In his book “Captains of the Soul: A History of Australian Army Chaplains”, Michael Gladwin tells the story of Padre Hugh Cunningham who was imprisoned by the Japanese on the Burma Thailand railway. Cunningham wore no badge of rank, as was the Army custom for Chaplains until 1942.
The Japanese were puzzled by the great respect and particular “authority” that Cunningham had over the prisoners. The uncertainty around this influence led to his restricted access to prisoners, isolation, and confinement, often in a very low, narrow cage.
Gladwin’s research into the story reveals that eventually one of the Japanese guards began to see value in the impact that Cunningham had on the prisoners and he was given an arm band to wear “with green Japanese characters written on it and instructed to wear it at all times. Soon he began to be treated with great honour by the guards … and he was allowed unfettered movement”.
Cunningham was a light to the prisoners but it shone brightly enough for the enemy to see. We are reminded of Matthew 5:14-16:
“ You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand and it gives life to the whole house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven.”
Cunningham was not told what was written on his arm band. After he was released and returned to Australia, it was translated for him. The translation simply read, ‘Captain of the souls of men’.
In the absence of formal information about the role, but in response to Cunningham’s visible leadership and impact, the Japanese had bestowed the rank of officer upon him. Beyond that recognition, they also acknowledged and named his spiritual responsibility.
Chaplaincy changes with the times and in the same book, the author refers to contemporary Armed Forces Chaplains as “Panel Beaters for the soul”. Training in suicide prevention, clinical pastoral care, and critical incident management are the norm and new research is emerging around how to respond to moral and spiritual injury.
The challenge for all of us as we respond to people who work on the “front line” or to anyone who is imprisoned by their circumstances, is to let the light shine. We never know into which darkness it could flicker. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:18,
“We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”