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Bearing the suffering of others (Dunkirk)

Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s latest offering and it’s quite compelling. As with most of what he’s done (Memento, Inception, Interstellar), there are some interesting creative choices that have been made. There is little attempt to present the events of Dunkirk on the grand scale that it was (more than 300,000 troops were rescued by over 800 civilian boats). Instead, Dunkirk is content to present us with three interconnected, mostly non-linear stories revolving around a few individuals. Then there’s the sparse dialogue—very little information is conveyed, there are no back stories or big speeches. This result is a narrative that is almost completely event driven. Yet it’s not the ridiculous fake action of so many of the movies where people routinely do things humans are incapable of—the things in Dunkirk occurred in history as part of a world-wide conflict and need no embellishment.

One of the civilian boats that goes out to pick up the soldiers stranded on the beach under enemy fire is owned by Mr. Dawson. On it are his son (Peter) and a teenage boy who helps with the boat (George). As they head toward Dunkirk they pick up a soldier perched atop the remains of a ship that has gone down. He is badly traumatized by what he has experienced. When he hears they are headed back toward Dunkirk he loses control and lashes out, injuring George. Peter wraps a bandage around George’s head and has him lay down below deck. After a while George tells him he is unable to see anything. The soldier later regains some composure and wants to know if the boy is okay and Peter angrily yells at him that he is not okay.

The Germans began bombing some of the boats and chaos ensues. Mr. Dawson and Peter are able to rescue some soldiers off a mine sweeper that has been hit and is sinking. It doesn’t take long before their small boat is overrun with passengers and Peter is concerned as they crowd in below deck that they are disturbing George. He yells at them to be careful. He is informed by one of the soldiers that he is dead. With bombs exploding and bodies bobbing in the water there is no time to stop and mourn his friend so he bravely says, “Well then,” he says, “That’s why you need to be careful.” Meanwhile, the soldier they picked up off the wreck has remained topside and is unaware of what has transpired. After a time, he pokes his head in and says he hopes George will be okay. Peter pauses just a moment and then assures him that he will be okay.

His first response is good because though he is understandably upset by the death of his friend, he realizes the needs of the moment transcend his personal grief. The second response is even better because it is redemptive—he seeks to spare the soldier further pain and anguish so he bears it himself. It’s exactly what Paul has in mind when he says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1 ESV). And it’s exactly the kind of thing that Jesus did (v. 3). He nobly and gallantly bore our pain, suffering and burdens. And while we can’t be Christ—we can be Christ-like.  

There is a war going on out there and there are wounded all around. May God enable us to reach out to the wounded around us and in the name of Jesus bear their sufferings.

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