I recently watched a movie based on the true story of Eric Liddell called On Wings of Eagles. He’s such an inspirational figure there are six different movies made about him beginning in 1981 with Chariots of Fire. Yes, that’s the same movie that gave us the iconic music “Chariots of Fire.” In this most recent movie on Eric Liddell (2016) with actor Joseph Fiennes, the focus is his life during World War 2 while in China during the Japanese invasion. If I saw this movie twenty-five years ago, without any doubt I’d say he was a hero, but now I can’t help but think he was actually selfish and, in a way, a jerk. I will now give a short breakdown of his life and let you decide if you are more like my old or new self.
- Eric Liddell was an Olympic champion in 1924 (So far he looks pretty good).
- Because of his conviction to keep the Sabbath holy, he turned down running several major races he was expected to win including an Olympic gold. Although I don’t agree with his extreme stance of the Sabbath, it’s impressive for someone to have such steadfast faith. Crazy enough, after not running the Olympic race he was expected to win, he ended up winning gold and setting the world record for the 400m, which was a race he wasn’t even a contender to win (So far he’s still looking like a hero).
- Although he was British, because he was the son of missionaries, he was born and died in China, which leaves him considered to be China’s first Olympic champion (Okay, in some ways he is definitely a hero)
- Like his parents, he became a missionary and taught grades 1-12 students from wealthy families in the hope they would become Christian. By connecting with them, these kids would grow up and have more influence on the rest of the country. This is the same basic idea St. Patrick used when he went to Ireland to share his faith, but he focused on meeting with kings and queens. Fun fact, the school he taught at is still in use.
- In 1941, the British were advised to leave, so Liddell sent his pregnant wife (also raised in a missionary family) and two daughters to her Canadian parents to be safe while he stayed to work at a mission serving the poor in China. He soon ended up being sent to the Weihsien Internment Camp, which is basically a nicer version of a German concentration camp, so it was pretty awful. He spent his time helping and trying to cheer people up, especially the children who liked him so much they called him Uncle Eric. He was said to be “the finest Christian gentleman it has been my pleasure to meet,” and “It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.”
- In this movie, he was offered a chance to leave in a prisoner exchange, but he gave up his spot for a pregnant woman in order for her to be given better care. The truth of this act is debated, but it is a good example of his conviction to putt others first.
- While in the internment camp, Liddell died from a brain tumor, which was considered sped up by him not taking better care of himself as he was more concerned with helping others.
So I’m sure you can clearly see why he is considered a hero and why he should be held as a great man, but here’s my problem with this story: He was a husband and father; those should have been his primary roles. Because he stayed in China when he was told to leave, he never even met his third daughter. He left his wife to raise three girls on her own and those girls grew up not having their dad. I know the World War was a different time and many people made sacrifices, but he could have easily found another way to help. The need back then was great, and no matter where he went, he could have made a difference. One of the problems I have with many pastors, teachers, and those in leadership is they help others to the detriment of their own families. When you get married, when you become a parent, your family should be your number one priority. It becomes selfish to help others instead of fulfilling your family responsibilities. Even if staying was his choice, while in the internment camp, he should have been taking better care of himself in order to live longer. By giving too much, he died sooner, which hurt the people around them more than if he had spent a little more time taking care of his own needs. Sometimes the best way to help others is to take care of ourselves.
The funny thing is, as I write this, I feel conflicted because watching the movie I was angry at him for leaving his family, but now I wonder if being a missionary herself, perhaps his wife wanted him to stay because she would’ve stayed with him if she didn’t have the kids to care for. Either way, losing her husband in this way would’ve caused her some confusing emotions. There’d be anger at the Japanese and that he didn’t leave with her, and sadness for his loss, and guilt for not having stayed with him.
Regardless of my opinion that he should’ve kept his family the priority, Eric Liddell earned the right to be considered a hero and inspiration. The world needs more people like Liddell who want to bring hope to the world and make it a better, loving place. His devotion to love and hope is inspiring.
This week may we all be a little more like Eric Liddell.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people