John Rhys-Davies

Film Challenges to Make Life Count for Something.

During World War II, there emerged a group of Dutch Christians who helped smuggle Jews to safety. Corrie ten Boom, her family and many students were part of this resistance group. They lived out their faith by risking their lives to create safe houses and were responsible for helping save the lives of many Jews. Their story is told in the movie, Return to the Hiding Place. Risen sat down with John Rhys-Davies who played Eusi, a Jewish rabbi. Best known for his roles as Gimli the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and in Indiana Jones, Rhys-Davies has also starred in a variety of television and theater roles.

Risen Magazine: We’re seeing a wave in Hollywood of historic films. Why do you think it’s important for us to go back and tell some of these stories and highlight people we may not have heard about?John Rhys-Davies: We forget that the world isn’t solely about us. Every generation has a challenge and how you respond to that challenge is the moral mark of the generation. Return to the Hiding Place is an extraordinary story of young Christians who actually act morally to the point at which they are ready to die for their faith. What they believe in is not the existence of rock and roll, but to actually protect Jewish people from genocide. Some people are fortunate enough to understand where the bigger issues are and those who can stand to that and meet those challenges are heroes. This group of students were heroes.

RM: There’s a scene in the film where your character and the ten Booms have an argument about whether it is okay to lie to protect the lives of the innocent. They felt like it was a sin to lie, but I love how your character cited examples from the Bible like Rahab lying to protect the spies God had sent. We may not necessarily be in life or death situations but how would you explain the balance of living a life of integrity and when is it okay to lie?
JRD: That’s a tricky one! Our existence really comes from the survival characteristics of our ancestors. I come from the background of Orthodox believers in science and the orthodoxy evolution. It would seem from a scientific point of view that when you have generations of humans, our survival is down to their decision-making. There is not one of us who does not have in our ancestry a will to do whatever it takes so that this child survives. If you respect your ancestors, you will accept that that pragmatism is central to them.

One of the terrible mistakes we make in the 21st century is [that] we proclaim rights. We are full of rights. We forget that the other side of demand for rights is the assertion of responsibilities.

Survival for parents and children has to be a private thing. You do what you need to do in order to survive, in order that your child will survive. Once you get beyond that basic survival, life is richer and full of choices. We find it very confusing at times to behave. When men behave badly they confess to their wife or partner and somehow expect that will exonerate them. Is it right to lie sometimes? It is like that categorical imperative. If it is not right to torture any single person, than it is not right to torture and by and large we would go along with that. Except if my wife or child was in a city that was about to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon and by torture I could extract information and save them and the city, I would do it. For the students in Return to the Hiding Place, when they were doing these things to save the Jewish people, there was no certainty. It wasn’t certain that the bad guys would be defeated and the good guys would win and all still be alive. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Your guide has to be your moral compass.

RM: The film focuses on how this group of students stood firm in their Christian faith and risked their lives to save others. Many of the people they were saving were not from the same faith. What encouragement or challenge do you have for this generation of young people?
JRD: Recognize what is important. That is very hard. I grew up as a boy in Africa and I was one of the few people to actually see a slave ship. My father was a policeman and came home one day very angry and upset. He said, “Get in the car.” We went down to the docks and he said, “You see that ship? Twice a year it comes down from Saudi Arabia; stops here and goes on. On the way up it has cargo and on the way back it has two or three little black boys. They are taken back to Saudi Arabia as slaves.” This was in 1955. There is still slavery going on. I am not talking about sex trafficking. I am talking about taking people and selling them as slaves. That has to be an abomination. That has to be a cry to heaven that must be heard. In our modern society, we seem to be more concerned with not hurting each other’s feelings. It seems to me that there are far greater issues that have been neglected and neglected by the most powerful country in the world and its allies. Nobody wants to upset the status quo because the elephant in the room is Islam.

We are afraid of betraying our own sense of fairness. The right to the private conscience, private belief and the right not to be questioned is ingrained in us. The British got rid of a group of people that were strangling people in celebration of a goddess. They were ritual stranglers. They were wiped out in the 19th century because the British didn’t care about the religious beliefs. They understood that if it involves the murder of people they would not stand for it. These days we say, “That is their social expression and religious beliefs, They in a way have a right to kill people.”

In the end, you have to face up to the fact that you have to make good moral choices. If we don’t, we will lose the very basis of Western European civilization. It sounds as if I am a Christian. I would not categorize myself as Christian. But I know my debt. The resurrection for me is in equality of the sexes, in equality of all men and women, the right of free speech, the right of free association, the right of individual conscience. The notion of “I have a right to believe what I want and it is not determined by the emperor,” is really Christian and derived during the 2nd century when the Romans persecuted the Christians. One of the terrible mistakes we make in the 21st century is [that] we proclaim rights. We are full of rights. We forget that the other side of demand for rights is the assertion of responsibilities. In a way, The Return to the Hiding Place is a return to acceptance amongst an extraordinary group of students. The values that they had, and the rights that they felt they had a responsibility to; to protect the innocent and the weak and the persecuted. If I ever became a furor, I would forbid the use of the word “rights” unless it was in the same sentence as responsibilities.

