The movie depicts the scene as one of potential revenge. Eric Lomax traveled around the world to see the man who had tortured and beaten him. He carried a knife with him, contemplating an act that would bring him some closure from the pain of war. (The Railway Man.)
Eric Lomax spent much of his life threatening to do harm to his tormentor, Takashi Nagase; but in reality, when Lomax went to meet Nagase, it was not for revenge. I’m not exactly sure if Mr. Lomax knew what it was for, except to find some way to put an end to the suffering he had experienced – and the suffering he had put so many others through who loved him.
You can learn about all the discrepancies between the movie and the book, between “History vs. Hollywood “; you can also learn where the movie got it right and where it stretches or alters the truth in order to make for high drama. The question I came away with is this: Is it possible for people who are enemies to make amends, to say nothing of nations?
It’s “Step #9” in the Twelve Step Program: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. It’s a good “step” to consider in this political season. It’s why we so desperately need “Lent”.
Is there anyone campaigning for the presidential nominations who would even dare to talk about “making amends”? The talk of building walls, of refusing Muslims entrance into the country, or the current standoff in the South China Sea – does anyone dare talk about the fact that we have hurt each other the whole world over? Or would such talk suggest weakness, some admission that maybe we aren’t so “exceptional” as a nation after all. I watched The Railway Man and was deeply moved by what war does to us.
“The first step step in getting away from brute force is to want to get away from brute force.” So writes Mark Kleiman in his 2009 book When Brute Force Fails. From what I hear these days I don’t know if anyone running for president in our country truly wants to “get away from brute force”. We are all about revenge – whether it’s “Wall Street”, Syria, the Russians, the immigrants – we are being told over and over again that we have to take back by force what we had before. Our country is being painted as a mass of angry people – people who think they deserve to take revenge.
We have a problem. We are addicted to violence. It is as obvious in our political rhetoric as it is in what passes for foreign policy. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Tom Friedman asks: Who Are We? He responds from an historical perspective. We are entrepreneurs; we are a pluralistic society; we are well governed. Before you sneer at that last one, let me just say that I thank God after every election in this country that, no matter how inappropriately vicious the campaign, power is transferred without threat of a military coup or mass imprisonment of the opposition. But Friedman asks the question we all need to ask ourselves: Who are we?
Takashi Nagase was tormented by the torture he inflicted on British POW’s. After the war he made more than sixty missions of atonement to the River Kwai in Thailand. He became a devout Buddhist and as part of his atonement he financed a Buddhist peace temple near the bridge on the River Kwai. Writing of his tormentor, Eric Lomax wrote that making reparation was not “some occasional thing” for Nagase; “it was almost a way of life.”
Making reparations – making amends – it’s a way of life. It’s Step Nine. And I can’t think of a time when it was needed more than it is needed now – by me. By us. By this nation. And if you think that makes us “less great”, you are wrong. The most powerful words ever spoken were: Forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing. Those are the words that inspire me to consider intently: To whom must I make amends? And how best to do it?