The Titanic — the lessons 100 years on
The sinking of the Titanic on 14 April 1912 (March ET, Youth Feature) marked a historic watershed. The official British statistics, given in the House of Commons, were 1503 passengers and crew ‘not saved’ and 703 ‘saved’. In all, 1347 men, 103 women and 53 children died in the disaster.
The survivors (126 male passengers, 336 women, 52 children and 189 crew members) were picked up by the Carpathia. Since 651 people had been lowered into the lifeboats, just 52 who went into the water were saved.
The Titanic was the floating embodiment of an age of scientific optimism, ‘Bigger! Better! Faster!’ Many claimed that the ship was yet another proof of the evolutionary ascent of man. The arrogance of the age was epitomised by boasts of Titanic’s indestructibility, from her promoters, that, ‘Not even God could sink this ship!’
It is difficult for us to appreciate just how great an impact this disaster had. In less than three hours, the dreams and confidence of a generation sank with that great ocean liner.
The human drama of the Titanic was to foreshadow the horrors of the terror-ridden twentieth century with the greatest death tolls in history. Never again would people be quite so sure of themselves.
For the Titanic, ‘man’s greatest engineering achievement’, to go down the first time it sailed was a devastating blow. If wealth meant so little on that dark, cold April night, what value can we ever attach to it? The disaster marked the beginning of a new and uneasy era of doubt and disillusionment. Life is uncertain; the unthinkable possible.
On another level, in the decades that followed, the effect of the sinking was to save more lives than had been lost on that April night. Never again would men fling a ship at top speed through an ice field, heedless of warnings. And it was the last time for many years that a liner put to sea without sufficient lifeboats for everybody on board.
While the Titanic before April 1912 symbolised elegance, unsinkability and arrogance, after the sinking it became a symbol of duty, chivalry and faith. Amidst the widespread shock, people were inspired by the moving examples of courage and self-sacrifice of those men who honoured the command, ‘Women and children first’.
With few exceptions, most of Titanic’s men willingly gave up their seats on lifeboats for others. Many husbands and fathers put their wives and children into the lifeboats, whispered some last words and waved goodbye with the full realisation they would never see them again.
They exemplified the teachings of Jesus Christ in John 15:13: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’.
Tragically, James Cameron’s film Titanic minimised and ignored the incredible Christian courage and self-sacrifice of many men who went down with the Titanic.
By focusing on a fictional, far-fetched love relationship of a first class lady with a young artist in steerage, it sidelined the Titanic’s real heroes. Even more seriously, it failed to communicate what motivated so many men to give their lives so that others could live.
For every woman who died on the Titanic, 13 men died. In recent years maritime disasters have often resulted in far more men surviving than women and children. For example, when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, male survivors were quoted as saying, ‘Hey, it’s survival of the fittest’, and, ‘It was every man for himself’.
In an essay in Time entitled ‘The Titanic riddle’ (27 April 1998 edition), the writer asks the question: ‘Why women? … Is not grouping women with children a raging anachronism … patronising and demeaning to women…?
‘In this day of the most extensive societal restructuring, to grant women equality in education, employment, government, athletics, citizenship … what entitles women to the privileges, and reduces them to the status, of children?’
The answer is found in the Bible: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25); ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Peter 2:21).
For nearly 2,000 years this principle has guided Christian civilisation. The strong suffers for the weak; the bridegroom for his bride. The highest expression of love is to give your life for another. This is the true message of the Titanic.
The then US president’s wife, Nellie Taft, mounted a national campaign to raise funds for a monument that would be inscribed, ‘To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved’.
No doubt such a message is too uncomfortable in our day, when abortion targets pre-born babies, pornography exploits women for profit and cowardice is too often the norm.
Life is short and uncertain. According to the designer of the Titanic, whereas the ship’s decorations were discussed for many hours, the lifeboats were only discussed for ‘five or ten minutes’!
It is an amazing thing that we can give most of our attention to the trivial and so little attention to what is most important. When they set sail, none of the people on the Titanic could have realised how little time they had.
We should set our priorities in the light of eternity and live our lives as those who know that one day we must stand before almighty God and give an account.
There is nothing more certain than death and nothing as uncertain as the time of dying. We should be prepared at all times for that which may come at any time. The Lord Jesus taught that the rich man of Luke 12:19-31, who was proud and self satisfied with his achievements, was a fool, because he was unprepared for death.
Self-centred, purposeless, obsessed with his possessions, prosperity and pleasures, he was not prepared for eternity. If you are not prepared to die, then you are not free to truly live. As Matthew Henry said, ‘It ought to be our business everyday to prepare for our last day’. George Whitefield declared: ‘Take care of your life and God will take care of your death’.
At death we leave behind all that we have and we take with us all that we are. On the Day of Judgement, will any of us regret seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33)?
Do you know that your sins are forgiven and do you have a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?
Edited from www.christianaction.org.za
A night to remember, Walter Lord, Penguin, 1956. Titanic, Leo Merriott, PRC, 1997.