Women and Children First by Greg Albrecht
Most of us, thankfully, have not experienced the trauma of climbing into a lifeboat in order to escape a sinking ship. However, thanks to Hollywood, the vast majority of us have witnessed cinematic scenes when, in the aftermaths of disasters, women and children are given priority.
When thinking of a nautical catastrophe, many would immediately recall the classic 1997 film, Titanic, and the heart-rending historical, fictional story of Rose (Kate Winslett) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Upon seeing this Rose and Jack tragic romance, one of our granddaughters pronounced, in her younger years, that Jack – aka Leo – was “my baby.” It remains a fun memory about which the family jokes to this day.
One of the less memorable moments took place when Calderon Hockley, the rich and entitled fiancée of Rose (who during the ill-fated voyage of Titanic fell in love with Jack, a penniless Irish immigrant on this way to a new life in America) cheated his way onto a lifeboat by pretending a deserted child was his own.
Unfortunately, data from marine accidents suggests that the chivalry of women and children first has not always been followed in the chaos of a maritime tragedy. Sadly, in many cases, it was “every man for himself.” The morality of “women and children first” seems to have stemmed from British naval tradition, and if this is true, kudos to the Brits! That said, my sense is that much of this ethical imperative and tradition derives from a Christian culture.
When the pandemic first arrived in full force, a debate raged about vaccines. Should they be used to prevent deaths or slow down the spread of COVID-19? Should senior citizens (the equivalent of women and children first on the lifeboats) who are far more likely to die anyway, and far more likely to die from COVID-19, be saved and rescued first? Why not, some openly argued, save the ones who were likely to benefit and serve the needs of society going forward? This perspective reasoned that younger people be given the vaccine first so that they could more quickly return our culture and society to “normal.”
Now, in retrospect, we realize that the very old and infirmed were given priority by those who were in charge of administering and distributing vaccines, and justly so, given the maxim that the worth of a society is often measured by how it treats the very young and the very old, when we give it further thought, we realize such an approach is rooted in Christian faith. Jesus memorably tells his sheep that they are actually serving him when they reach out and minister to the hungry, thirsty and poor, among others (Matthew 25:31-40).
I was recently reading an excerpt from Dominion, a book by Tom Holland about the stark and ugly reversal of this Christian value as practiced in ancient Rome:
The heroes of the Iliad, favorites of the gods, golden and predatory, had scorned the weak and downtrodden. So too… had the philosophers. The starving deserved no sympathy. Beggars were best rounded up and deported. Pity risked undermining a wise man’s self-control.
Jesus swam upstream in such a Roman culture. He, as we all know, showed deep compassion for all in need, and spent an inordinate amount of his time with them, as opposed to theologians and religious leaders. His followers still swim upstream. The vulnerable and those at most risk must go first, according to a civilized society and more than that, according to a Christ-centered perspective. The only qualification for receiving help is weakness, which is, if you think about it, what the grace of God is all about.