It takes just one person for history to change course.
It’s 7:50 am. Which means I have a whole hour. So here we go: “We shall fight on the beaches . . We shall never surrender!” So ends Joe Wright’s epic film Darkest Hour as Gary Oldman’s truly impressive Churchill strides out of the House of Commons followed by thunderous acclamation. But not quite, for there is one very important end credit. We are informed that Britain received Germany’s surrender in May, 1945. At this time I thought this somewhat superfluous: it’s stating the obvious. Everyone knows we won. Or to make it more personal, Churchill beat Hitler. But on reflection it has to be said. For the simple reason that the whole film only makes sense if Churchill is finally vindicated. There’s no need for a spoiler alert here. You know the story. However, you may not know the details of the first few days of Churchill’s premiership in his resolute stand against any negotiated ‘peace’ settlement (i.e. surrender). If I have any criticism of the film it is that it is prepared to bend some facts (and make one whole scene up) to make a better story. In reality, Churchill was utterly determined to stand up to the might of Hitler even against impossible odds. I’m sure he never wavered, except possibly within his own mind. Which begs one huge question. If Churchill had not been prime minister in May, 1940, would I now be writing this blog in German? Or alternatively, würde ich jetzt diesen Blog auf Deutsch schreiben? (Don’t be impressed: Google translation). Did one single individual make all the difference? Here we are talking about the Great Man theory of history. To quote the eminent Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, " No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” It just takes the right person in the right place at the right time for the flow of history to change. And it makes history more interesting. As it happens one of my favourite novels aims to contest this view of life: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For Leo, the significance of great individuals is illusory; we are only “history's slaves realizing the decree of Providence.”
In other words it’s all down to long-term trends and shifts – making history less interesting. As Christians we take a clear view for the simple reason that we are anointed with the name of Jesus, the one man changed everything. As I read in my BRF Bible reading this morning: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14). Jesus destroyed the power of death. There can be no higher achievement, no more fundamental change. And just one single life with a cosmic outcome. Of course, the ministry of Jesus realised God’s preparation over the centuries but even so, his act of obedience was the single event which changed the millennia. And now that I think about it the Gospels only make sense if – like “Darkest Hour” – we know the ending at the beginning. Otherwise had Jesus’ body rotted in Joseph’s tomb his whole life would have been pointless. And ours too. Which means we stand in this tradition. One person commissioned by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can make significant change which otherwise would not have taken place. Take John Wesley, who challenged the easy-going theism of the 18th century by his sheer commitment to proclaiming the Gospel. “Catch on fire,” he declared, “and people will come for miles to see you burn.” In 1928 Archbishop Davidson considered that "Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation." Certainly some historians maintain that the Wesleyan revival so altered the course of English history that he probably saved England from the kind of revolution that took place in France. We not just talking here about someone articulating a movement – although that in itself is a transformational role. We are talking about someone who had they stayed at home our world would be very different today. Which gives us all of us who belong to Christ a high calling, a defining destiny. Maybe not on the world stage but certainly within our immediate environment. For God chooses to work through individuals, through each of us to make a difference. So Jesus calls us; “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:16) The one event which the Darkest Hour failed to highlight was the day when Churchill became Prime Minister. I haven’t got time to find the quote (it’s now 8:41) but he had a deep sense of vocation, an understanding that all that he had experienced prior to 10 May 1940 had been preparation for this single responsibility. However he understood it at the time, a sense of God’s call.