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Let Our Spirituality Shine (Part II)
Australia has a rich spiritual heritage. Throughout our history we can find evidence of God’s hand at work. So why do Christians not shout about it?
I wrote last month of Caroline Chisholm, a deeply spiritual woman used by God to help poor woman migrants to Australia. Even most local Christians are not aware of the enormous role her faith played in her work. And how many Christians know about God’s work in the life of one of the most celebrated 20th-century Australians, Edward “Weary” Dunlop?
Weary Dunlop was a doctor who found himself a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II. In the barbaric Japanese death camps he became a leader of the prisoners, and experienced unspeakable horrors. Yet he devoted the rest of his life to reconciliation.
Despite a traditional Christian upbringing - his family were members of the Presbyterian church - he sometimes expressed doubts about the strength of his faith. In the prison camps he worried that he was a poor example of Christianity because of his inability to meet the command of Jesus to love his enemy.
In her major biography of Dunlop, published in 1994 (and largely read and approved by him before his death), Sue Ebury noted that in the prison camps he would rip pages from his Bible in order to make cigarettes. In post-modern fashion, he memorised any verses that seemed useful, before incinerating the pages around his tobacco ration. He retained to the end only those pages that seemed especially relevant.
Last to go were the pages in which Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount. Ebury said that Dunlop decided: “This was the only part worth anything,”
And according to Ebury, it was in the dreadful prison camps that he felt closer to God’s kingdom of heaven than at any other time. She quoted him as believing that the kingdom
was at hand, not a promise for the future, not dependent on life or death, but here immediately for those who could shed the awful shell of self and start loving their neighbour as thyself.
After the war, Dunlop’s fellow doctors could not understand his driven nature, his passion to help others, his continual trips to Asia to seek rebuilding and reconciliation.
But Ebury says there is no secret about this.
Hintok [Thailand] 1943 is the key, when he read the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of “all the misery, the squalor, the grey rain and slush and sick and dying people” [Dunlop’s words]. He had never felt more useful.
And it was at Hintok, amidst all the squalor, reading his Bible, tearing page after page from it and wondering what was the point of it all, that he was overtaken by a mystical experience.
It was then that he was possessed by a “marvellous, almost religious experience…a sort of happiness.”
I do not want to read too much into Dunlop’s words, as quoted by Ebury. But the impression is that he received an experience of God’s presence such as is known by some of the Christian mystics and others who are deeply spiritual. He told Ebury, in his simple, forthright manner: “I understood what it would mean to love your neighbour more than yourself.”
She commented that he was determined to make the welfare of former war prisoners a personal mission, and he also resolved to answer every call made on him by his country and his community.
His virtues were recognised. His death, in July 1993, produced a flood of eulogies, along with a state funeral. A statue of him has been erected in a public park, and his face has appeared on a fifty-cent coin.
Much still gets written about him today, in books, magazines and newspapers. It is not uncommon for such reports to mention his Presbyterian upbringing. Yet in virtually all instances it is clear that “Presbyterian” here is a synonym for “thrifty, hard-working, conservative and perhaps a little old-fashioned”, rather than for “God-worshipping, prayerful and Bible-loving”. Little is written at all about his faith.
I think that’s a shame.
September 27th, 2002