Victor Hugo, the French 19th century novelist, playwright, and poet is best known to most people for his novels, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he was also an accomplished writer of short stories. My favorite among those is entitled “A Fight with a Cannon”. In it, he tells the story of a wooden French sail-powered warship at sea during one of the French/English dust ups. On board is a general of great renown as a passenger and a careless master gunner. During a storm, one of her gun deck cannon, which was improperly secured by gunner and his gun crew, breaks free of its moorings. The ship suddenly has a 3,000 pound battering ram on wheels loose on the gun deck and being thrown from side to side bythe wave action of the storm. Such occurrences could sink a ship in the days of wooden hulls and is, by the way, the origin of the phrase “loose cannon” — meaning something that is out of control and dangerous because of it. In the short story, the gunner, showing great courage, leaps down onto the gun deck and tries to corral the cannon or, at least, knock it off its wheels. Again and again, on the dark and storm-tossed deck, the man struggles against a mindless, pitiless opponent which will crush him like a bug if he makes the slightest error in judgment or has the smallest smidge of bad luck. In the end, with some timely help from the general, the gunner manages to block the wheels of the canon and get enough rope around it to secure it.
His tremendous courage has saved the ship. However, his tremendous negligence earlier is what endangered the ship in the first place. Moreover, in danger, it still is. It is at sea, at war with an enemy nation whose own ships may appear on the horizon as soon as the storm clears. Its hull is broken or actually breached in many places with water pouring into it. It could still sink. Its great masts, which provide the power to move the ship, are damaged where they pass through the gun deck — they might break if the storm continues or if the ship is required to increase sail in a battle. If they fall, the ship will be unable to maintain steerage way in the storm (and it will be battered to pieces by the waves) or to maneuver in a battle (and it will be battered to pieces by enemy cannon balls). In addition, the loose cannon damaged most of the other large cannon on the gun deck — smashing carriages and breach blocks, doing damage beyond the ship’s capability to repair at sea. The ship’s ability to defend itself has been much reduced. The ship is in a vulnerable state due to the negligent gunner, but it would have been sunk altogether had not the courageous gunner stopped the cannon’s rampage. The ship’s captain defers to the general of great renown in deciding how to punish and/or reward the master gunner. The general takes a medal for heroism above the call of duty from the captain’s chest and bestows it upon the gunner, giving him the Thanks of France. Then, he orders the gunner shot for gross negligence. Perfect justice.
This scene, as Hugo describes it taking place on the deck of the damaged ship, is the strongest representation of judgment under the Old Covenant of any I have ever found in literature and it gives me the chills. We have the gunner/sinner; flawed but also virtuous; standing condemned by his own actions but also lifted up by his own actions. We also have the general/God, called upon to render fair, just judgment. The gunner is rewarded according to his deeds and punished according to his misdeeds. Unfortunately for him, they don’t cancel each other out. So, they gave him a medal which he was still wearing when they shot him so full of holes he whistled on his way to the deck. This is why, under the Old Covenant, Hell was full of souls. No one, no flawed human being, could earn his way into Heaven because no one could keep all the rules all the time. It is also why the Harrowing of Hell; where Jesus descends to Hell, throws down the gates and releases all the condemned souls; was so important to early Christians that they put it in the Apostles’ Creed (Traditional Version). All Jews under the Old Covenant; Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Ruth, Deborah, David, Saul, Solomon, etc; were among the condemned and some of the early Christians still remembered their Jewish roots. I’ve often wondered what it says about modern Methodists that we decided to modify the Creed to leave the Harrowing out. I’d hate to think that it’s racist, though it wouldn’t be difficult to see it that way. Maybe, it is just being selfish: we don’t want to think of OUR Christ dirtying himself up while rescuing a bunch of Jews. No, no, that sounds racist as well as selfish. How about we say we left the Harrowing out because we didn’t know it was important? That makes us out to be self-absorbed and a little dim, but not selfish or racist. It may be the best spin we can hope to manage.
You know, it really is a wonderful thing to be a part of the New Covenant where Jesus has already paid for our sins. Think on that this Lenten season, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate what Christ has done for us.