Mutiny on the Ship of State

Back in the days of sailing ships, captains could not instantly contact their superiors in Europe or America. When the crew and the officers were not getting along, sometimes the crew banded together to take over the ship. Ship discipline was harsh, keeping sailors who served with varying levels of volunteer spirit in line. Discipline mostly kept sailors on task, and at other times it provoked mutiny. The mutiny on the H. M. S. Bounty happened in the South Pacific, virtually on the direct opposite side of the world from Britain. Captain Bligh had to personally reach Britain for the Admiralty to find out what happened, or indeed that anything had happened. Between the lack of ready communication with home, stern discipline, and trying conditions on the ships, the captain and the crew had a devil of a time maintaining enough discipline to get home.

In politics and in church, we get this divide between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. Compromise is often seen as the solution: politicians like to bill themselves as “moderates” and pastors and theologians might like to bill themselves as mere followers of Christ free of petty rivalries. The default sensitive answer to questions about the merits of opposing alternatives is “both” or “a little of both.” Beyond calling for the proverbial everyone to get along, I want to establish that the old metaphor for the “ship of state” is particularly fitting to describe the context in which we experience conflict: mishandled conflict leads to real damage in real life.

Whether you take the port or the starboard side in political wrangling, the ship is moving somewhere. If you go far enough to one side or the other, you will find yourself rather assertively in the water; you cease to have a position relevant to the metaphor that is rapidly leaving you behind. If I attempt to compromise with Able Seamen Hatfield and McCoy, I too find myself in the water–the best hope for die-hards is to throw them waterskis and a rope.

The fact of the matter is that conflict happens on the ship of state (or church or civic club or PTA meeting). Some man the port side and others man the starboard side, and with varying degrees of success, they keep the ship moving. Occasionally, some portion of the crew mutinies and maroons the captain, diverting the ship from its mission. Perhaps the mutineers feel that the commanding officers are too harsh; perhaps they feel that they are not getting enough food; perhaps they just do not want to take any more orders. Whatever their grievances, they raise the stakes in the dispute and increase the potential consequences for everyone involved. The mutineers hear lines like, “I hope you think this is really worth it!” The ideal mutiny restores balance lost from dysfunctional discipline or corrupt officers, but they are best prevented and not encouraged.[1]

Ships, be they real or metaphorical, travel to destinations. Whether the sailors approve or do not approve the destination is usually immaterial: arrival is the highest good. There will be imbalances during the voyage, often prolonged; imbalance in net force on the ship is the very reason that it moves. Mutiny so disrupts operations on the ship that it demands intervention from outside forces. Sailors often face trial in courts off of the ship for what they do onboard the ship. Resorting to extreme methods takes authority away from people trying to address their grievances.

What happens when suffering people have no authority on their side? Well, the ships of state in the Middle Eastern fleet are getting an idea of what happens.

[1]I am one of those people who wants everyone to sing cumbayah. In high school English, we analyzed Jesse Jackson’s speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He had this line about needing both the left and right wings to flap together to carry the nation forward; I find such language to be inspiring–both the meaning and the clever turn of phrase. (Good rhetoric gets a deservedly bad rap these days–good role models are hard to come by.) I come not to praise or bury Jackson, although even his detractors will have to admit that people like him can be quite helpful in resolving international incidents.

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