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There is a book (and now a movie) called To End All Wars that tells of the extraordinary life of Ernest Gordon, a British Army officer captured at sea by the Japanese at the age of 24. Gordon was sent to work on the Burma-Siam railway line that the Japanese were constructing through the dense Thai jungle for possible use in an invasion of India. For labour, they conscripted prisoners of war they had captured from occupied countries in Asia and from the British Army itself. Against international law, the Japanese forced even the officers to work at manual labour, and each day Gordon would join a work detail of thousands of prisoners who hacked their way through the jungle and built up a track bed through low-lying swampland.

The conditions were horrifying. Naked except for loin cloths, the men worked under a broiling sun in 120-degree heat, their bodies stung by insects, their bare feet cut and bruised by sharp stones. Death was commonplace. If a prisoner appeared to be lagging, a Japanese guard would beat him to death, bayonet him, or decapitate him in full view of the other prisoners. Many more men simply dropped dead from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. Under these severe conditions, 80,000 men died building the railway--393 fatalities for every mile of track.

Ernest Gordon was gradually wasting away from a combination of beriberi, worms, malaria, dysentery, and typhoid. Paralyzed and unable to eat, Gordon was laid in the Death House, where prisoners on the verge of death were laid out in rows until they stopped breathing. The stench was unbearable. He had no energy to fight off the bedbugs, lice, and swarming flies. He propped himself up long enough to write a final letter to his parents and then lay back to await the inevitable.

For most of the war, the prison camp had been a survival of the fittest, every man for himself. In the food line, prisoners fought over the few scraps of vegetables or grains of rice floating in the greasy broth. Officers refused to share any of their special rations. Theft was common in the barracks. Men lived like animals. The conditions brought out the worst in them. And you can see how self centeredness is virtually synonymous with disunity. When we live for ourselves, we do so to the exclusion of living for others.

Something happened to Ernest Gordon in the prison camp. It became known as "Miracle on the River Kwai." One event in particular shook the prisoners. Phillip Yancey recounts what happened in his book Rumours.

Japanese guards carefully counted tools at the end of a day's work, and one day the guard shouted that a shovel was missing. He walked up and down the ranks demanding to know who had stolen it. When no one confessed, he screamed "All die! All die!" and raised his rifle to fire at the first man in line. At that instant an enlisted man stepped forward, stood at attention, and said, "I did it." The guard fell on him in a fury, kicking and beating the prisoner, who despite the blows still managed to stand at attention. Enraged, the guard lifted his weapon high in the air and brought the rifle butt down on the soldier's skull. The man sank in a heap to the ground, but the guard continued kicking his motionless body. When the assault finally stopped, the other prisoners picked up their comrade's corpse and marched back to the camp. That evening, when tools were inventoried again, the work crew discovered a mistake had been made: no shovel was missing.

One of the prisoners remembered the verse "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Attitudes in the camp began to shift. Inspired by his sacrifice, prisoners started treating the dying with respect, organizing proper funerals and burials, marking each man's grave with a Cross. Prisoners began looking out for each other rather than themselves. Thefts grew increasingly rare. Men began selling their watches to the Japanese soldiers to buy medicines for the sick. The prisoners even built a tiny church and each evening they gathered to worship and pray for one another. Gordon himself received extensive care from the other prisoners and was eventually nursed back to health. The unity inspired by sacrifice impacted him more than just physically. It had a profound impact on his spiritual life.

(From a sermon by Bret Toman, Unity For the Glory of God, 1/3/2011)

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