The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, March 29, 2021

It’s Monday, March 29, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Ever Given, Along with Global Trade, Is Stuck in the Mud of the Suez Canal: A Parable of the Modern Age

By now, the photo is basically iconic. You’re looking at one of the largest ships in the world, basically stuck in the mud, stopping the Suez Canal, which is one of the major conduits of global shipping. What we’re looking at here is one of those spectacles that eventually gets the attention of the world. If nothing else, just looking at the statistics and looking at the photographs, not to mention the economic impact, is something that’s fascinating in itself. We are looking at one of the largest ships in the world. It’s one of the largest container ships ever built, the Ever Given. And that, by the way, is its name. When you see “Evergreen” in the photographs, that’s the name of the shipping company.

This particular ship, the Ever Given, is known as a golden class container ship. How big is it? Well, it is about as long as the Empire State Building is high, about 1300 feet. How much cargo does it hold? Well, it holds about 20,000 container units, 20,000. That is spectacular in itself. Those container units are metal boxes that have revolutionized international shipping. Those metal boxes can be picked up by cranes and put onto a train or onto a truck. Meaning, that containerized freight that is shipped at one point of the world can be unloaded at a specific store, specific location, anywhere else in the world and in fairly short order. The shipping business has been absolutely transformed by several developments. One was the development of weather radar and weather prediction that greatly lowered the risks of much shipping around the world.

Before the rise of modern weather forecasting radar and other kinds of tracking technologies, you basically had ships and sailors who were at the mercy of the weather and had to hope for the best. You also had the development of these massive super ships. And if you actually understand how they are built, you will understand that much of the weight is under the water and then much of the weight is in the walls of these ships, preventing them from capsizing. And within what is then the containerized area, you have the ability, in the case of the Ever Given, to hold approximately 200,000 metric tons. That’s such a load is basically beyond our imagination. A 1300 foot ship that is now stuck in the mud that has blocked the Suez Canal, one of the most important global conduits of trade. And here’s the thing that’s so frustrating. It isn’t exactly clear, no, it’s not at all clear when and how that ship is going to be freed from the mud and when the canal was going to be reopened.

In the meantime, the costs are adding up with now hundreds of ships in both sides of the canal trying to get through. And if you think this is some kind of an abstract issue, understand your order for something that could fairly important coming down, even the medical supplies could be on one of those ships, and the shipping complications are just going to unwind further. It’s going to get worse, ladies and gentlemen, for one thing, even when they free this ship. And they’re not sure at this point exactly how they can do that. Once they do free the ship, the reality is that the sea bed in the canal may have shifted because of this accident. And thus, there may have to be major dredging before other very large ships can get through the canal.

Then there’s another problem. The ship being stuck in the Suez Canal means that there is basically a traffic jam on both sides of the canals entrances, both in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. And that means that when the canal does open, the traffic is going to be so substantial that ships are going to be arriving in ports about the same time, rather than staggered as was the plan. Here’s where we see some of the vulnerabilities of a very, very powerful global economy. For instance, one of the revolutionary developments in the modern economy has been just in time inventory. If you go back a matter of decades, retailers, wholesalers and just about everyone in the supply chain, had to pay for space in warehouses and storage facilities in order to have an adequate inventory because shipping took a long time and manufacturing took a long time.

And so in order to make sure you had enough of this or that, you had to pay for inventory space, inventory analysis, of course the warehousing and the storage and all the associated costs. If you can get rid of those costs, well, your profits are likely to go up and the cost of the consumer might simultaneously come down. And we are now accustomed to rather rapid delivery, even though just in time inventory means there aren’t giant warehouses filled with the things that we may buy or order two or three or four months or weeks ahead. Indeed, some of the things you may have already ordered are likely to be stuck either in the Mediterranean or in the Red Sea and for some time. But we’re not just talking about consumer goods. We’re not just talking about the bike you’re buying for your child for his or her birthday. We’re talking about medical supplies. We’re talking about much-needed infrastructure supplies. We’re talking about things that are basic to how we operate human life.

