Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells of a courageous American airman during the Second World War

The healing power of forgiveness

  • May 1, 2012

The other day, I finished a terrific page-turner and then picked up the newspaper to read about the latest attacks on the Christian faith, this time in Saskatchewan. They were two seemingly unrelated things that really got me thinking, searching deep down.

The book is best-seller Unbroken written by Laura Hillenbrand about a courageous American airman during the Second World War. If you’ve not read it, pick it up because it’s difficult to put down. But let’s talk about Saskatchewan first.

Two things occurred in recent days: In Saskatoon, a city councillor recited grace at a volunteer appreciation dinner and Ashu Solo, a non-Christian volunteer, felt “excluded.” He has vowed to complain to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission over his treatment as a “second-class citizen.” And at a high school in Middle Lake, Sask., it was decided to drop saying grace at its annual graduation banquet after a student complained.

It seems to me that it is open season on the Christian faith in our ever-enhanced politically correct world. (In March, I wrote about two women in England who were fired for simply wearing the cross at work. The British government says their firings were justified because wearing a cross is not a religious necessity for being a Christian.)

It irks me to no end that here in Canada (and in other Western countries) we allow the Christian faith to be treated this way. We stand up for diversity and we protect other religions, including atheism, but we run for cover if someone complains about grace or a Christmas tree in a public building or a Christmas concert at a school. Mr. Solo may feel like a second-class citizen for enduring a few words of thanks before his meal, but heaven help Christians in other parts of the world who are being thrown in jail, beaten and even killed for practising their faith.

Turning to Unbroken, it is the biography of Louie Zamperini who was a troublesome Depression-era young man who took up running and became a prodigy. He was on track to be the first person to break the four-minute mile long before the world ever heard of Roger Bannister.

Then war broke out and Zamperini became an Air Force bombardier who was assigned to the Pacific theatre against the Japanese. Emerging unscathed after several dangerous sorties, Zamperini’s bomber crashed in the ocean while on a rescue mission. Most of the crew died instantly, but Zamperini and two others managed to survive the crash and floated in a raft for 47 days. (One man ultimately died at sea.) After surviving hunger, thirst and incessant shark attacks, Zamperini and his pilot friend were caught by the Japanese Navy.

Then the hardship really began. They were thrown in prison and put into forced labour, starved, beaten and tortured by sadistic guards. The Japanese treated prisoners of war far worse than the Germans with an Allied POW death rate 10 times higher in Japan than Nazi Germany.

Zamperini was singled out for even harsher treatment because of his pre-war running fame and his defiance towards the guards. He refused to be broken and paid the price with daily beatings. He was also forced to do the most degrading and disgusting work imaginable in the camps.

Somehow he survived more than two years of captivity. When he returned home to a hero’s welcome after the war, however, things quickly spun out of control. Ironically, he was a broken man but only revealed this side of his character after returning to the comforts of home.

Nightmares haunted him. He was verbally and physically abusive to others. And he became a drunk. His only “good dreams” were of revenge and a return to Japan to kill his worst tormentor.

Unlike his B-24 that couldn’t pull out of its tailspin, Zamperini pulled his life out of its death spiral. It was the teachings of the Gospel, in general, and the granting of forgiveness, specifically, that rescued Zamperini.

He returned to Japan, not to kill, but to forgive every one of his guards. After he did that, the nightmares stopped and so did the drinking. Today, he is still alive at age 95, inspiring and helping others who struggle with lesser problems than what he endured.

To me, the fact that he could forgive the guards is the most astounding thing about his story. Ultimately, the power of forgiveness is what saved him.

In no way am I comparing Zamperini’s story with banning grace or firing workers for wearing a cross. But his example of forgiveness is something I will try to keep in mind going forward, especially the next time I get hot under the collar when the Pharisees of political correctness kick around the Christian faith.

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