Faith Works 4-14-12
Down With the Old Canoe
One hundred years ago tonight.
It's a disaster that some might argue has gotten attention far out of scale with the magnitude of the suffering and death involved.
Thousands have died in many other occasions around that time, and with more direct documentation by survivors and even from victims just before their passing: the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake & fires, the Mississippi floods of 1927.
But when the RMS Titanic went down on the night of 14-15 April 1912, resulting in 1,514 deaths, a story began that continues to the present day. We keep retelling it, and analyzing it, and considering it. The story of survival, and the narrative of sacrifice, woven into a fabric of inevitability and avoidability.
2,224 souls were aboard her when she sailed from the Irish coast into the icy Atlantic, so 710 lived to tell the tale. As is well known, there were only lifeboats for about half the total complement, not out of sheer indifference to human life, but because the assumptions around Titanic's solidity did not focus on her being "unsinkable" (one of many popular assumptions that don't hold water, if you'll forgive the phrase, on close consideration), but that she was at least durable enough that in an emergency, she would float long enough for aid to come, and the boats would casually shuttle the passengers and then crew to the waiting vessels.
One iceberg disproved that theory, and one telegraph officer wanting to get to bed on a nearby ship closed off that option. Does anyone not know these stories?
But here's what we don't know, and the reason why Titanic isn't and won't be going away anytime soon.
What would we do?
The tale of the Titanic is unique simply in that you have a broad arc of the human condition (steerage, second class, first class; stokers, pursers, officers), and a need for swift decisions, yet in a context that takes just enough time for few to say they were rushed, at least until the very end.
Two and a half hours, from impact to sinking, and the question: what would you do?
For years I've had a variety of occasions to preach on the Four Chaplains (and written about them here in this column). The USAT Dorchester was torpedoed on the night of Feb 3, 1943, and swiftly sank. 230 of 904 on that troopship survived; the four chaplains traveling with the troops supervised handing out lifejackets, and when the supply ran out, they gave soldiers their own, supervised the loading of the lifeboats (again, not enough for all) and were seen standing together, praying with linked arms, as the Dorchester sank.
It's a moving story, and yet it's what we expect in many ways – not that all of us clergy can always be certain that our commitment to Christ will be that complete. The Four Chaplains deserve to be remembered, but their story doesn't quite grasp everyone the same way Titanic does.
Because male or female, young or old, in love or standing alone, the circumstances of those last moments in April 15, 1912 force any one of us to ask: what would we have done? Or more terrifyingly: if the moment of decision comes, what would we do? To give up our seat on a lifeboat, to hand to a younger person our lifevest – or simply to keep our heads while all about us are losing theirs. What would we do?
Titanic is now a movie and a traveling blockbuster exhibit and really, now, a brand. Yet I think the week after Easter makes it a fit subject for reflection and consideration: if we are called upon to sacrifice for another, would we? When should we? If everyone on the Titanic had refused to get into a boat until everyone else could, you would have had a macabre game of "After you, Alphonse," and a killing chaos all its own. But the answer can't be "devil take the hindmost," either.
When are we called upon to sacrifice? When the water is rising, when the pressures of life are upon us, when choices need to be made?
And does it help to make that choice in the knowledge that one's heart, one's soul, does indeed go on?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he doesn't much like ships in the first place. Tell him your nautical tales at email@example.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.