Twenty-two hours ago—Facebook is good for those kinds of details—Sara posted a plea: “Please pray for Captain Richard Phillips and those who are trying to rescue him from pirates off the coast of Somalia.” Her heartfelt note included a link, helpful for uninformed people like me who are not reckoned with the average American news junkie.
Despite having Drudge, our homepage, blaring out constant updates, I had been avoiding exposure to the drama’s details. However, who could refuse Sara’s request? So I took a look to see what I should be praying about.
Pirates do not amuse me. Even at the height of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” craze, I was not amused. I never even took a look—though a culture infused with pirate-mania meant I could never fully escape awareness. In real life, pirates are not entertaining in the least. They are as serious as dead meat.
To read through the myriad details of this week’s crisis-in-real-life, there is no Jack Sparrow levity to lighten the load of negotiators or stategists. Frankly, I scanned through articles, avoiding the many quotes of persons “not authorized to talk.” The too-even-handed coverage giving dignity to lawless “spokespersons” discussing the needs of their “colleagues” is annoying.
One thing that captured my heart, though, was the mention of the captain of the ship, himself. Captain Richard Phillips, after ordering his crew to lock themselves in a safe room to avoid initial contact with the trespassing pirates, chose to surrender himself to the attackers to safeguard his crew. Taking their hostage with them, the Somali pirates fled to a lifeboat.
“That is what he would do. It's just who he is,” maintained his sister-in-law. It was a matter of character.
The ship itself echoed that character. Reports of the crisis note that it is unusual to find an American ship with an American crew in these waters—noting this was the first pirate attack on such an American vessel in countless years. Unusual it might be, until one realizes the purpose of the vessel: to carry food to malnourished people in the very country of the pirates’ origin.
Reading all this news on the eve of a significant Holy Week event, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels: the captain of his ship offering himself up to captors, his life held in exchange for ransom. The willingness of one man to substitute his life for that of others. The ship itself, designed to help the very people who turn against its commander.
Although I have been raised in a Christian home, I never understood—could never receive the full impact of realizing—the concept of a substitutionary death like the one held in annual remembrance on Good Friday. “Oh, look how Jesus Christ suffered,” church people would say, as if the misery of suffering itself would cause a change in me. While I am sorry that others suffer—especially when it is represented as if they have to suffer—I can’t seem to understand how that should somehow change my heart condition.
It was only when I could see the reason for a substitution—that that death should have been mine—that I could understand the importance of what happened that particular Friday two millennia ago. To see that there is a God who owns, by virtue of His creation, this world and all in it (which includes me), allows me to understand that the Creator has vested rights for organizing His creation in the way He sees fit. When His order is violated, justice expects payment. This Creator clearly stated that those who violate His order will die. Along with everyone else who has ever made a mistake, that includes me.
But God never intended it to end that way. He had a plan: to substitute a perfect being for me—for you, for “whosoever will”—so that the death I was sentenced to is not suffered by me, but by that other Person. For my own violations, I was being held for ransom, but He paid the price. It is not the horribleness of any suffering that changes my heart, but the intense gratitude for knowing that someone cared enough for me to do that—and was qualified to do so—that makes the difference.
While I pray earnestly for the voluntary captive in today’s shipping crisis, it reminds me of its coincidental placement on the schedule of another world: the time when the One who offered Himself to pay a ransom did so, that I might continue to live.
How can such miserable occurrences as these be called “good”? Perhaps the Somali pirate crisis for Captain Richard Phillips will never be called good—although I fervently hope he emerges a hero, and one who lives to see that recognition—but I know that the world’s captive sinners ransomed by Christ’s substitutionary death can now understand that Good Friday is good because One Man was willing to offer Himself to take the place of others who should have died.