“Christianity is the only system of thought where the people who hold it expect those who don’t to be better people than they are.” – Tim Keller
I am a Navy Officer at heart. My office is full of reminders of my Navy life. Books about the sea and especially Naval service are some of my favorites. I break out The Caine Mutiny about once a year and read it again. It is the favorite of my favorites. The Caine is an old destroyer converted to minesweeper. In the story, the first Captain of the Caine is Lieutenant Commander DeVriess, a pragmatic veteran who runs the ship efficiently, if not exactly by the book. The ship and her crew are not much to look at; rusty and crusty, but she out-performs the other ships in her squadron when its time to get down to the business of minesweeping. Devriess’ relief is the strictly by-the-book Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg. Soon after taking command of the Caine, Queeg institutes a campaign to square away the ship. He is obsessed with appearances. He harasses the men over the slightest infraction of dress codes. He insists upon cleaning up the exterior of the ship. Soon, the same ship that was the envy of the other Destroyer-Minesweepers can’t even deploy her own minesweeping gear without a fiasco. She runs aground leaving port. She steams over her own minesweeping tow cable and cuts it. Queeg never lets up his pressure to change the ship’s outsides, even as his command descends into inefficiency and ultimately disaster.
There’s nothing wrong with clean and bright exteriors. It is a good thing to wear a clean uniform and keep the regulations. One of my favorite lines from The Caine Mutiny says the Navy is a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. The rules and regulations are important, but they aren’t the core of the thing. They aren’t the heart of the matter. A Navy exists to fight and win the war at sea. No system can put a fighting spirit in a ship. No set of regulations will create epsrit de corps that will cause a crew to fight as one. These things are interior. They come from belief in the cause we are fighting for and belief in the leadership of the ship to have the crew’s best interest at heart. If you try to impose change from the outside in by enforcing the rules and procedures, you will have neither a fighting crew nor a cohesive crew. The first time real pressure comes, everything will fall apart. None of us are built to trust in rules; we are made to trust in relationships.
A friend of mine got married to his second wife about a decade ago. They face a lot of challenges. Blended family. Business pressures. New baby. Different sets of expectations. When they got married, him being a business guy and into efficiency, he went to the same jeweler where he got his first wife’s rings and he bought the same set. It was simple. He knew the value and it seemed like a no brainer. It was a nice set and she wore it proudly even though when she discovered it was the identical set of the ex-wife it was a bit unpleasant for a while. Just recently though, as a surprise, he went and traded out the old set for something brand new. His wife was very happy to receive it. She said something profound when she showed off the new set over dinner. She said she was glad he hadn’t gone out and replaced it in the first few years after she found out it was a copy. She said that all the struggles they went through to be a couple and to work out who they are made this new ring feel more special and valuable and a true representation of their marriage. Thats the thing. You see it? The outside is the last thing that gets changed, not the first thing. Put a ring on it if you want to but the real change comes from the core.
Christianity is not religion. It is not a set of rules imposed upon us by God that we attempt to keep so that eventually the core of our lives change. Its the opposite. Christianity is God giving us a new core identity that is working its way to the surface through the trials…in spite of the trials and the way it may appear at the surface. Many religious people are better people than Christians. Many non-religious people are better people than Christians. There is plenty people can do to change things on the outside of their ship. Paint the hull. Shift the configuration of the equipment. It doesn’t mean the ship is a fighting ship that can sail into harm’s way. The gospel tells us that some day, because of the change that happened at the heart of us, God is going to put a new ring on our finger. He will take us completely as his own. He isn’t going to do this because we keep his rules (even though his rules and system are genius and would help us and the world run better), but because we accepted his esprit de corp; we entered his service and gave up on setting our own course.
Christians who know the gospel are not bothered by non-Christians who are better people. It doesn’t make us feel inferior. We know we didn’t make ourselves into Christians and we know its ok to “work out our salvation.” We should relate to others with neither fear nor pride. We should learn to keep God’s rules because we know he loves us and we can trust his leadership. He has our best interests at heart. If we can’t get that by looking at the cross, we need to keep looking. No other captain dies for his crew when they fail him. And no other captain is so unconcerned with how his crew reflects upon his own image.