Firth ends up on a beach on the English seashore, alone in his pain and hurt, no doubt hoping the world will just stay away. But Kidman comes running after him, begging him, imploring him to share his pain with her, to receive her love, to be open to the idea that the world can do something besides harm us. One of my favourite themes in the Bible is of a God who pursues us in love, coming after us even when we are far away. Jesus tells us about that when the father of the prodigal son abandons all dignity appropriate to his position in life and goes running out to his son while the son “was still far off.” (Luke 15.20). It is a message that is echoed in Ephesians, which teaches how Jesus came to us “who once were far off” but have now “been brought near.” (2.13) And it is picked up in one of the post-communion prayers in Common Worship: “we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off…” Kidman embodies the pursuing love of God. And it is that love that begins to show Firth new possibilities.
It is Firth’s old war-time friend, Stellan Skarsgård, who finds out that Sanada is still alive. He shares this news with Kidman and then gives her a knife. Sanada, Skarsgård says, can at last “be brought to justice.” The knife, of course, makes clear that this is not the justice of a courtroom. Firth is to take matters into his own hands and at last give to Sanada what is his due.
Firth carries the knife with him to Malaysia and at times it seems as if he is going to use it in the way that Skarsgaard intends. Instead, however, in a deeply symbolic move, he uses it to cut Sanada free from the cage in which Firth was once imprisoned and in which Firth has temporarily imprisoned Sanada. This is grace, not justice. Sanada, by the standards of the world, does not deserve to be set free. But he is because Firth comes to understand that justice will serve no one. Christians do not “deserve” the love of God, but God sends that love in the form of Jesus regardless. God uses a weapon—the cross—to set us free. God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.
The final scene of the movie is a moment of reconciliation. That r-word is thrown around a lot in the church. Good—it is the concept that is central to the gospel. But sometimes it’s hard to know precisely what is meant by it. This final scene give us some idea. Under the loving gaze of Kidman, Sanada and Firth meet, weep, and embrace at the site of the particularly gruelling pass the Japanese had forced the prisoners to build.
What does this teach about reconciliation? First, reconciliation happens within the love of God. It is God’s love that is constantly impelling us towards one another in that same spirit of love. Second, reconciliation is about meeting together. Sanada and Firth actually had to come to the same place. Third, reconciliation is about honestly acknowledging pain, both in oneself and in the other. Earlier, one moment of breakthrough for Firth had been when he realizes that Sanada is broken and hurt by the war as well. Fourth, reconciliation honestly reckons with the past. Sanada and Firth meet at the very site—the train pass—that had caused them each, in different ways, such pain and trauma. Reconciliation doesn’t happen by disregarding the past but by coming to see it in a new way—transformed by the love of God.
If you ask me why I’m a Christian, the answer is provided by this movie: the pursuing grace of God that is constantly moving us towards reconciliation. This is truly good news.