I wrote last month of
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 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.
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
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
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
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