God has given us the ability to do so much. Yet today is one of those days that perfectly illustrates two opposite ends of that accomplishment spectrum. The good we can do, and the bad.
Over in Italy, early this morning, before most Americans were awake, an international salvage crew began lifting the stricken Costa Concordia luxury cruise ship off of the rocky shoreline upon it's been resting for the past twenty months. The Concordia, you'll recall, ran ground in an environmental sanctuary off the island of Giglio in January, 2012. Thirty two passengers died that fateful night, and the ship's captain is currently on trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship.
Practically since the shipwreck, efforts have been underway to figure out a way to remove the behemoth ocean liner off of its rocky bed, where it's been lying on its side at an angle the ship's steel infrastructure was not designed to sustain for a long period of time. Walls were beginning to show signs of unnatural stress, and engineers were working against time to design and implement the most cost-effective, environmentally-sound rescue operation that had the best chance of success. Leaving the ship to age and rust near Giglio's port was not an option. Eventually, parts of the ship could crumble and tumble further down into the ocean, impeding port traffic in the relatively shallow waters.
The whole shipwreck, from the start, has been colossal and epic in its scope, from the carelessness and inhumanity of its captain, to the logistical challenges faced by rescuers, salvage engineers, divers, and the extraordinary team of specialists who've been working in rotating shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, living in metal barracks floating on a barge near the luxury liner. A vessel built for leisure has had welders, steel workers, plumbers, and electricians crawling over it and through it non-stop for months on end, attaching the cables and enormous multi-story metal boxes called "caissons" that should help lift it out of the water enough for it to be then floated to an industrial dockyard.
Not to mention the steel-tubed platforms that look like something out of a science-fiction movie. They were custom-designed, built, and then sunk underneath the ship to provide a temporary floor upon which the Concordia is expected to rest while even more caissons are welded onto its wrecked side, the side upon which the ship has been sitting - and slowly collapsing - since the wreck.
Indeed, the current "lifting" of the Concordia, a process technically called "parbuckling," is only the most dramatic step so far in a multifaceted scheme to right the vessel, make it towable, and then tow it away from Giglio. Righting the ship onto those massive underwater platforms has been considered by all involved to be the trickiest and most risky maneuver of the whole operation. Such a procedure has never before been attempted in such a scale on so large an object. So far, however, with work starting at daylight in Italy and continuing on into tonight, engineers are very pleased with the progress being made, and everything seems to be working according to plan. At 951 feet in length, and weighing 114,000 gross tons - twice the weight of the Titanic, the Concordia represents an unprecedented challenge. A challenge at which complex human engineering, inch by rusty inch, appears to be winning.
Which makes the attack by an undetermined number of shooters this morning at the Washington Navy Yard not only barbaric, but a disgusting bookend to the triumph engineers are cautiously eliciting over in Italy at the Concordia site. Even if something malfunctions now in the luxury liner's salvage operation, the distinctly visible water line that emerged today from the Mediterranean as the ship was being right-sized testifies to the soundness of the procedure's fundamentals. Experts don't have comprehensive information on what the crushed side of the vessel looks like, so unforeseen, uncontrollable complications may still sabotage the engineering that has gone into this effort. But in Washington, however, all we have is despicable carnage in what appears to be yet another workplace mass shooting.
We still don't know a cause in the D.C. rampage, or even a final death count, but does it really matter? Good grief - any angry person or nut case can take a gun and shoot up anyplace where there's a concentration of people trying to be productive, whether it's a school, an office, or even a movie theater, where at least people go to escape reality without killing somebody else. Mass killings infest the underbelly of humanity and jade us against other acts of violence, making us, bit by bit, less sensitive to life. Or they can whittle further away at our own sense of basic decency, and actually accentuate our sensitivity to life to the point where despair comes more easily.
It's easy for us to watch the amazing live video feed coming from coastal Italy and marvel at the ingenuity and stunningly hard work that can right an entire cruise ship. It's also easy to watch the sobering coverage gushing out of our nation's capital and grieve for the senselessness of such slaughter. One witness said he'd escaped his office building, and was monitoring an exit door in an alleyway with another man, when suddenly, they heard gunshots, and the other man crumpled to the ground, shot in the head.
Another worker described sheer pandemonium as he and his co-workers fled their building. "They were pushing. They were shoving. People were falling down," he told a local news reporter of his self-centered office mates.
Yeah - humanity in all its finest, right?
Actually, we'll probably be hearing stories in the next few days about heroic actions by victims, first responders, and the 3,000 or so people who had to evacuate the Washington Navy Yard. As they say, sometimes a person's finest moments happen under the strongest of duress.
The irony, meanwhile, is that so much accomplishment and so much violence can happen on the same day in two relatively sophisticated, safe, and civilized countries.
It's at this point where Christianity's skeptics will gleefully assert that these events illustrate both man's ability to be clever outside of God's authority, and man's ability to thwart the goodness of God. We believers say that God provides the engineers of our world with bold ideas and the ability to see them through, whether those engineers believe in God or not. But doesn't that pale in comparison to God's inability to stop people like the person - or persons - who shot up the Navy Yard?
The answer is that while, yes, God empowers us to good things, whether we give Him the credit or not, He's still good when we do bad things. Who God is doesn't change based on what we do, or don't do. In fact, the same God Who has given some people the ideas to make boats, float them, and raise them up off of the Italian shoreline is the same God Who could have kept the Concordia from sinking to begin with. Then again, He could have kept secret the initial idea to ever build boats, back when mankind was still trying to figure out how to cross a lake without getting wet.
If God was revoking powers and capabilities and granting them pell-mell throughout history, what kind of disjointed world would we be living in? He allows both good things and bad things to happen, and in some mysterious way, both of them can bring Him glory. Indeed, the very fact that we value the lives that were lost today in Washington lends validity to God's gift of life. The horror of murder proves the sanctity of life.
This may be a day of particularly ironic history. Maritime history, in fact, since we're talking the Concordia and the Washington Navy Yard. But it's also a day in which God has not been disproved, or shaken.
Even if whatever faith in mankind we may have previously held has been.
Update: at approximately 9:10 Monday evening, Central Standard Time, the parbuckling operation was officially completed and deemed a success. Now comes the task of inspecting the damaged side that has been submerged for nearly two years and affixing more caissons for the floating part of the project.