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Hubby Dear gasped as he watched me turn page after page of Lauren Hillebrand’s book, “Unbroken.”
My interest was unending and consuming. I had enjoyed her first work, “Seabiscuit,” but this one had me spellbound and deeply saddened. I was totally unaware of the atrocities endured by the POWs during World War II. My respect for and admiration of the veterans of that, and other wars, deepened exponentially.
From the opening paragraph, I became immersed in the story of a man whose life both prepared him for suffering that lay ahead and made him a victim of it. He would learn that to be unbroken one must first experience brokenness.
His stalwart refusal to be broken during his youth, as well as during captivity, was equally his agony and his ecstasy. Daring to be different, dauntless in his determination to focus on a goal and succeed in achieving it, he became strong, stronger than he even imagined. At the same time, he became weak.
His weakness derived from his strength. In much the same manner, vice can be viewed as an excess of virtue. Louie Zamperini needed to come to terms with his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness before he would be free.
If not faced honestly, hatred, anger and despair would be the nightmares of sleepless nights and agitated days. The man who always longed to be free, the man whose native optimism made him resilient and gave hope to others, would be shackled to his own demons. He’d be a dead man walking.
In an ironic twist, not of fate so much as Providence, Zamperini’s demonic captor Mutsuhiro Watanabe, himself a man torn by his skewed sense of self, would subsequently be the instrument of his transformation. Zamperini stoically endured torture. He schemed possible escapes. He refused to submit to the degradation inflicted upon the captives and found ways to retain and maintain human dignity.
His efforts were successful while the men were imprisoned. They were in captivity but they were also a community of survivors. They would not surrender their humanity in the face of the inhumanity of their environment. No matter that they were confronted with captors whose aim was to crush them, the men would not be vanquished. Broken bones would not constitute a shattered spirit.
Victory closed the doors of imprisonment. The men were free to return home. They were also freed to acknowledge and face the cost of their captivity and its toll on their individual and collective psyches.
Zamperini and his comrades had been exposed to the worst examples of inhumanity. They would not escape unscathed. Life was yet to be discovered and recovered. The atrocities left them bereft of wholeness. They kept them from recognizing holiness. The albatross they feared as an omen at sea became a harbinger of hopelessness on land.
As I read, I began to wonder. Would individuals, kept apart from others, be as stalwart? Isolated, would they be as inventive, as optimistic, as determined to stay alive? My thoughts wandered to the idea of community and I began to pursue the concept. These men were members of a community bonded in shared enslavement, shared loyalty, and shared desire to return home. Their bonding surpassed all differences and cemented a common hope.
It seemed, to me, to be exactly what church communities must be. They must be places of bonding with God and others. Those entwined connections are crucial to the life of God’s people. It is in the embrace of that reality that life is maintained, sustained, and creative. Alone, we become despondent, dis-eased, and desperate. Together, we are faith-filled.
Yet, we persist in creating pockets of isolation inside and outside of our religious affiliations. Within the church body, there is disagreement, if not infighting.
One person described it as the dialogue of the deaf, without ever recognizing those with hearing loss readily find alternate ways of communication. The deaf can dialogue. Their hearing impairment is not substantive. It does not define them. It empowers creativity. It is only when our deafness is self-inflicted and centered in a refusal to hear, a denial of the opportunity to learn from each other, that it becomes detrimental.
Members of one denomination refuse to worship with members of another. They denigrate all whose viewpoint differs from theirs, often without even knowing the reasons for the alternate perspectives. Those actions, I would opine, are not unlike those of Watanabe, dedicated to shattering anyone who is not like-minded. Rather than experiencing a dream of God’s city, we live a devilish nightmare that kills our spirit.
Without true community, our understanding of God diminishes and we begin to create a God who is too small for others’ belief. God becomes the captor; we the captives; the judge who awaits the slightest misstep and pounces on us with punishment.
God also becomes captive to our limited understanding. God is held bound by our boundaries. No one remains unfettered. Yet, we are informed by Scripture that God’s will is that we be free. “Let my people go,” is the message. “I have come that you might have life and have it to the full,” is the commitment.
My hope, my prayer, my conviction, is God’s people will one day recognize the power of divinity. One day we will awaken to God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. One day we will remove our blinders, cast off the restraints we have placed, or allowed to be placed, on our faithfulness, and uncover the image and likeness of our Creator God.
Like Louie Zamperini we will finally feel profound peace. When we think of our flawed history, what will resonate with us was not all that we had suffered, but the divine love that intervened to save us. On that day, we will believe we are a new creation [paraphrase of
p. 376, “Unbroken”].
On that day, unbroken and unbound, we will know we are God’s people, as if for the first time.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.