Sacrifice is risky business

Father John A. Kiley

Winston Churchill, certainly one of the great figures of the Twentieth Century, has recently been portrayed in two motion pictures concerning an epic event during World War II. About 400,000 British soldiers had been pushed by Nazi troops invading France to a small section of waterfront near the city of Dunkirk. The loss of these soldiers would obviously have been a human as well as a military tragedy.

In the movie “Dunkirk,” Churchill is portrayed as somewhat cautious about sending naval forces to the French coastline on a rescue mission. Perhaps the prime minister thought such an expedition would certainly make a bad situation worse resulting in even more deaths. In this production, it is the military leaders who seem to take charge and promote the celebrated rescue mission that incorporated just about every boat, craft and yacht available along England’s channel.

The other movie, entitled “The Dark Hour,” patently depicts Churchill as the hero that later generations recall. This Churchill has to contend with the much more cautious Neville Chamberland, his predecessor in office, and Lord Halifax, eventually British ambassador to Washington. While clearly torn about the risk to the lives of the men on the shore and risk to those who would rescue them, Churchill, in a well-crafted speech before Parliament, opts for a display of strength before the Nazi aggressors. Sir Winston happily made the right choice.

Looking back one generation to World War I, observers can well understand why Winston Churchill would be cautious about sending troops into harm’s way. The Gallipoli Campaign of 1915-16 was an attempt by Britain and France to control the sea routes near Turkey. The campaign began with a failed naval attack by Allied ships on the Dardanelles Straits and continued with a major land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, including Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Lack of sufficient intelligence and knowledge of the terrain, along with a fierce Turkish resistance, hampered the success of the invasion. By mid-October, Allied forces had suffered heavy casualties and had made little headway. Evacuation began in December 1915 and was completed in January.

In all, some 480,000 Allied forces took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, at a cost of more than 250,000 casualties, including some 46,000 dead. On the enemy side, the campaign also cost an estimated 250,000 casualties, with 65,000 killed. In May 1915, Britain’s First Sea Lord Admiral John Fisher resigned dramatically over the mishandling of the Gallipoli invasion by his aide Winston Churchill who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. His political capital damaged by the debacle, Churchill resigned his own position and accepted a commission to command an infantry battalion in France. It would be another thirty years before Churchill’s reputation healed enough for the task of major office.

Sacrifice is risky business. The battle of Gallipoli brought tragedy on half-a-million British, French, Turkish, Australian and New Zealand troops. Churchill no doubt meant well but his heroic scheme was ill-founded. The evacuation of Dunkirk a generation later portended an equal risk but this time greater consideration and consultation by leaders accompanied by characteristic military (and civilian) heroism proved successful. For many, Dunkirk replaced Gallipoli as Churchill’s defining moment.

Sacrifice is essential to the Christian life just as it is certainly integral to military life. But while Christian sacrifice might be challenging, it is actually not at all risky. In Jesus Christ, the victory over sin and evil is already accomplished. As St. Paul writes in this Sunday’s second reading, “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ,…raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens.” As believing Christians, the faithful are already “seated” in heaven. Victory, triumph, and success are Christ’s achievement through his Cross and Resurrection and now these become the believer’s inheritance through faith. Through God’s grace, Christ’s great Paschal feat is offered to every believer. Like the Jews cited in this Sunday’s first reading returning to Jerusalem though King Cyrus’ largesse, Christians can immediately claim their rightful inheritance available through Christ’s beneficence. In a couple of weeks, Christians will be singing, “The strife is o’er, the battle done; The victory of life is won; The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!” Christians must take these words literally.

For Christians, the “Dark Hour” was on Calvary. It need not be repeated in every generation. Victory has already been won; now it has only to be claimed, exercised and appreciated through a dedicated Christian life. The Christian hope for ultimate victory is not based on maps, figures, equipment and strategies. Christian hope is based solidly and solely on Christ’s already achieved success. Now every believer must claim the victory!