An Olympic athlete, a World War II hero, a prisoner of war survivor, a Christ follower, an inspiration.
Louis “Louie” Zamperini lived one of the most remarkable lives imaginable, and today I join thousands at his public memorial to pay tribute to his extraordinary life in the stadium that bears his name.
Among all of the marvels that typified Louie’s 97 years on earth, I am most moved by how he overcame indescribable cruelty as a prisoner of war at the hands of Japanese soldiers.
The chief offender, the most sadistic of all, at times one who seemed to be the personification of man’s capacity for evil, was a Japanese officer who had come to be known by the POWs simply as “the Bird.”
Day after day, for two and a half years, the Bird sought to deprive Louie of the one thing that sustained him through all of his adversity: dignity.
All human beings innately know the concept of dignity. When others regard us, we connect. When dignity is denied us, we fight for it.
The Christian believes this sense of dignity exists because we are all imprinted with God’s image (Genesis 1:27).
As author Laura Hillebrand writes in her best-selling biography, Unbroken, about Louie’s ordeal:
“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like [the prison camp], degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.”
Why were the Japanese guards so determined to dehumanize the POWs, to degrade this “innermost armament of the soul”? According to Tanaka Yuki, author of Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II:
“The modern Japanese army had great potential for brutality from the moment of its creation for two reasons: the arbitrary and cruel treatment that the military inflicted on its own officers and soldiers and the heirarchical nature of Japanese society, in which status was dictated by proximity to the emperor… It has often been suggested that those with the least power are often the most sadistic if given the power of life and death over people even lower on the pecking order, and the rage engendered by this rigid pecking order was suddenly given an outlet when Japanese soldiers went abroad…it is easy to see how years of suppressed anger, hatred, and fear of authority could have erupted in uncontrollable violence…”
In other words, inhumanity begets inhumanity.
So for Louie and his fellow POWs, preserving some shred of dignity was literally a matter of life and death. Small little acts of defiance — using code words, stealing newspapers, flatulating during the forced salute to the emperor — reminded them of their self-respect and self-worth.
Yes, Louie Zamperini eventually survived the clutches of the Bird. But when the war was over and he returned home as a hero, Louie became a prisoner to a new tormentor: the need for revenge.
“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer. In seeking the Bird’s death to free himself, Louie had chained himself, once again, to his tyrant. During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.” (Hillebrand)
How was Louie able to finally experience true freedom?
Towards the end of her 473-page biography, Hillebrand finally reveals the greatest turning point of Louie’s life. At the pleading of his wife, with his family and marriage almost unrecoverably damaged by alcoholism and his obsessive desire for revenge against the Bird, Louie attended a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles. Hearing the gospel message preached in Graham’s inimitable manner, Louie underwent a transformation.
“In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation. Softly, he wept… At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” (Hillebrand)
The narrative of Louie’s life is marked by many triumphs — his glorious athletic career, his superb war record as a bombardier, his incredible resilience during imprisonment. In my humble view, the aspect of his life most worthy of celebration, however, was the most unnatural and most imagination-defying of all.
It was forgiving the Bird.
Later in his life, Louie wrote the Bird a letter, expressing his forgiveness, and even went back to Japan in hopes of meeting him. The encounter never happened. When the Bird finally died, he had never expressed remorse for his despicable acts.
These dignity-robbing nemeses still lurk in many forms, even if not as barbarous as the Bird. Just this week I was reminded of three such examples:
- When the “other backward classes” of India convert to Christianity, their first symbolic act of dignity (and defiance) is to perform their own weddings and funerals because the Hindu rituals only remind them of their sub-human status. It is their way of saying, I too bear the image of God.
- So many cross-cultural partnerships break down in Christian mission when Western organizations — in subtle or overt ways — cannot treat their Majority World counterparts as equals. They are saying, You are being neocolonialists.
- Our sisters in too many parts of the world feel betrayed by the Church’s unthinking acceptance of cultural attitudes towards women, which often relegates them to inferior status and treatment. They are asking, Why can’t you see me as an equal?
Before I get too self-righteous, these behaviors are painfully familiar to me.
Those moments when I exasperate my own children by denying them a voice, those days when I wield power ungraciously in the office because I can, those incidents when I spew venom at a nearby driver who has offended my sense of driving etiquette, in my own way, I deny others of dignity.
Louie’s great lesson to me is to show me how, apart from God’s grace, apart from a deeply transforming work of the Holy Spirit, in the fight for my own dignity, I can forget to consider my impact on others.
Louie spent the majority of his beautiful life relishing in the divine love that had intervened to save him, choosing to put away resentment, and allowing God to be the one to repair and define his sense of dignity.
At his memorial service today, there were numerous stories of how life-affirming Louie was, how a conversation with Louie would restore a person’s sense of his or her own value and purpose before God.
It was fitting then that the ceremony of placing the wreath was done by a group of current students at his alma mater, Torrance High School. The demographics of Louie’s hometown had shifted such that the student representatives were nearly all of Asian descent. Almost certainly, some were ethnically Japanese. Was this a great irony, considering at whose hands Louie had suffered so much?
I think Louie would have chuckled. Then he would have felt grateful and seen it as the perfect final tribute to his life’s story. Or as Hillebrand expressed in her eulogy:
“What made his life transcendent, what made it resonate in millions of hearts, was not the hardship he encountered, but the way in which he greeted it, how he turned it to joy, and what that told the rest of us about the potential that sleeps within ourselves.
“For all its grueling trials, his life was not a sad story because he wouldn’t allow it to be. It was a triumph — of persistence, of optimism, of love. Louie summoned strength amid suffering, joy amid sorrow, forgiveness amid cruelty, and hope that knew no master. To him, his odyssey was a gift. His laughter was irrepressible because he looked about him and saw only blessings. The most beautiful thing about this wondrous man was that he wished for all of us to see in our own lives what he saw in his. His story was his gift to us.”