Last night our team braved the cold to attend the premiere of Darkest Hour in London’s glittering Leicester Square. The Christmas decorations were up, the stars were out, and Joe Wright’s gripping Winston Churchill biopic was enjoyed by a packed cinema audience.
Our community guests for the event included veterans from the Second World War, as well as from more recent conflicts. Retired Royal Marines Lance Corporal Justin Montague, who came with his wife Melissa, has served in Afghanistan – an experience which took him on a personal journey with a surprising destination. Justin is now training to be a Christian minister, saying that ‘my faith has grown deeper in the midst of my own “darkest hours”‘.
I spoke to him about the film’s exploration of leadership, and what this meant to him as someone who’s been a leader in two very different contexts.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of serving with the Royal Marines? What’s your journey been to where you are today?
I joined the Royal Marines in 2005 after completing a Sport Science degree. I was seeking an all encompassing career, a life vocation – not just a job. The military had always appealed to me: the distinct physical challenge and professionalism required to be a Royal Marine Commando was a real motivation.
I served eleven years including a seven-month tour of Afghanistan during the midst of UK Operational deployments to the country. It was a particularly difficult tour where I learned a lot about myself and grew stronger in my Christian faith. Afghanistan is such a beautiful country if you are able to see beyond the tension and unrest.
During my service I had the opportunities to compete in running for the Royal Marine and Royal Navy running teams across the UK and the United States.
Unfortunately, I also experienced some complex injuries and illness as a result of my service which required significant surgery and treatment. This was perhaps one of the hardest battles I faced physically, emotionally and spiritually.
How did you go about reconciling your faith with what was required of you in the military, and with your personal health battles?
People are often surprised when I say that these were not times I doubted my Christian faith but some of the greatest times of spiritual growth. I found it was about seeking God in those difficult and often testing times, learning to walk in the darkness and trusting that God was alongside. That my greatest strength is not how far or fast I can run or whether I have a Green Beret….but that my strength found is in the Lord.
To be where I am now from where I was seems miraculous.
To be where I am now from where I was for me seems miraculous. I am now currently studying theology, ministry and mission in Oxford and training to be a minister. I first felt a calling into ministry a number of years ago, an initial feeling of wanting to bring Christ to those serving. Having this affirmed by a Chaplain for whom I had great respect set me on the long pathway of really listening, reflecting, praying and discerning exactly what and where the Lord was calling me.
Darkest Hour is a story about what good leadership under pressure can look like. How important were leadership skills in your military role, and what do you think makes a good leader?
In the Royal Marines they are looking out for leadership potential from day one in recruit training. As a non-commissioned rank you may find yourself leading a section of 6-8 men in the most pressurised situations on the battlefield or simply leading a navigation exercise across Dartmoor. It’s not necessarily about age or experience, but the intensity and quality of the training means leaders often rise to the surface.
I recall my fellow Marine Dan taking control of our section during the midst of a patrol in Afghanistan after our section commander was severely injured following a surprise attack. Dan displayed remarkable calmness, courage and clarity of thought in an arduous 7-hour battle. His leadership to a disseminated section was truly inspirational and he was awarded the Military Cross for what he did that day.
Do you think being a leader in church is distinct from being a leader in the military? What’s distinctive about Christian leadership?
There are some similarities. Both in a Christian context and the military the leader is involved in a process of growth and development over time. There must also be a group of people in both contexts to inspire, influence and develop. Those being lead will want to feel accepted, aspire to and be appreciated by their leader. Finally, I believe another similarity is that there is always a shared purpose or objective that can either be stated or is implied.
What I think is the profound and important difference for a Christian leader, is the fact that Christian leadership is spiritually empowered and spiritually reliant. A Christian leader cannot perform their leadership responsibilities in their own strength, power, or wisdom. I believe that the most significant resource for becoming an effective Christian leader is the Holy Spirit’s influence, demonstrating a servant leadership that embodies the love and life of Christ.
The film shows us Churchill’s willingness to take risks, even if it means making military and personal sacrifices. What have your experiences taught you about risk and sacrifice? How will you take these lessons into your role as a minister?
Personally as a Christian, I believe that Jesus commands his followers to ‘pick up their cross and deny themselves’ (Luke 9.23). This may be leaving things of your past behind that you held dear or that you have been doing for all your life when he calls. Trusting God always mean some element of risk, stepping into the unknown. You can’t fully be sure of the outcome, but you can know that God’s plans are good if you seek him.
Leaving the Military, embarking on Ordination training, returning to university, discerning a curacy title post and considering where I will be in a few years, has all involved much change and sacrifice but I most certainly wouldn’t change it for the world.
Even though Churchill is now an iconic figure, we understand that he was a flawed man who made many mistakes. How can flawed leaders work towards integrity, and be an inspiration to others?
Humility is an endearing trait. Some of the most inspiring leaders I have worked for and with have demonstrated humility in their modesty and lack of ego, recognising their own limitations and also mistakes they have made. The ability to enable, encourage and bring out leadership in others, to stand up when you have made an error and to show your humanity can inspire those you lead.
There is an authenticity that speaks through a leader who displays their flaws, what they have learned and how they have changed. Some of the most moving sermons I have heard have displayed something authentic and human.
There is an authenticity that speaks through a leader who displays their flaws.
I believe that Christ is our example in humble servant leadership. He showed such humility and servanthood in washing his disciple’s feet before he went to the cross, and he calls his followers to emulate him, serving one another. Honesty, humility, ownership and integrity are characteristics integral in the Royal Marines as also to the Christian leader.
Darkest Hour also shows Churchill’s commitment to confronting evil, even at a high cost. What injustices do you personally feel called to confront in today’s world? How do you judge when – and how – it’s right to take a stand?
Social justice is a cause that is close to my heart. Considering people on the fringes, the marginalised and those in need. The Old Testament prophet Amos speaks in striking language about God’s passion for justice, and his care for the poor and persecuted. It is a fundamental issue that resonates throughout the Bible. It’s about not just orientating our actions towards toward certain laws, but also considering how best to help our neighbour in a particular situation. Our neighbour is any fellow human, best seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Being a voice on behalf of those who suffer injustice should always be our starting point.
Being a voice on behalf of those who suffer injustice and developing an ethic of love for all humanity should always be our starting point. Recognising when to act and when to simply wait are difficult, but the Christian leader should always be seeking in prayer.
Finally, how would you rate the film itself? What did you think of its take on the idea of leadership?
Intense, inspiring and deeply emotive, Darkest Hour convincingly portrayed the pressures and responsibilities of leadership in the Geo-political arena and the pivitol decisions that turned the history of a nation perhaps the world. Churchill himself was shown to demonstrate that conviction of heart and decision to convince parliament, the people and the king himself against the odds to unite a shared vision. But the movie also captured his humility and humanity outside of the spotlight showing behind every effective leader is a team, a loving family and trusted aide. My wife and I left the film deeply moved and inspired.
Sophie Lister is the editor of the Damaris Media blog