Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, April 16, 2012

R.M.S. Titanic: A Parable for Our Time

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Matthew 23:37

My pastor made a striking statement last Sunday: God’s people always hated, ignored or killed every prophet sent to them.
Did you ever wonder why?  I have.

I suspect it’s because prophets are always telling us to change course, and no one likes that. We are free.  We’ve set our course.  We’ve got important things to do. Who are you to warn us? Do you think we’re blind or something?

This April, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of the world’s most infamous ignored warnings.  On April 14, 1912, Captain Edward Smith of R.M.S. Titanic had been receiving warnings all day of icebergs off Newfoundland, where his magnificent ship was running at its top speed of 22.5 knots.  At 9:00 in the black, moonless evening, he retired for the night with his ship still racing at full steam.

Ignored warnings: The Titanic never slowed down
Down in the wireless room, 25-year-old operator Jack Phillips was busy sending the day’s accumulated telegrams to the wireless station at Cape Race, Newfoundland.  At 9:40 a nearby steamship, the Mesaba, interrupted him with warnings of large icebergs in the Titanic’s path.  But Phillips was really busy.  Around 11:00, another ship, S.S. Californian, interrupted him again to report that they had come to a full stop and were surrounded by ice.

All this wireless chatter made it impossible for Phillips to get his telegrams out. "Shut up!” replied the frazzled Phillips. “Shut up, I am busy working Cape Race!"  The Californian complied, and fatefully shut off their wireless for the night.

Forty minutes later, a horrified lookout in the Titanic’s crow’s nest saw something huge dead ahead in the inky blackness.  The doomed ship had only about thirty seconds to react before impact. Within hours, 1,514 men, women and children were dead -- more than two-thirds of all those who had boarded her four days earlier.

In our day, few people have devoted more of their lives to understanding the Titanic than director James Cameron, who gave us the Oscar-winning film about the disaster in 1997.  Last week, Cameron spoke at length with National Geographic Channel, casting the Titanic as a parable for our times. Cameron sees a menacing iceberg in the path of global civilization, and it is climate change.

You can watch the video above, or read the text, but here’s what he said:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. Well, where have we heard that one before?

There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.

Within that human system on board that ship, if you want to make it a microcosm of the world, you have different classes, you’ve got first class, second class, third class. In our world right now you’ve got developed nations, undeveloped nations.

You’ve got the starving millions who are going to be the ones most affected by the next iceberg that we hit, which is going to be climate change. We can see that iceberg ahead of us right now, but we can’t turn.

We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum. There too many people making money out of the system, the way the system works right now and those people frankly have their hands on the levers of power and aren’t ready to let ‘em go.

Until they do we will not be able to turn to miss that iceberg and we’re going to hit it, and when we hit it, the rich are still going to be able to get their access to food, to arable land, to water and so on. It’s going to be poor, it’s going to be the steerage that are going to be impacted. It’s the same with Titanic.

I think that’s why this story will always fascinate people. Because it’s a perfect little encapsulation of the world, and all social spectra, but until our lives are really put at risk, the moment of truth, we don’t know what we would do. And that’s my final word.

Cameron’s stark assessment of the fate of the world’s poor – in the face of our ignored warnings about climate change – should move all people of goodwill to urgent action, but especially followers of Jesus Christ.  Because even wealthy Christians  know that the worst effects of climate change will not fall heavily on them – like the first-class passengers on the Titanic.  But the man they claim as their own has cast his lot with the hordes trapped below in steerage.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” he declared when he launched his ministry, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 14:18).

In the end, Christ does have wonderful news for the poor: news of redemption, news of adoption as sons of God, of a new creation, and of cosmic justice.  But I tremble to think of the fate of those whose power and wealth propels today’s ship of state, and who are relentlessly driving God’s most treasured possessions toward catastrophe.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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