Can individual choices triumph over collective destinies?
The movie Dunkirk shows the fate of thousands of helpless Allied soldiers trapped on the shores of Dunkirk, in 1940, during the early years of World War 2.
Unless the Allied soldiers are rescued soon, they will be killed or captured by the advancing German army. But even as they passively wait for an improbable rescue, they are helpless targets for hissing bullets and screeching bombs, delivered from vulture-like enemy planes above.
Visually, the movie is stunning, showing swarms of Allied soldiers, moving en masse as a collective whole. Often we only see the tops of their helmets. They look like a colony of ants moving in unison as they stand, run, or duck for cover.
Although the movie also focuses on the plight of a handful of individual soldiers, their fate is ultimately due to forces out of their control. No amount of individual bravery can determine whether or not they survive. Ultimately that is in the hands of other forces – the weather, the tides, enemy pilots, and brave rescuers.
The movie is a wake up call for our Western individualism. Yes, we make our own independent free choices. But ultimately we are more than the sum of our individual choices. We belong to a collective humanity. We have a collective identity. And we have a collective fate.
We give ourselves too much credit for our successes. (We didn’t get to choose our parents, what country we grew up in, or what schools we went to.) But we also don’t recognise sufficiently our failures. Maybe the shortcomings – pride, envy, hate – that we see in other individuals also exist in our collective whole.
The Bible says, for a variety of reasons, that as a collective humanity we fall short of where we should be. Our collective destiny is death, isolation, and separation.
No amount of individual brilliance, bravery and benevolence can reverse this.
But Jesus comes to give us a new collective humanity. One where, in him, we have a new collective destiny of life, restoration and hope.
No amount of individual failure and brokenness will reverse this either. Ultimately, our rescue is in the hands of Jesus.