Over the Christmas break, I saw Unbroken with friends. As I’ve mentioned before, the film was a good adaptation of the amazing biography by Lauren Hillenbrand. (I’m not joking—you need to read this book. It’s an incredible story.) The key quote from the film trailer was Louie’s brother Pete, telling a teenaged Louie, “If you can take it, you can make it.” This mantra would be a touchstone in Zamperini’s amazing life.
Afterward, over dinner, I asked the people around the table, “Which would be harder to endure: surviving on a raft with no provisions and threats from sharks and enemy warplanes, or being held prisoner in an enemy camp for months?”
Without hesitation, everyone around the table agreed that surviving on the raft would be harder for them. The constant need to be alert to silent dangers, the lack of supplies, every day losing faith that you’ll be rescued, the burial of your crewmate at sea (and the image of sharks tearing at the body as it sinks). I can understand their position, certainly.
But for me, being imprisoned in the POW camp would be worse. Obviously, I have no idea what kinds of physical and psychological suffering heroic men like Zamperini faced; the momentary frustrations and disappointments of my comfortable suburban life don’t even come close to their experiences. But in my comparatively microscopic experience, I think I would have a harder time facing opposition and hardship from other people than I would from nature or the natural world. Storms and sharks and starvation are harrowing, but they’re not personal. The personal aspect of Zamperini’s confinement would be more frustrating and soul-crushing for me than the relentless sun and hungry sharks. The way that Sergeant Watanabe, “The Bird,” played cruel mindgames with his prisoners, the constant demoralization of prison yard calisthenics and performance, the back-breaking labor with no end in sight—these would be incredibly difficult for me to survive.
I confess that under such circumstances, I fear I would become angry, depressed, embittered. Even as a follower of Jesus who has been given a very blessed life, I sometimes struggle with these emotions.
What the story of Louis Zamperini shows is that enduring this kind of psychological attack comes at a price. Even after the war ends and he comes home, he’s haunted by the ghost of his tormentors. The rage of being tormented and helpless, the sense that justice was violated–these drove Zamperini to substance abuse and fantasizing about murdering the man who had become his personal devil. It was only the redeeming power of Jesus Christ that could transform the stony heart of the emotionally broken war hero into a heart of flesh that had tasted God’s grace and was willing to forgive the wickedness that other broken-souled men committed against him.
All throughout the Psalms, we read the cries of King David and others, calling out to God for relief from oppression. These songs and prayers were the heartbeat of the people of Israel in foreign lands and under the thumb of foreign rulers:
Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?
All day long they injure my cause; all their thoughts are against me for evil. They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. For their crime will they escape? In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
(Psalm 56:1-7 ESV)
Finally, after what seemed to be centuries of silence, God answered their pleas for rescue by sending the baby, born in a manger, whom we just celebrated last month.
Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed King of Kings, lived as a humble peasant man, and loved, taught, healed, and challenged people. But His mission wasn’t just to be a good teacher, but a great savior. So Jesus was arrested, sentenced to death, and suffered torture worse than anything Louie Zamperini faced. He submitted to death, even death on a cross, so that he could save a man like Louie Zamperini from his sins, from his rage, from his hatred.
And this same Jesus saves us as well. His words were not, “If I can take it, I can make it.” They were, “Father…not my will, but Yours be done” and “It is finished.”
The story of Louie Zamperini is amazing, inspiring, incredible. But the story of Jesus is better.
And I’m sure Louie agrees with me.