Can we deserve or earn grace?
This is a question one is called to ponder in the classic war movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan was jointly released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures in 1998 to critical and popular acclaim. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winning five, it has been listed by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest American movies of all time.
Central to the movie is the theme of sacrifice. During World War II, a team of eight soldiers is sent on a rescue mission to bring one soldier, Private James Ryan, home to his mother. His three brothers had been killed during the war, and the Army Chief of Staff resolved that three sons were enough for any mother to lose to the war. So the team, led by Captain Miller, is dispatched to the French countryside, behind enemy lines, to look for him and get him out. But before they find the soldier, two members of the team are killed. And when they do find Private Ryan, he is unwilling to desert his fellow comrades and return to the safety of his home. What does the rescue team do? Return back to America and inform their superiors that their mission is completed since they found him but he was unwilling to leave? No. Instead, they chose to stay with him until his task, which was to secure a key bridge against an imminent attack by German forces, was done. At the end of the day, only two members of the rescue team remain alive. The rest, including Captain Miller, are killed in the ensuing battle with German forces who strive unsuccessfully to take control of the bridge.
From the start of the mission, one question that pops up is this: Why make such an enormous sacrifice for just one person? Why would the Chief of Staff commit eight personnel to rescue one person. In fact, one of the soldiers, Private Rieben, would even ask:
“Where is the sense in risking the lives of eight of us to save one guy?”
It just doesn’t make sense…unless. Such an expenditure only makes sense if human life is really that valuable.
But on what basis?
Nothing in the movie indicates a departure from the dominant worldview in Hollywood, which is secular humanism. This is an outlook on life which regards humanity as its own lord, and generally ignores God or his revelation. And despite Private Jackson’s habitual quoting of scripture as he fires at enemy soldiers on different occasions, no one on the team appears to be motivated by a religious worldview. They were simply obeying orders.
However, the worth of an individual cannot be sustained on secular grounds. Secular worldviews, which deny the creation of humanity by and in the image of a personal God, cannot account for why any human person is of more significance than, say, a sparrow (cf. Matthew 10:31). Only the Christian perspective can logically provide such an estimate of the human race.
Furthermore, the movie, perhaps unwittingly, also prompts us to reflect on the Sacrifice which is at the centre of the Christian story. Just before he dies, after being mortally wounded by the German soldiers, Captain Miller instructs Ryan to ‘earn’ the sacrifice made to get him back home. And at the end of the movie, as the now aged Ryan stands over the tombstone of his benefactor many years later, he wonders to himself whether he has been ‘a good person’. He considers whether he has ‘earned’ his rescue.
In order to get humanity out of the mess it had made, God made a sacrifice. And this was a sacrifice which can never be ‘earned’ or ‘merited’; it involved God laying down the life of his own son (cf. John 3:16). As that key verse of the Bible puts it, God’s sacrifice was a result of sheer love. Because humanity in its endless diversity across race, gender, or class is valuable and precious, God made a sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice – to bring us back to a relationship with himself. Through this restored relationship, we get to become our true selves. And he invites us to receive this free and unearned blessing by trusting in him.