My Enemy, My Brother

The Japanese occupation of Singapore during the Second World War is still very much in the consciousness of people. Before the war it was thought that Singapore was an impregnable fortress but the onslaught of the Japanese proved what an illusion that idea was. Although the Japanese were cruel conquerors of whoever was too weak to resist them, they especially hated the Chinese. And three-fourths of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese.

There are stories too numerous to recount of random round-ups that ended with the slaughter of husbands, sons and brothers. Petty crimes resulted in immediate executions. Indignities were commonplace. The three years of occupation left the populace on the brink of starvation. On the eastern tip of Singapore is the infamous Changi Prison, a site where countless thousands died either because of the vicious acts inflicted directly or because of the privations allowed.

 As happened when the Nazis marched through Europe, the Japanese disbanded The Salvation Army when they seized control. There were but two corps in Singapore in those days but the buildings were shut tight, worship forbidden, uniforms confiscated and destroyed, the officers sent to Changi Prison. But as it had countless other times when Salvationists were deprived of their beloved Army, the soldiers endured.  Somehow they managed to get back into the corps building and smuggle out the Mercy Seat, camouflaging it under a coat of paint, hoping that its original color and place would one day be restored.

In secret, handfuls of soldiers met together in gatherings that the military government said they couldn’t have. There they quietly sang songs of The Salvation Army, prayed and comforted each other. As the war dragged on, some of their comrade Salvationists would be executed, others waste away in the prison, others lose faith. But these continued.

 How strange it must have been the first time it happened. Maybe they never knew his name, a decision made to protect them or himself. Perhaps he told them but the years erased it from memory although not erasing the memory of the man. But one day a Japanese soldier found the Salvationists. He was wearing the uniform of the Imperial Japanese Army, the same one that enforced the starvation diet, that marched away their young men and killed or spared as the result of unpredictable whim. But he did not come to represent that army. He had belonged to The Salvation Army as a soldier in his native Japan. He only wanted to worship with other Salvationists, to hear the songs of the movement that the conquered and the conqueror loved, to pray and to share with those whose common bond was the Army that was owned by no nation. He came week after week, never betraying the Singapore Salvationists and they never betraying him. In spirit they joined other Salvationists before and since who held the Army in their hearts when every outside evidence was stolen away. Their forbidden songs have echoed with the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome or the dungeons of the Inquisition. They risked because they loved.

When finally the war ended the Japanese left and the secret Salvationist withdrew with them. When the Singaporeans remember their suffering during this darkest hour of their history, there are a handful of Salvation soldiers who remember the one Japanese soldier and recall that not all bore arms against them wished them harm.

When the Salvationists removed the covering paint from their Mercy Seat they also recalled that below the surface it had always been wholly the Lord’s. If so for furniture, how much more for a person? The testimony of the enemy who was a brother proved the truth again.