[I have more to say about Satan, about his person and the use of the term when it’s not speaking of him as a person. But not now and not here. In this piece I’m presenting him as a person (I believe he is) but, once more, there’s more to be said about the use of the term.]
For obvious reasons it’s part of Satan’s agenda to isolate us one from the other (not just Christians from Christians but Christians from fellow-humans). He promotes fragmentation because he finds us harder to deal with when we stand together in pursuit of warm righteousness. He’s a shrewd one and even though we aren’t ignorant of his schemes he still dupes us. One of his very successful approaches to his business is to seduce (he can’t coerce!) Christians into what they despise and then beat them for engaging in it.
“Go ahead and do it. You’ll enjoy it. In any case, you do it so rarely. Besides, God will understand. He’d forgive even me if I looked for forgiveness. Go ahead.” And after a lot of palaver we do it and the first thing he says is, “And you call yourself a Christian? You hypocrite! How could you do such a thing? Don’t blame me. If you had really cared about God as you say you do, as you tell people you do, you wouldn’t have engaged in that.” Clever little devil that he is.
Then there’s the self-righteous angle that he might be more successful with than with any other approach. He takes a score of truths and so works them that before we’re done we think we’re the only virgin in a world of prostitutes. But he’s slick and we swallow his line, hook, sinker and all. Try to argue us out of our superior spirit and you have a fight on your hands because we pay lip-service to the grace we have received to cover our sins all the while we’re isolating others and exposing them. It must give Satan profound satisfaction to divide us against each other. He who came to save us came to reconcile us to God and Satan drives us apart, leaving us isolated and covered in shame.
Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Caine Mutiny was adapted for screen by Stanley Roberts in the 1954 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as the paranoid Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, captain of the Caine.
Queeg had come from eight years in the Atlantic—which included chasing and being chased by German submarines. The completely undisciplined crew of the Caine who cared none at all for the new captain because he insisted on going by the book. He especially troubled one of his officers, a cynical writer by the name of Tom Kiefer who had little love for the navy or the captain. The tension on board the mine-sweeper developed quickly and Queeg’s way continued to widen the gap and deepen the feeling against him.
On an exercise the ship was ordered to drag a target and while reprimanding a sailor and two of his officers over the dress-code Queeg allowed the ship to do a 380 degree turn and cut his own tow line. The news spread like fire in a paint factory—it was too good to keep, especially since it was at the expense of someone they disliked so much. This added derision to the charge of incompetence.
A much more troubling incident occurred when the ship was to lead troop-filled invasion boats to within one thousand yards of the beach. The ship came under heavy bombardment and Queeg turned away early, leaving the troops well off the beach and without that extra five hundred yards protection. Added to the dislike, derision, whispering and name-calling was an accusation of cowardice. Finally, during a typhoon, the second in command, Steve Merrick, who’d been slow to criticize the captain, relieved Queeg of his command because he and fellow-officers believed the ship was in danger of foundering due to the captain’s incompetence.
They were charged with mutiny and the case against them looked bad until the defense lawyer turned the spotlight on Queeg and the captain’s deep inner fractures appeared. In his paranoia he speaks with a burning intensity about a gallon of strawberries that went missing, how that he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt with “geometric logic” that they’d been stolen and that someone had made a key for the pantry. He would have proved the key existed, he said, if the naval authorities hadn’t withdrawn the ship from active service. He realized, he added, that they did that just to cover for some fellow-officers who’d been disloyal to him. He bore all the marks of a man who had cracked under terrible mental pressure.
All the officers accused were exonerated and went off to celebrate. Later the defense lawyer, Greenwald, who’d got them off, turned up at the party, mocking and gouging them, telling them that for them he had torpedoed Queeg who was a better man than any of them. He insisted that he got them off by leaving out one very important piece of information that would have scuttled their own case. He hadn’t mentioned the fact that Queeg had gone to his officers and asked them for help and that in a deep sulky silence they’d turned him down.
It was true. In the early hours of the morning, the captain had called all his officers together. With great difficulty he (almost) apologized for his mishandling of the beach approach. In stumbling speech, with body language that fitted the speech, he wondered if they might not be “able to help each other,” wondered if they couldn’t all pull together. He said he was open to any suggestions or whatever it was the officers would like to say. Too filled with anger or scorn, or whatever, they sat fuming in silence until he felt obliged to leave, requesting some aspirin from one of them for a severe migraine headache. As soon as he left the talk began and Queeg was roasted again for not openly confessing his fears and mistakes. They were quick to talk, quick to talk about his failures, quick to parade his shame but shamefully silent when the victim needed them to speak in his favor, shamefully silent when he’d asked for their help. All this the lawyer reminded them of.
One of the celebrating officers admitted the truth of all the lawyer said but he reminded the lawyer, “You said it yourself…he cracked.” Greenwald blazed back at them that while they were making money, or on the playing fields in college, or jotting notes for their upcoming novels, people like Queeg were out laying their lives on the line defending the nation. The officers began to understand and feel the guilt of their own offenses.
The Queeg character wasn’t in the least attractive but he didn’t look half bad when compared with Tom Kiefer who made the ammunition for the senior executive officer to fire. Kiefer for all his accuracy was a sickening figure who relished too much his role as the man who had Queeg’s number. He “knew” him when others were still bamboozled by him. The wise Kiefer who’d read a few books on emotional and mental therapy knew how everything should be handled. (As it turned out, he was more than smug—he was a gutless wonder who was forced to make his own shameful confession.) But it wasn’t just Kiefer, the others let him spread his poison and even Merrick who knew in his bones it wasn’t all so cut and dried—in the end, even he let himself be carried away with the “lynch him” mentality.
