“Every Man for Himself”
“Women and Children First”
It’s the middle of the night. There’s a horrific, ungodly noise and everything shudders.
The ship you’re on has just collided with a large rock. Immediately 100 men are drowned in their beds as water pours into the cabins. Precious minutes remain before the ship is entirely flooded. The end has come. People are panicking! Everyone crowds together on the deck and the captain points to the lifeboats and announces, “women and children first!”
That sounds right. Doesn’t it? That’s what we’ve come to expect. Only a coward would argue. It’s just the acceptable thing to do… we’re supposed to look out for others, especially those who are weaker or in need of help.
But it may surprise you to learn that when it comes to sinking ships, the tradition of “women and children first” is actually a fairly recent one. It apparently all started in 1852 with the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead. Just off the coast of Africa, sometime after midnight on February 26, the 2000 ton warship hit an uncharted rock that was just below the surface of the water. This rock is today known as danger point and in rough seas it is clearly visible, but on calmer nights it’s undetectable. Almost immediately, one fifth of the passengers drowned, asleep in their beds as cold water rushed in. The other crew and passengers crowded onto the poop deck, the captain of the ship gave an order…
“Everyman for himself” and he promptly abandoned ship.
So much for women and children first!
There were in fact 7 women and 13 children on board. All the other passengers were soldiers and officers in Her Majesty’s Royal Army. But contrary to what you might expect, chaos did not ensue. There was no mad rush of people trying their best to run a little faster than the next guy. Instead, the commanding officer called the soldiers into formation. He feared that if they all rushed the lifeboats the women and children would be swamped and perish.
The brave men obeyed.
As is often the case in historical accounts like this, there weren’t nearly enough lifeboats; so when the boats were filled to capacity and set adrift, the remaining soldiers stayed in formation even as the ship struck again and again against the rock, broke into two pieces, and sank. These men honorably, firmly, and courageously held their position until the last.
Of the roughly 650 souls on board, less than 200 survived. Some of the soldiers who went down with the ship managed to swim the 2 or 3 miles to the African mainland. But only some. Most, according to actual survivor accounts, were eaten by the sharks. Did I mention that the waters were shark infested?
How incredible that these men had the presence of mind to swim toward the shore rather than toward the lifeboats which were adrift nearby. If they had the life boats would have surly been capsized. Instead, even as they were struggling to survive and avoid the sharks, they chose to sacrifice themselves to give the women and children a chance to live. What incredible, selfless love and sacrifice!
Normally, when death and danger are at hand survival instinct kicks in and you just “do what you gotta do” to save yourself, but on the HMS Birkenhead history was changed for the better and it begs the question for each of us: When the moment of danger comes and the ship is going down, what’s it going to be? “Women and children first” or “Every man for himself”. In perilous times, when the end is near, people can be divided into two groups: Those who are only looking out for themselves and those who recognize the need to look out for others.
So what kind of person are you?
I’m using this story in my sermon for tonight’s midweek Lenten service at St. Paul. Our sermon text is 1 Peter 4:7-11 and Peter begins with these words, “The end of all things is near!”
What a way to get people’s attention!
Indeed, you might say that this world is like a sinking ship. The end is coming. We may not know the day or the hour, but like a ship taking on water, we know the end is near and it’s only a matter of time… So what kind of people ought we to be?
Peter is writing to Christians who faced all sort of trials and persecutions for their faith. Their lives were filled with suffering. It probably seemed natural to think “every man for himself!” But Peter points them to Jesus AND to each other and says, “therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides…” (1 Peter 4:7b-11)
When life is hardest and the end seems near, Peter urges these Christians to stand firm and act honorably, putting others first for the sake of Christ.
I write this a few days before Laetare Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent. It’s a Sunday that traditionally is seen as a bright spot in the normally somber Lenten season of the church year. In the Old Roman Catholic Church, Laetare Sunday provided a brief relaxation of many of the Catholic prohibitions against eating meat, and other pleasures during Lent. The reason for this?
Because Easter was in sight! And that changes everything…
Let me remind you, today, that it is this same Easter hope that gives definition to our lives, too. Our lives are like one long season of Lent with a blessed Easter Resurrection on the horizon. This unique hope shapes us in the most fantastic way. By faith, we wonder at the incredible truth that God so loved the world that He laid down His life for us and died! He gave his Son Jesus Christ! And this means our lives bear the indelible mark of this self-sacrifice—this God-sacrifice. It spells out our calling, reminding us always that we cannot just be individuals floating through life in our own little lifeboats privately awaiting heaven—living our lives unaffected by others. Absolutely, not! “Every man for himself” is not the Christian way. It cannot be so, for Christian love always expresses itself with love for others. A self-absorbed Christian is a contradiction in terms.
In short, we need the church. We need the gathering. We need other Christians. We need to be in worship. And this might explain why we add extra worship services to our Lenten routine. It draws us out of our “Every man for himself” pattern of living, reminding us of who we are again. We are the people of God! Easter is coming.