RM: In the movie, the students were surprised that this type of thing was happening in their country because they lived in such an educated society. In the United States, we have a tendency to think that genocide and slavery could never happen here. We turn a blind eye to a lot of the social injustices that are going on because they don’t directly affect us. Why is this type of thinking dangerous?
JRD: “O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.” (Robert Burns, poet). Self-awareness is a prerequisite for a moral civilization. Self-awareness is hugely difficult to get into focus and into balance. Our priorities, how we define ourselves as human beings, is created by so much media input, television, and people we associate with. It is very hard to find your way and see yourself as you really are. T.S. Elliot calls it the common pursuit of true judgment. One of the hardest things I have found is persuading others to think [that] the things that are really important to you are important to them. It can also distract us from other things.

One example of this is that we were so consumed with the war that the [birth control] pill, while it liberates, also creates an extraordinary dip in the population. We have had the pill for 50 years.  Reproduction rates in Western Europe and the U.S. have fallen. In relative numbers, other people groups have grown and we are about to shrink. The baby boomers are starting to die off. They are a large segment of our society. In order to have a stable population, women need to have 2.1 babies. In Western Europe, we are only averaging 1.1-1.6. The replacement is going to come from places that are antithetical to the belief and value system of what we used to call Western European civilization. Unless we are prepared to recognize that and identify what it is we wish to preserve, we are going to lose Western European civilization. I think that’s a catastrophe for the world.

RM: What is your personal spiritual background?
JRD: These are the things I believe – equality, decency, compassion, and the right of all people to think privately what they believe. I come from a background that includes Africa and the Africa of my childhood was beautiful and splendid and dangerous. I’ve seen men who have killed. I’ve seen men hacked to pieces. My father was patrolling when one of the first genocides was taking place in Rwanda. We picked up a Tutsi who had both arms cut off and both legs cut off. He had crawled across the border. When you have seen horror like that, there is a little bit of your soul that hollows. Do I believe that the sacrifice of one person for the greater good is better than not? No, sometimes you must protect the one person for the greater good. It’s a question of judgment. If you have a frame of reference as Christians, making those calls may be more consistent. “Lord, what must I do to gain eternal life?” Give up all. It is not easy. For some of us, it is impossible. I suppose that is one reason why I will certainly not be of the elect. In round terms, we must now get the courage to stand up and think out of the box. Where there are failed states, we have got to find a way of intervening. Now that sounds like imperial inclusion. I’m of the opinion that if you save lives to save the lives of children, then if it takes imperial intrusion, then do it. But I will equally say, if you can come up with an alternative, I’m ready to listen.

One of the great disappointments of my life is that our world has become a dirtier, nastier and shabbier place. In the 60s we laughed at censorship and pornography. We were naïve enough to believe that if we abolished censorship that everyone would go out and buy pornography that people would read it and be done with it. We didn’t realize, because we weren’t prepared to listen from the previous generations that said pornography is dangerous. We thought that we knew better and we didn’t understand that pornography is as addictive as heroin. And what we have now is systemic child abuse. The men I grew up with would throw themselves under a truck to save the life of a child.

How do you define what a grown up is?  A grown up is someone who protects the lives of the young, old and the innocent. How do you know when you are a grownup? [It’s] when you understand that bullying is wrong and you don’t do it and protect others. The exploitation of children is, I have to use religious words because that is the only way to explain it, an abomination before the Lord. I’m really not interested in the psychological reasoning of why you feel it necessary to violate a child. It is monstrous that we allow a portion of our society to violate and harm children. We have lost our way as a society. If there is a God, I would say he would encourage moral debate. There’s a Proverb that says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” [Proverbs 25:2] I think that’s the right dance between man and God, to ask questions and to pursue answers even if you come to a dead end, as long as you are not harming people along the way. Some people would say not to inquire.

RM: What type of legacy do you want to leave?
JRD: The only legacy that really matters is the children and their children. That is the only real legacy. I think its only presidents that have to look at legacies. Actors are just entertainers. I would hope that my legacy would be that he did occasionally show signs of courage and expressions of things that he thought mattered. I’m paraphrasing, “the intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work.” [William Butler Yeats] We are very lucky to be able to choose the perfection of life. We are certainly not perfect in our work and we are certainly not perfect in our lives.

John Rhys-Davies

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