Still, Queeg was a genuine problem, though perhaps not a life-threatening problem (as the SEO later admitted). It wasn’t until the defense lawyer was attacking his own clients at the close of the movie that I realized the full significance of the after-midnight meeting Queeg had called. I had sat watching the movie, that meeting, listened to Queeg’s stumbling, watched his obsession with the little metal balls he kept rolling around in his hand and heard him getting as close to an apology as he was able. I even heard his near-appeal for help, for more co-operation between them and his clearly expressed desire that they all pull together. All of that and I still didn’t feel its significance until the lawyer underscored it to the vindicated officers. I’d been too intent on nailing Queeg, assessing his behavior accurately; too intent on convicting him of his error to respond to his muted but genuine appeal for help. Even as a spectator I was out to convict him rather than help him.
I find this remarkable because I’d always thought I was sensitive in this area. Now I see that I’m sorely in need of the eyes, ears and hearts of those who are much more sensitive than I am. “Just the same…he cracked.” Say what you want about Queeg, but say he asked for help, say we turned him down, say we didn’t really hear his appeal—say any of that but say more than, “Just the same…he cracked.”
Yes, he cracked, and all the officers were exonerated of mutiny charges. No outsider saw them as “a lynch mob”. But would he have cracked if they’d been as eager to go to his assistance, privately and passionately, as they were to deride him? Would he have cracked if he hadn’t heard his name whispered among the officers and crew as cowardly and incompetent? Would he have cracked if he hadn’t been isolated and punished? Would he have cracked if there’d been one who stubbornly stayed with him, affirming him, running interference for him?
Would he have cracked if the whole body of officers had gone to him and, having made known their grievances, assured him they were with him, that they’d help him do what needed to be done? Would his insecurity, sharpened by his driving need to “get it right,” have led to his cracking if there’d been those who gave him every reason to believe he was secure? Who knowing his failures praised him? Who taking the whole picture into account worked with him in the areas of his weakness? He was putting himself on the line, risking himself despite his failures; cherishing and speaking truth even while he struggled to be loyal to it, even afraid of it—while he was doing that and others were kept safe, some of those he kept safe were willing to call for his public shaming. No! Not just willing—eager to make it so.
Though we owe the “Queegs” so much, though we were “safe at home” while the Queegs of the world spent days and weeks and months and years and decades bearing witness to a Lord who was purer, finer and nobler than we ourselves could ever be—though we owe them so much, and will forever owe them so much, with ease and satisfaction as critics we spill the souls of the Queegs all over creation. No! No! Not the souls of the Queegs—only the sins of the Queegs; for the souls of the Queegs are better and bigger and finer than their sins.
I want to say again what I’ve said elsewhere: many of us only know one way to treat transgressors—expose and punish (we call it “holding them accountable”). We don’t know how to keep their shame on a “need to know” basis, we often think it should be noised abroad. To some degree we know how to assess wrong, but we have more difficulty hearing an appeal for help. We might be able to recognize a blunt confession and request but we haven’t the heart or spirit or sympathy to hear someone struggle to get out what they can’t get out. We have even more difficulty believing that our major responsibility is to help rather than punish.
And when strugglers (our children included) hear us talk freely about the sins or blunders of others they take mental and emotional note of it. They imagine their own names passed from mouth to mouth and it terrifies them. They’re afraid to speak in defense of other strugglers they know in case it’s later construed as dishonorable and a sly covering of their own backs.
And, once convicted, they become suspects in countless situations where they’re completely innocent. Of course, that’s to be expected, isn’t it? “Well, they put themselves in that position. Take a look at their record.” And so the capacity to trust diminishes and our capacity for cynicism increases. It’s all perfectly understandable. Yes, but is it? Or is it just another proof that what the poet Burns said about us is true—we’re good at rationalizing our own unlikeness to Christ?
When did you last hear one of us righteous confess with anguish and tears: “I’m so unlike Christ. I lack the capacity to be helpful to strugglers!”? When did you last hear one of us tearfully admit, “I’m guilty of the sin of impatience, guilty of the sin of walking on the other side of the road to avoid the one in the ditch!”? We might occasionally suspect ourselves of this but generally, I suspect, that too many of us rationalize the matter until we’re like Queeg’s exonerated mutineers. Yes, on the charge as specified we’re not guilty; but is there no guilt in our dealing with our brothers and sisters whose weaknesses aren’t ours and whose weaknesses are more visible than ours? Even the cynical Kiefer knew he’d been guilty of sinning against Queeg and his fellow-officers.
If Hollywood can see that why can’t we?
Wait! Just wait until we enter His presence. What then? Only Queeg’s guilt is made manifest or will ours be exposed too? Queeg’s may go before him to judgment but ours might follow after us. Will the face of the Judge be frighteningly like all those Queegs we used as punch-bags? Will our “highly polished” and righteous sins show up as the gilded trash they really are. And might we might hear we’ve been allies of the Dragon, closing doors all over the world that God meant to be open?
In the meantime shouldn’t we remember that it’s part of the Satan’s agenda to isolate us from our struggling brothers and sisters? If you can bear to do it, watch closely and see how like a predator he slyly isolates the weak and limping before dragging him or her down into the deep to feed on them; while we move on, safe, in the middle of the herd.
(O God, is there forgiveness? Can we be delivered from the blindness that keeps us from seeing that we’re all in this together? Is there any hope that we might become wisely sensitive—but sensitive?)