But if Not

Standing in the Face of Adversity

In early 1940 the British and their allies sent a force of some 350,000 men into the low countries of Europe to stem the tide of German advance into France, Belgium, and Holland. Caught in a brilliant pincer movement by the invading German forces, the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force was pushed back to the beaches of the small Belgian town of Dunkirk.

To everyone’s surprise, the Germans halted their advance to regroup. As England and the world waited for what appeared to be the sure and certain annihilation of 350,000 men, a three word message was transmitted from the besieged army at Dunkirk. It read simply, “But if not.”

The British people understood the biblical importance of the cryptic message. It was a reference to the Old Testament book of Daniel, where Daniel and his friends chose death rather than worship an image of the pagan king:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, let it be known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.—Daniel 3:17–18

The British Expeditionary Army, surrounded, cutoff, and on the brink of destruction, declared to Britain and to the world that even in apparent defeat they were, in fact, victorious. The message, more eloquent than a sermon delivered in St. Paul’s Cathedral, galvanized the British people. In a matter of hours, thousands of boats of every description crossed the dangerous waters of the English Channel. At the risk of losing their own lives from enemy fire, they evacuated the heroic but beleaguered army in what historians now refer to as “the miracle of Dunkirk.”

The bravery of the Hebrew boys and the British soldiers are wonderful historic stories from which we draw great inspiration. In a day where many are bowing down to culture, societal pressure, moral degradation, and secular religion, may each of us stand compassionately in our communities with the “But if not” spirit!

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