The must-see movie of the moment is Dunkirk, named for the beach where 400,000 British soldiers were stranded as the Germans, advancing in unstoppable lines, pressed them from every side. Christopher Nolan, who directed the film, makes it personal by concentrating on individual stories of a few stranded soldiers, a man and his son in their fishing boat, an RAF pilot, and a Commander, who shared the eight days of waiting and rescuing that have come to be known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, and as well, the Dunkirk spirit.
All this happened between May 27 and June 4, 1940, before the US had entered the war.
The film makes clear what I struggle to keep in mind, that the British didn’t know they would win the war, and in fact, most of them believed they would lose.
And they had good reason to fear: the Maginot Line, several hundred miles of wall fortifications that had been built along the French/German border, had given everyone a false sense of security, but had been easily breached by the Germans, in days, not weeks, as they marched swiftly across Europe toppling nations and armies, Poland, Holland, Belgium, then France.
The British had been backed up to the Dunkirk beach, leaving behind them hundreds of tanks, trucks, equipment vans, trying to get out of Europe, to get home. It was a rout.
Stung by the loss of so much equipment, and sure that the next invasion would be of Britain, the British War Dept. limited what it could send to try to get the men off Dunkirk, keeping back planes and ships to defend their shores.
What they could send was not nearly enough. And Winston Churchill, unwilling to sacrifice so many men, got on the radio and called for the people to rescue their boys, using whatever boats they had. Fishing boats, skiffs, yachts, even a canoe and a paddle steamer made the trip over the eight days. Churchill, whose invitation was considered insane by most military leaders, hoped they might rescue 30,000 or so.
Kenneth Branagh, who plays the Commander, is saying that the armada of civilian boats rescued 360,000 of those 400,000 men. And though there is still some quibbling about the exact number, all estimates range above 300,000.
Churchill immediately began to tell the story, not of the string of utter defeats that pushed those men to their beach of despair, but of the heroism and spirit of the ordinary men, and some women as well, who jumped into their own boats and went to get their sons, fiances, husbands, neighbors, their men.
Some say ChurchilI put spin on the story. I think that’s unfair. Unfair because what happened over those eight days was so magnificently well done, and so brave – ordinary chaps, who had no guns, or maybe a pistol at most, who had no armor, no tin hats, and no armored boats, just sailed over into the war without any defense, to meet a need. They went into impossible danger to meet that need. German planes were dropping bombs on the beach and engaging in shoot-em-outs in the air with RAF planes (who downed significantly more German planes than they lost themselves, even though they were outnumbered).
An armada of little boats came for a dozen, or ten, or maybe on the paddle steamer, two or three dozen men, but in the canoe, maybe four, and got them home. Some were sunk, and I suppose some turned back when things got crazy. But most did what they came to do. And together, they made a miracle at Dunkirk.
A friend, who has studied up, tells me the film omitted the heroism of the French, who held back the Germans during those eight days, so the British would have a chance to get off the beach. And then the French surrendered, together with the 40,000 who didn’t get rescued, and were marched away to five years of misery and brutality as German prisoners. We get a small glimpse of the French holding off the Germans at the beginning of the film, but a few lines on the screen would have been a help in understanding what they courageously gave.There are no baskets of bread in this story, and hunger was a huge part of those eight days on Dunkirk beach, as was thirst, for canteens ran dry at the start, and the men were out in the unrelieved sun in their army greatcoats and worsted pants.
But here it is, the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes, replayed again.
In Matthew’s gospel, we are told that John the Baptist has just been cruelly killed. We gasp at beheadings in our own time, imagine how it felt to the people to have a public figure like John beheaded by Herod! And Matthew says word was sent to Jesus, whom Herod called the reincarnation of John. And Jesus retreated to the beach when he heard this, but the people heard he was on there and came out to him in huge numbers, bringing their sick. And Jesus, instead of getting in the boat, had compassion, and healed them. Night fell, and it was dark, and the disciples lamented the hunger of the crowd, and Jesus said: Feed them.
You know the rest. How they were flabbergasted and said they couldn’t possibly, but they did as he asked, taking out the food they had, and passing it. And at the end, there were 12 baskets of leftovers.
Churchill and the British all knew this story, too. And when Churchill issued his plea that they take the small boats they had and rescue the few they could, somewhere inside them all expectation that God would help them arose.
Churchill dared to speak as Christ had done, and in their homes across the southeast coast and along the cliffs of Dover, men and women, old and young, were listening. They heard Churchill dare them to rise up, to dream that they could do more than they could imagine with the small boats they had.
For some weeks now, in church, we’ve been reading Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, how the persistent pursuit of what you love can make ordinary things extraordinary.
And in these tales we’ve heard Jesus argue against weeding out the enemy weeds from the wheat of the fields. Weeding is a form of violence, he says, and you may kill the wheat, too.
War is certainly a form of weeding, a violent form indeed. What happened at Dunkirk was a miracle of peace. Unarmed people, untrained in the arts of warfare, went out on the sea and rescued their soldiers from certain death.
And in s doing Britain remained undefeated. And more than undefeated: redeemed. In part, it was because Churchill would not hear of any talk of negotiating a surrender with Germany in Britain’s darkest hour. And in part, it was because Roosevelt heard about Dunkirk, and promised Churchill the US would respond.
Many, many British died, civilians in the blitz and soldiers in battles. And many Americans, so many. Jesus also will die. His war, with Herod and Rome, is not over. Feeding the 5000 is a moment in his long, long war. And perhaps, by weeds and wheat, he alludes to Romans and Israelis, in the politics of a day when he must speak guardedly.
Within Jesus’ war with the powers that be, there is this Miracle of Loaves and Fishes. The story cannot be told without it. And within WW2 there is the Miracle of Dunkirk. The story of WW2 cannot be told without telling this tale. On the German side, for Hitler, there is no tale like this, though there are stories of plots to kill Hitler which were foiled, and for which the plotters gave their lives.
This is a tale of spirit, and of ordinary people pursuing what they love with determination and persistence, in the face of huge obstacles, in what hindsight shows us was a Miracle. This is a story of the kingdom.
And there is a warning here for President Trump: do not put your faith, and our money, into building a Maginot Line. It is a delusion. The destiny of walls is to fall.
Image: Dunkirk: still frame from the film, copyright, Warner Brothers.