Monday Over Coffee: "Sequel"

Published November 13, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

I understand another round of superhero movies is on the way to our local theaters. It seems every superhero movie sets off a flood of sequels these days. And while many of these blockbuster sequels are quite entertaining, none of them offer us anything as authentically superheroic as what’s found in Stockholm at the Nobel Prize Museum. This museum, located in the heart of this most beautiful city, serves as a sort of Superhero Hall of Fame for the Whole Human Race, showcasing in a captivating way all the marvelous ideas and work of the men and women who have, since its inception in 1901, received a Nobel Prize. 

The entire museum is remarkable, but perhaps its most engaging and moving exhibit is, as it turns out, a superhero movie—a short film about the lives of some of the winners of the award, including the first person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Henri Dunant.

Born in 1828 in Switzerland, Dunant, as a teenager, started a club called the Thursday Association, a group of young men who studied the Bible then went into the city of Geneva to carry out the Gospel imperative of caring for those most in need. Though what came next for Dunant traced out a somewhat different plotline than his original Christian service, the work that followed can be thought of as a sequel to it—work which was itself a sequel to Jesus’ work as recorded in the New Testament.

After leaving school and working for a bank for a short time, Dunant traveled to French-occupied Algeria to start a trading company, but soon found himself embroiled in a series of business disputes. Petitioning the government for assistance, Dunant made his way to Northern Italy where the French emperor, Napoleon III, was fighting a war alongside the Italians against the Austrians. There, Dunant was soon caught up in the hostilities himself, not as a combatant, but as a witness to what became known as the Battle of Solferino. 

After the battle, more than 40,000 soldiers were left dying in the field. Shocked by the carnage, Dunant spontaneously organized the people, mostly women and girls, of a nearby town to provide emergency aid to the injured without regard to which side the soldiers had fought. Dunant then used his own money to buy supplies and set up makeshift hospitals, working closely with those he’d recruited.

After several weeks, upon returning to Switzerland, Dunant wrote a book about his experience called A Memory of Solferino in which he advocated for a new organization that would always remain neutral in war, delivering medical care and reducing the suffering of the wounded, regardless of allegiances. A small committee, of which Dunant was a part, first met to consider his idea on February 17, 1862, the date now considered the founding of the International Red Cross. 

Two years later, as a sequel to Dunant’s work establishing the Red Cross, he prompted the Swiss government to call a conference to develop a set of international rules for warfare along with a series of humanitarian laws related to those who found themselves adjacent to such combat. The work of the conference became known as the Geneva Conventions and set out not only how wounded and captured soldiers were to be treated, but that medical personnel bearing the symbol of a red cross on a white field were to be protected as they delivered their relief. 

During this momentous time, however, Dunant’s business interests suffered terribly from neglect, and he was soon involved in a scandalous bankruptcy, which led to his expulsion from the organizations he founded. A former rival at the Red Cross even used his influence so that Dunant would receive no help from his closest friends, and Dunant fell into debt and abject poverty.

It was not until 1895, some three decades later, that Dunant’s reputation was restored. After meeting him randomly on a walk, a German journalist decided to write a piece about Dunant and the birth of the Red Cross. Not only was the article widely read, but it was published at a pivotal moment in history. Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite, had just passed away in 1896 and had bequeathed his considerable fortune to a select committee charged with choosing men and women each year whose work and ideas had most benefited humankind in the realms of Science, Literature, Economics, and Peace. And in 1901, the committee awarded its very first Nobel Peace Prize to Henri Dunant—a man whose life’s work was fueled first by the Gospel ideas of Jesus Christ, then spent the rest of his days producing superheroic sequels to the original.

God—May I write a sequel to Christ’s life with my own. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk