Recently Virginia and I went to see Darkest Hour, the Oscar-nominated film about the period in May 1940 when Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister. The forces of Adolf Hitler sweep through Europe, threatening to invade Great Britain. Members of the War Cabinet, including former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whom Churchill replaced, press hard to force Churchill to sue for peace and prevent the carnage of war on our own soil. If Churchill won’t agree, Chamberlain and Lord Halifax will bring about the end of Churchill’s premiership before it has even started.
Having been brought up in the sixties on black-and-white war movies – Dunkirk and Battle of Britain were my favourites – and family memories of the London Blitz and wartime service in the RAF, WAF and the Paratroop Regiment, I was expecting a story about brilliant and defiant leadership, bulldog spirit and pluck in the face of terrible adversity. The story of Darkest Hour, however, is far more nuanced, and invited me not only to put myself into the shoes of Churchill, full of self-doubt while facing terrible decisions about whom to save and whom to sacrifice, but also into the shoes of Chamberlain and Halifax and their quest for peace.
I was forced to think through whether, as a Christian, I would have been arguing for peace or for war if I had been alive at the time. Of course I have the benefit of hindsight to inform my thinking now, but what would I have done in the context of the very little information available at the time.
In 1939, the Church was involved in vigorous debate. The Church had supported Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement in 1938 but by the time Hitler’s actions in Europe had been perceived as violent and abhorrent, and war was declared, the Church of England supported what it came to see as a ‘righteous war’. A bishop wrote that the church should not be seen as the ‘spiritual auxiliary’ of government but should ‘strike the universal note’.
I like the idea that as a Christian, I am called to ‘strike the universal note’. Of course I could never think that God favours one side over another when two adversaries resort to violence to settle their disputes, but is the situation different when the survival of one’s own country is at stake? In the Old Testament, there is a very clear view that God ‘vindicates’ the righteous in battle. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” (Isaiah 50.8) Equally, defeat and exile are seen as punishment for the breaking of Israel’s covenant with God. However, it is difficult to say, in today’s world, that one group of people are wholly ‘righteous’ and another wholly ‘wicked’. We all have partial perspective, lack adequate information, and are blind to our own complicity in provoking the actions of our perceived enemies.
Conversation with others subsequently reminds me just how effective good movies can be as aids to reflection and self-examination. For this reason, with the season of Lent upon us shortly, we are going to be watching the movie version of Les Miserables as part of our Lent Home Group study. I wonder what a story set in post-Revolutionary France can teach us about violence, the Church, injustice, mercy and grace.