Probably one of the best films to be released last year, The Railway Man is worthy of a place in your collection with its release to DVD / Blu-ray this week. It’s not only the dramatic insight this story provides into the horror suffered by Japanese POWs but the debate it stirs about the nature of forgiveness that are likely to keep viewers coming back.
The Railway Man is based on the award-winning autobiography by Eric Lomax that chronicles his time as a Japanese prisoner of war and, in particular, his long road to recovery. Lomax, played by Jeremy Irvine, was captured during the fall of Singapore and forced to work on the infamous Burma Railroad. During that time he suffered severe psychological and physical tortures because his interrogators believed he was communicating with Chinese revolutionaries – warning, these scenes in particular are not for the faint-hearted! However the lion’s share of the film is actually devoted to the much older Lomax, played by Colin Firth, and his attempts to find closure after the war. First in the arms of his wife Patti (Nicole Kidman) and finally by confronting Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese interpreter who enabled his torture.
The Railway Man is at times hard to watch because of its subject matter but well worth the effort. At the heart of the film is the question of human evil and what it takes to survive it. Without giving away the whole storyline, the plot moves to a point where Lomax finally confronts Nagase, to hold him to account for the nightmares that are destroying his life. The film takes a few historical liberties here in to increase the drama – Lomax is depicted as sneaking up on the interpreter with plans to kill him, when in reality he contacted him in advance and asked for the meeting. But what the injured Englishman discovers is the same in book and film: an apologetic man who has devoted his life to making up for his sins.
Is this enough to allow Lomax to move on? Yes … and no.
In the film Lomax shocks Nagase by releasing him and concluding the encounter with the definitive, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.” The implication is that an admission of guilt and repentance on behalf of the perpetrator should lead to forgiveness. A brilliant finish for the movies, but not for real life it seems. In his biography the real Lomax records that though he was able to let go of his anger, forgiveness evaded him. Not all the repentance and good deeds on Nagase’s part are enough to accomplish that. And why not? Because of a little matter of justice.
The world mistakes Christians as super-saints when it assumes the sometimes incredible forgiveness they offer is the result of an ascended, spiritual character. We, like everyone else, struggle to forgive when we simply look at the person who has offended us because, no matter how genuine their repentance, their deeds remain just as real. However the Christian can move on to forgiveness, not because they can forget those deeds but because they remember that justice has been done. Firstly, that Jesus offered His own sinless life to pay for their own black deeds, so they share the sinner’s seat. Secondly, because the person who has hurt them is His servant, not theirs, so they are in no position to judge. And thirdly, because the same payment they’ve benefited from stands ready to erase their enemies’ guilt, and they would rather see them gain from ‘justice done’ than die in debt. In each case our forgiveness is the fruit of Jesus’ effort.
The Railway Man is right; the hating does have to stop. But it won’t be our own spiritual muscles that lift the burden.