Remembrance - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons


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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

My husband, Paul, was a child of the RAF, and, as a result, spent part of his boyhood in Singapore.

One day, when he was exploring the Airforce base at Changi, where he grew up, he came across a building called simply 'Block 151', which was kept permanently locked.  His curiosity got the better of him - so he climbed up to have a look through one of the windows.  And what he saw inside took him completely by surprise.  Because much to his astonishment he found himself looking at a series of enormous religious pictures, painted directly onto the walls.  It was years later that he eventually discovered that what he had accidentally stumbled across were the famous 'Changi murals' - a series of paintings that have a remarkable story behind them, as I shall explain.

Changi is a place with a chilling association.  Because during the Second World War it was the site of a notorious Japanese Prisoner of War Camp.  Approximately 35,000 allied Prisoners of War were incarcerated there, the majority of whom perished in the most appalling of circumstances.  

Thirteen years ago we travelled to Changi as a family, in part so that Paul could revisit his childhood roots.  And during our stay we made a pilgrimage to the museum that is dedicated to the memory of those Allied Prisoners of War.  It was an experience that I shall never ever forget.  The museum traces the story of the occupation of Singapore, following the British surrender in 1942, and its impact upon the civilian populations, Chinese, Indian and Malay.  But its main focus concerns the fate of the allied POWs: the Australian, New Zealand, British, and American servicemen who were imprisoned at Changi.  

And the story it tells is a horrific one.  It is the tale of men kept in the most barbaric of conditions, starved, beaten, tortured and humiliated.  There is a reconstruction of a prison cell that you can enter - stifling, insanitary, and dark, with one small barred window high up near the roof, from which you can hear the recorded sounds of men being beaten and tortured and crying with pain.  It was hard enough to stay in there for more than a couple of minutes; but, of course, the original occupants were often imprisoned there for months.  

And during that time, Block 151, which was within the camp, had been used as the prisoners' hospital, housing the sick and the dying.  The wall paintings had been created by one of the prisoners, who had a remarkable artistic talent, and had managed to paint them despite being very near to death himself.  For a long time after the war, his identity remained a mystery.  But eventually he was traced.  Miraculously he had managed to survive the war, and was discovered working as an art teacher in North London.  His name was Stanley Warren.

As a prisoner of war, gravely ill from the effects of dysentery, malaria, and kidney failure, Stanley Warren created those murals using paint that he made from the chalk that is used to chalk billiard cues, and a brush made out of human hair.  He said afterwards that it was his sheer determination to complete his series of five New Testament scenes that kept him alive.  

It is very difficult these days to gain access the original paintings, because the site is still a military base.  But the murals are reproduced life-size on the walls of the museum at Changi.  And when I finally got to see them myself, one of the images really did, literally, stop me in my tracks.  I have a copy of it here, which I shall put at the back of church, so do please look at it after the service.  But let me describe it for you.

At first sight, it appears to be a fairly conventional image of the crucifixion: Jesus has been nailed to the cross, which is in the process of being raised to a standing position.  And the words painted above the scene are those from the lips of the dying Jesus in St Luke's Gospel: 'Father, forgive them: they know not what they do.'  

So what was it that stopped me in my tracks when I first saw this picture in the museum at Changi?  It was not so much the image itself, nor even the words written above it, although they are powerful enough in themselves.  Rather it was the memory of a blurred but profoundly shocking photograph that I had seen, only moments before, in the body of the museum - this one.  It is the photograph of the half-naked body of an allied serviceman, who has been nailed to a cross by his prison guards.  

Stanley Warren's painting was not just any crucifixion picture.  It was the image painted by a man who had seen it happen.  Who had seen his comrades suffer and die in that singularly cruel and barbaric way, there, in Changi.

But there is more.  Because as I studied the picture more carefully I noticed something else about it - something rather odd.  Which was to do with how the other figures in this crucifixion painting are dressed.  In all the other murals that Warren painted, the characters are clothed in predictable biblical garb.  But his crucifixion picture is different; because all the figures surrounding Jesus are dressed in nothing but loin cloths.  Suddenly the penny dropped.   They are dressed as Warren's fellow prisoners of war were dressed, wearing nothing but loin cloths.  

But that can't be right: why on earth should Warren be depicting the men who crucified Jesus as prisoners of war?  And then, suddenly, I got it: it was glaringly obvious to any who had eyes to see: these men are not crucifying Jesus: they are taking his lifeless body down from the cross. Which means that Jesus' words of forgiveness here are aimed, not at any of the individuals who are depicted in the painting, but rather at those who do not appear in the mural at all: these words were for the prison guards who were torturing, and brutalising, and indeed crucifying Warren's friends and comrades day after day after day.  Such was the reality of Stanley Warren's life when he painted that picture.  Which makes it the more remarkable that he was still able to let those extraordinary words of the crucified Christ dominate the scene so boldly and visibly: Father, forgive them: they know not what they do.'  'Father, forgive them: they know not what they do.'

War must never ever be glamorised, or glorified, because there is nothing glamorous or glorious about the horror and barbarity of war.  Which is why it is so very important that we all take part in this service of remembrance.  Because we must never be allowed to forget.  We must never forget the atrocities of which human beings are capable.  And we must never forget the price that was paid by those who gave their lives in war, that we might have peace and freedom.  

But what I find most remarkable of all is that even in the depths of the darkest, and bleakest and most horrific of times, the light of the Gospel can still shine: because Stanley Warren - a man who was caught up in the very midst of such atrocities, who could have had little hope of ever coming through them alive - could still, through his artwork, speak words of forgiveness to his tormentors.  

There can surely be no more powerful testimony to the truth of the Christian Gospel than that.


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