Dunkirk is one of those movies which, if I was to comment on all of the rich spiritual parallels I saw, I could write a small novel. It’s tempting, but I’ll spare you. I’ll get you started with a few thoughts and leave you to draw more parallels of your own.
Regarding the 400,00 soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, the movie starts with these words: “Trapped at Dunkirk. They await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” It was awful to watch—they were just fish in a barrel. The men were taking fire from land, air and sea. They were completely exposed. Vulnerable. And for the few who found what seemed like shelter, it was no better—they were simply trapped and unable to escape when attack came. Men who were “rescued” by naval ship were trapped when it sunk. Men on the beach were open targets. There was no refuge, no escape, no hiding… And every hope they had seemed to fail them.
I was losing it from the first words of the movie: “They were hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” I had just heard from a friend who was in a similar situation, metaphorically at least. Mentally, emotionally, financially spiritually… he’d been under enemy fire in every area of his life. He felt trapped and lost. He didn’t know where to go, who to turn to. He’s spent his life trying all the rescues the world has to offer: women, substances, work, family, good works, religion, you name it. Everything the world says would save him, would take him to a place of safety and love, to the home he’s really longing for… every one of those “rescues” had sunk. And like the young soldier in the movie, he’d jumped off a sinking ship, swam to shore, found a safe place to hide, been attacked, escaped again, and so on. Now he’s out of options and desperate, depressed and emotionally shell-shocked.
Our world is FULL of people who are stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk, taking enemy fire, desperate for rescue. The enemy comes to “steal, kill and destroy” and he’s doing his best to come at us from every angle so that there is no escape, or at least, so that we believe there is no escape. And judging by my friend, he’s done a pretty good job convincing most people that there is no hope, no miracle, no rescue.
There was a rescue for them, but it came from an unexpected source: civilians. Men from England who had yachts, fishing vessels, boats of any sort, took the day’s journey to Dunkirk and risked their lives to rescue as many soldiers as they could put on their boats. One man, Mr. Dawson, picked up a lone soldier in the water on the way. The soldier was shocked to discover they weren’t going to England but to Dunkirk first. “I’m not going back. If we go there, we’ll die.” He knew. He’d been there. But, Mr. Dawson was no fool. He was not naïve about the risks. He also wasn’t calculating the risks, but the need. (I literally just wrote this article about how God doesn’t call us to safety, but to obedience. Mr. Dawson and Dunkirk give such a beautiful picture/example of this truth.) He and his young son (and countless others) didn’t go to their aid because it was safe, they went because they were needed.
The young soldier questioned what good this old man with a yacht could do against such a powerful military enemy. I love Mr. Dawson’s wisdom and resolve.
Shell-shocked soldier: You’re an old man!
Mr. Dawson: Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children into it?
Shell-shocked soldier: You belong at home!
Mr. Dawson: If we don’t help, there won’t be any home. …There’s no hiding from this, son.
Shell-shocked soldier: You don’t even have guns!
Mr. Dawson: Did you have a gun? … Did it help you against the U-boats or the torpedoes or…?
The obvious answer was yes, he had a gun, and no, it didn’t help. We are so tempted to put our confidence in men, in might, in weapons, in knowledge and strategy. Those things have their place, but the Bible says that God uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. It also says, “’Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.” If you look through the Bible, God has some crazy battle strategies, like walking around a wall for days. Like going in with only 300 men to fight 300,000. God’s ways are not our ways.
In Dunkirk, He used civilians and pleasure yachts to rescue nearly 400,000 men from certain death. In the spiritual realm, He used the death of His son, Jesus to rescue the world, all who would believe, from certain death. And He uses Christians, those of us who follow Jesus, to bring that rescue to those who are still trapped. We are those little civilian boats, and we are supposed to set sail, risk dangerous seas, enemy fire, long voyages, and even shell-shocked soldiers who aren’t in their right minds, to bring as many as we can back to safety, to a place of home…to the truth of Jesus.
The tag-line of the movie says, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” This is the thing—spiritually, we can’t get “home” without help. Our sin has us trapped. Jesus had to come rescue us. Home had to come for us. And now that He has made a way, He’s sending us to bring home to the world, because they can’t get their on their own. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one gets “home”, to the Father, without Him.
I am reading the book Loveable, by Kelly Flanagan and I came across this quote yesterday: “The people we belong to are filled with grace and spill it wherever they go. And one place they’ve committed to go is toward us. Even when it means driving into the storm to get us.” He might have said into the battle. It’s true. Those civilians went into the battle because those boys were their boys. Their people. Their sons. Their soldiers. When your people are in danger, you go into the danger to rescue them. That’s what love does.
At Dunkirk, however, it wasn’t just English men, but French men, too, on that beach. And they were all rescued. The English didn’t only rescue the English people, but everyone on that beach—because they saw their fellow man as their brother, as their own. When we realize that our people aren’t just the ones in church next to us, but they’re the ones who are still on the beach, taking enemy fire, lost, scared, alone, desperate for help… When we realize that our fellow man is our people, we start caring that all of them get to safety. We start to care about God’s plan that every nation, every tongue, every tribe comes to know who He is. And then we go into the battle, into the jungle, into the inner city, into the jails, and the homeless shelters and suburbia… We start to go wherever there are people and we pray for them and we tell them about Jesus.
It’s risky. We may get hurt or even killed in the process. But men are desperate and dying all around us. Who are we to save our own lives when thousands are dying all around us? And here’s the thing, at the end of the day, we may be risking our lives for an evacuation and that may seem a small win when there’s a battle to be won. It may even feel like retreating or failure.
There was an old man greeting the boys as they came off the ship, telling them “Well done, lads. Well done.” A rescued soldier replied, “[But] all we did was survive.” “That’s enough,” the old man replied. He understood. A rescue is a victory in itself, even when it’s simply a retreat from the enemy fire. As the newspaper said, “Wars are not won by evacuations, but there is a victory inside this evacuation which should be noted.”
In regards to the Battle of Dunkirk’s importance, Christopher Nolan stated: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.” 
The same is true in the spiritual. Let us not be discouraged when our work to rescue souls seems to us nothing more than a temporary reprieve. Sometimes that’s a victory in itself. Sometimes we are called to simply rescue someone from their immediate circumstances so that the hope of more permanent victory can sink into their souls. Sometimes it is that present relief which allows them to gather strength to fight the enemy again from a better position, from one in which they might win. Sometimes we fight off the immediate danger of starvation so that someone might hear later of the love of Jesus. But the truth is, in that first rescue that we dared, they also heard of the love of Jesus, the love which compelled us to go into the bloody battle toward them in their time of need.
Oh that our eyes might be opened to the desperate hopelessness of our fellow man in his need. And that the love of Christ might so compel us to risk all for his rescue. That is what Jesus did, and if we say we follow Him, how can we do any less?
Questions for Discussion:
- What types of things do we look to for salvation?
- Why do you think civilians were willing to go to Dunkirk? Would you have done the same?
- Who do you know that is in a metaphorical Dunkirk, feeling trapped and desperate and taking enemy fire?
- What have you risked to help rescue your fellow man? What can you do?
For a list of quotes from Dunkirk, click here.
 John 10:10
 1 Corinthians 1:27
 Zechariah 4:6
 Isaiah 55
 John 14:6
 Flanagan, K. (2017). Loveable: Embracing What Is Truest About You, So You Can Truly Embrace Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.