The power of forgiveness

When the Allied forces surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, Tony Lucas, who died recently, was one of 80,000 troops who became prisoners of war. For the next three and a half years he, along with many others, were slave labourers on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. Tony was one of 17,000 PoWs packed into Selarang barracks, which was designed to take 800, with all water supplies, barring one tap, disconnected to compel them to sign a pledge not to escape.

Tony was transported by rail to Thailand. Thirty prisoners were locked into each airless steel-roofed truck, in toxic heat. The journey lasted five days. Lucas thought he would die; several did. In Thailand, hacking out the 258-mile railway line, reveille was at 4.30am, followed by a three-mile march through the jungle to the area the Australians named “Hellfire Pass”. Men worked in pairs, alternately swinging a 7lb hammer and holding a 3ft iron bar. They never returned before 10.30pm.

He and the other prisoners survived on a daily ration of a cupful of degraded rice. Tony suffered dysentery, malaria and jungle ulcers; his weight dropped from 11-stone to 6. On his twenty-first bout of malaria, an Allied doctor gave him a massive dose of paludrine. After that he remained free from malaria, but contracted cholera whilst helping carry corpses out for burning. On one occasion a guard, who was nicknamed “The Undertaker” because he had killed prisoners with an iron bar, attacked Tony and knocked out 3 of his teeth.

After the war, Tony suffered nightmares and terrible bouts of depression. Understandably, he at first despised the Japanese. However, as he understood more he realised that it was the military in Japan and not the wider civilian population who were responsible for the atrocities. Later, in his work with an associate company of ICI, he visited Japan on business and showed a remarkable capacity to forgive the extreme suffering he experienced. A forgiving spirit is much more powerful than a spirit of hate and vengeance.

Tony was a private person who had a very deep Christian faith. His father was an Anglican clergyman and, from childhood, Tony had been taught about Jesus and his great love for a sinful world. Tony often prayed the Lord’s Prayer including the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He also knew that when he was dying on the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Eric Lomax – “The Railway Man”

Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man”, served with the British Army during World War II. When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 Eric, then aged 22, became a prisoner of war. He worked on the Burma-Siam railway which was known as the “Death Railway.” More than 16,000 men died in the construction of that railway mainly from sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion.

In August 1943, a radio Eric had built was discovered. He and 6 others were severely punished. Two died, but Eric survived, remembering the crack of his own bones snapping and teeth breaking. As the ringleader, he was taken to another camp where he was water boarded and left to die in a small cage. One young officer, Takashi Nagase, stayed in Eric’s mind. He was an interpreter and told Eric, “You will be killed whatever happens.”

After the war Eric suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He married Patti in 1983 and she encouraged him to seek help. Halfway through his counselling sessions, Eric received a letter from a friend with a cutting from a Japanese newspaper. There was a photograph of Takashi Nagase and an article describing Eric’s tortures, and an experience Nagase had had that made him feel he had been forgiven for his sins. Eric was very angry.

Patti, with Eric’s permission, wrote a letter to Takashi asking him how he could possibly think he was forgiven. To her surprise, Nagase replied, expressing deep apologies and asking if he and Eric could meet. After 2 years Eric felt able to do this and, in 1993, went back to Thailand. On the bridge over the River Kwai two grey-haired men met and tentatively shook hands. Nagase bowed and humbly apologized for the suffering he had caused Eric, who simply nodded and said, “Thank you, thank you.” Up to that time Eric had not intended to forgive Nagase, but to kill him. He was still fighting the war and wanted revenge. Eric and Nagase became friends. The final words of Eric’s autobiography, published in 1995, are, “Sometimes the hating has to stop.”

We are all capable of committing evil acts which cause great pain to others. Guilt, anger and bitterness can consume us. In Jesus God, against whom we have sinned, draws near and offers forgiveness and reconciliation. John Newton, who had experienced God’s forgiveness for his wicked life, wrote, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear, it soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drive away his fear.”