Perhaps no living member of the United States Senate commanded the kind of respect enjoyed by Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Shortly after discontinuing treatment for his advanced and aggressive form of brain cancer, the eighty-one year old politician was dead, and thousands across the Republic mourned the loss of America’s Senator.
A self-proclaimed “maverick”, McCain was known for his rare decency in political discourse, his willingness to work across the ideological aisle, and his decorated military service on behalf of the country he adored.
Indeed, it was that service in Vietnam, where he languished five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, soldiering through the brutalest of tortures, which helped launch McCain’s successful and lengthy political career, gaining him respect in the eyes of allies and opponents alike.
Maverick, though he may have been, McCain stood in a long line of individuals who had had their deepest beliefs tested in the fires of physical and psychological torment.
Indeed, in reading the harrowing details of McCain’s stay at the “Hanoi Hilton”, one notices the similarities between his story and that of another political prisoner more than 5000 miles away.
That prisoner was Richard Wurmbrand.
Wurmbrand was a Romanian convert to Christianity and preacher living in Romania during the Cold War who spent fourteen years in Communists prisons for his faith in Jesus before his release three years before John McCain’s ordeal.
Like McCain, who elected to serve his country in the United States Navy, Wurmbrand felt a divine call to service on behalf of his nation, a Holy Nation, and became a minister of the Gospel in his native Romania, even as the Communists were making such an occupation as difficult and dangerous as possible.
Both men would suffer dearly for their service.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War, McCain’s aircraft was shot down over Hanoi.
Once pulled to shore, he was greeted by a band of North Vietnamese who beat and stabbed him with the butt and bayonet of a rifle, treating the freshly minted POW to a sampling of the hell that was to come.
Nearly twenty-two years prior, the Church in Communist-controlled Romania was facing a war of its own.
At a Soviet-sponsored clerical assembly in 1945, Richard Wurmbrand and his wife Sabina, herself a radical disciple, sat in horror as priests and pastors, one after another, rose and extolled the supposed the compatibility between the Kingdom of Christ and the politics of the Communist state.
Finally, Sabina tuned to her husband and said, “Richard, stand up and wash away this shame from the face of Christ.”
He replied, “If I speak, you will lose your husband”, reminding her of the high cost of defying the Soviets.
With that, Sabina issued him a firm challenge: “I do not wish to have a coward for a husband.”
“Then I arose”, Wurmbrand recounted in his book “Tortured for Christ”, “and spoke to the congress, praising not the murderers of Christians, but Christ and God and said that our loyalty is due first to Him” (15-16).
The brave minister was promptly put on a list and, three years later, arrested and imprisoned.
Wurmbrand and McCain spent three and two years, respectively, of their time incarcerated in solitary confinement.
To keep from losing their sanity, both men passed the days by writing, using the only means available to them: their minds.
“I used to write books and plays, McCain recalled, “but I doubt that any of them would have been above the level of the cheapest dime novel.”
Wurmbrand composed sermons, explaining, “Every night I delivered a sermon. There was no visible audience, but I preached to God. I preached to the angels.”
Though perhaps even worse than the isolation was the physical abuse.
The atrocities visited upon Wurmbrand and other believers in the Communist prisons have to be read to be believed:
Christians were put in ice-box “refrigerator cells” which were so cold, frost and ice covered the inside. I was thrown into one with very little clothing on. Prison doctors would watch through an opening until they saw symptoms of freezing to death, then they would give a warning and guards would rush in to take us out and make us warm. When we were finally warmed, we would immediately be put back in the ice-box cells to freeze—over and over again! Thawing out, then freezing to within just one minute or two of death, then being thawed out again. It continued endlessly. Even today sometimes I can’t bear to open a refrigerator (36-37)
Writing of his own tortuous experiences, McCain said, “I had been reduced to an animal during this period of beating and torture”, at one point enduring a succession of beatings by various prison guards every few hours for days until finally agreeing to write a confession of guilt.
Yet for all the similarities between their stories, the greatest point of divergence is reflected in how they reacted to the very people who caused them such misery.
In a first person account of his captivity, written in 1973, the language McCain used to describe his prison guards spoke to a fresh wound seeping anger and resentment.
While a professing Christian who prayed and knew the Scriptures, the grace to forgive his tormentors eluded the elderly statesman.
In the starkest of contrasts, even while still imprisoned, Wurmbrand and many of his fellow Christian inmates prayed for and desired the salvation of their captors:
In the jailors who whipped us we saw the possibilities of the jailor of Philippi who first whipped St Paul and then became a convert…It was in prison that we found hope for the communists, that they will be saved. It was there that we developed a sense of responsibility toward them. It was in being tortured by them that we learned to love them. (60)
My point here is not to condemn John McCain. I can only thank God I have never suffered a fraction of what he did.
Yet, here we see the clear differences between the politics of the kingdoms of world and the politics of the Kingdom of Jesus.
John McCain went to Vietnam to kill his enemies on behalf of his country.
- Richard Wurmbrand went to prison with a vision of giving to his enemies life through the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
John McCain swore himself to hate, resentment, and unforgiveness towards his enemies who made his life a living hell while in captivity.
- Richard Wurmbrand, by God’s power, was given a supernatural love for his enemies in the very face of their cruelty.
John McCain had an unflagging vision to protect, spread, and preserve the principles of his country, the United States of America, above all others.
- In solitary confinement, Richard Wurmbrand prayed “for America, for Britain, for Africa, for Australia, for New Zealand, [for] Germany, [and] France”, for their churches and children, knowing “you [the Christians there] pass a good time of your night praying for the prisoners in Communist countries.”
This was a man who understood that the Kingdom of God, not any earthly nation or national principle, is the hope of mankind, and who toiled to make that hope known around the world until his death at ninety-one.
As radical disciples, we feel uncomfortable with the lionizing and romanticizing of war stories and nationalism, both of which fly in the face of our Lord Jesus’ teachings.
Therefore, when our sons and daughters look up and around for heroes to emulate, let us point them to men and women like Richard and Sabina Wurmbrand who embodied the Savior’s words in Matthew 5:11-12:
“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.”