When watching a movie that has a seagoing setting and the cry goes out, “Women and children first,” you know that the peril is great and the ship is sinking.
This tradition of putting the utmost urgency to saving the most precious among us reputedly goes back to the experience of the HMS Birkenhead. The ship sailed along the coast of southern Africa in 1852 with 638 aboard including 476 British soldiers and 20 women and children.
The ship struck a rock off of Danger point and her metal hull was torn open. Over a hundred of the soldiers drowned while still in their bunks. The rest assembled on the deck. They tried to help free the lifeboats, but only 3 of the 8 could be wrested from the paint encrusted rigging. The women and children were put into the three lifeboats.
As it became clear that time was running out, the captain shouted, “Every man for himself.”
Immediately the soldier’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton drew his sword and ordered his men to stand fast. He knew that a free-for-all rush to the lifeboats would mean that they would be swamped and the women and children would likely perish.
He had no need to use his sword as the soldiers stood fast in ranks even as the ship broke in two. Only 193 of the 638 souls aboard survived that day. Neither the captain nor Lieutenant-Colonel Seton were among the survivors.
There is a tremendous contrast in the attitudes of the two men when facing this disastrous situation. Captured in the words, “Every man for himself” is the attitude of selfishness. Forget everyone else and save yourself. If someone gets in your way or needs your help too bad for them because you are the one who matters.
On the other hand you have immortalized in the saying, “Women and children first” the second attitude, an attitude that has formed the bedrock of western civilization for the last 150 years. Men will put themselves at risk to protect the most precious and the weakest among us.
When the disciples would have forbidden the children from being brought to Jesus, He was very displeased. “Let the little children come to me and don’t forbid them,” He said. Then He took them in His arms and blessed them. Jesus loves children!
Peter also was guided to write that husbands give “honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life.” It is right to protect and give greater honor to the women and children.
You have to wonder what reception before Jesus awaited the captain and the commander as they started eternity on the same day. Neither could be saved except by the grace of God as they accepted Jesus death as the only satisfactory payment for their sins. We don’t know whether either one of both had done that while they had the chance.
I think we can agree that if both were saved, that one was probably acutely embarrassed by some of the final words that he uttered. If Jesus had followed the mantra, “every man for himself” he would have never offered himself up for the likes of us. Thankfully he loved the weak and gave Himself up for us.
Thankfully also, western society has held on to a degree of the rightness of protecting our women and children. “Women and children first,” words immortalized in tragedy, but words that shaped a culture for good.