Christmas transforms culture. The manger led to the cross, the cross offered salvation, and men and women redeemed by the gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit changed and continue to change the world.
Ernest Gordon’s description of how prisoners in a Japanese prisoner of war camp brought hope out of misery illustrates this perfectly.
A member of the elite Scottish Highlanders, Gordon tells his story in the book To End All Wars. In gruesome detail he describes the filthy, disease-ridden, and inhumane conditions of the Chungkai prison camp, in which prisoners died from starvation, disease, overwork, beatings, shootings, and beheadings. One man, Dusty, professing faith in Christ, was hung on a tree to die like his Savior.
Some men just succumbed to hopelessness and died. The remaining prisoners, deprived of their humanity, devolved into a beastly mindset of survival of the fittest. Death meant nothing and life meant little more. Gordon writes, “Death called to us from every direction. It was in the air we breathed, the food we ate, the things we talked about. The rhythm of death obsessed us with its beat — a beat so regular, so pervasive, so inescapable that it made Chungkai a place of shadows in the dark valley.”
But two events, according to Gordon, changed everything. First, word spread of a believing Christian who had sacrificed his own food and stayed by the side of his bunk mate to nurse him back from the brink of death. His bunk mate survived; he did not. In another instance, a guard incensed over the supposed theft of a shovel threatened to randomly execute members of a work detail. A believing Christian stepped forward to “confess” and the enraged guard beat him, crushing his skull. The others looked on in horror, helpless to assist the man who had given his life for theirs. A re-count later showed no shovels missing.
From a purely Darwinian view, these deaths were a foolish waste. But in the camp, they led to a new attitude of “you first” rather than “me first.” Christian volunteers changed gangrenous bandages and bathed hideous wounds. Life regained some of its meaning. Even the experience of death changed as prisoners stopped piling bodies and elected chaplains to conduct honorable funerals for the fallen.
Out of this restored humanity grew a stunning culture. The prisoners formed a library and taught courses in everything from math to philosophy to languages (nine of them). They staged plays. Retrieving six violins from a vandalized relief shipment, they formed an orchestra and held concerts.
Camp conditions had not changed. Frightful diseases still claimed lives. Food was still scarce and nauseating. But sacrifice had brought meaning out of misery. Gordon says:
Death was still with us — no doubt about that. But we were slowly being freed from its destructive grip. We were seeing for ourselves the sharp contrast between the forces that made for life and those that made for death. Selfishness, hatred, envy, jealousy, greed, self-indulgence, laziness, and pride were all anti-life. Love, heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, mercy, integrity, and creative faith, on the other hand, were the essence of life, turning mere existence into living in its truest sense. These were the gifts of God to men.
Worldviews that deny suffering or fixate on survival find this incomprehensible. It takes a baby in a manger to make sense of it all, a baby who moved from the chill of a stable to the shadow of the cross to the light of glory. Whether in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire or a forgotten prisoner of war camp in Asia, Christ does not merely stand against culture; he transforms it.
This is my family’s fourth “Summit Christmas.” It is a privilege to walk with our dedicated staff as they prepare young adults to emerge as leaders, grow strong in faith, experience courage in standing for truth, and bring the life and hope of the gospel to a culture that has lost its way. We wish you a merry Christmas.