Just about every business page in the country has paid attention to headlines, such as, “Grounded Colossus Reveals Harsh Truth About Globalization.” Well, it is a harsh truth, but that’s the flip side of the fact that most of the time, we don’t worry about this at all. The fact is that it takes an incident like this, where many people around the world to even give the slightest amount of thought to a supply chain. The reality is that it has been one of the wonders of the modern world, economically speaking, because you have been able to just click something on the internet and assume that something will be delivered in fairly short order. All that’s likely to be slowed down at least in part and especially when the goods are made elsewhere, outside the United States. But when you look at how even items that are manufactured in the United States are made up of components that are often from outside the United States, well, the supply chain becomes another basic issue of life.

During the pandemic, we discovered much of the infrastructure of society, and by this, I don’t mean roads. I mean, hospitals, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, and all the rest. We discovered how dependent we are on those. Well, we’re about to have another stress test. But to state the obvious, we’re not talking about a microscopic virus, we’re talking about an object that is so large it defies our imagination. One shipping authority, a veteran of Suez Canal, speaking of this accident said, “It was the biggest ship in the convoy, and she ended up in the worst part of the canal, a narrow section with only one lane.” The ship is now effectively stuck in the mud so much so that moving the ship may threaten to capsize it or even to break its hole.

One of the photographs that has gone viral in this incident shows a diesel earthmover putting its bucket over against the giant ship. It looks something like a Dr. Seuss picture. There is no way that that little earthmover is going to move that big ship, but actually it may have been intended to try to move the earth around the ship, but that little machine is not up to that challenge either. Right now, no one knows what could be up to that challenge.

On the one hand, this does humble us, doesn’t it? To look at this and recognize that a major wind storm and a sand storm could basically cause this accident. Human factors may be involved, a failure of technology may be involved, and certainly, there was an absence of wisdom in trying to figure out that a ship of that size shouldn’t be in a canal of its size with the kind of likelihood of these winds and a sand storm coming along.

Richard Meade, the editor-in-chief of Lloyd’s List, that’s identified as a London-based maritime intelligence publication. And if you hear the name Lloyd’s, by the way, you should think of Lloyd’s of London, a major insurance brokerage that helped to invent the modern insurance industry, and it basically did. So it basically invented the modern insurance industry by covering shipping. So there’s some irony there. But Mr. Meade said, “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem. I don’t think there’s any question they’ve got everything they need. It’s just a question of, it’s a very big problem.” Now, if one of the world’s experts in this kind of situation has to begin and end his explanation by saying, “This is a very big problem,” you can pretty much count on the fact it’s a very big problem.

From a worldview perspective, yes, there is humbling here, considering the fact that we can build such a giant ship, we can make it float, we can navigate it, but evidently we can’t keep it from getting stuck. And the forces of nature are still more powerful even than the forces of a 1300 foot container ship that weighs more than 200,000 metric tons. That ship is massive, just look at it in the photographs. But given the immensity of planet earth and even just the immensity of the oceans of planet earth, it’s a tiny, tiny speck there. We’re almost back to the virus comparison. So this cuts us down to size.

Is this going to lead to a major change in globalization and the economy? That’s very hard to assume because we are looking at a situation that is unlikely to be undone. Even if one wanted to undo it, it’s hard to imagine how it could now be undone, because we’re looking at the fact that when you just consider the United States of America, we have made basically a decision to make ourselves vulnerable to the world by the fact that much of our supply chain is now moved offshore. American seem to a traded convenience and lower costs for making all things domestically. But in reality, it probably was never possible to make all things domestically, even just given the fact that so many of the commodities that are needed are found elsewhere in the world.

Part II

The Fascinating History of the Suez Canal: How a 120-Mile Canal Changed the World

But there’s something else that’s big here, and that is the fact that most people are talking about the ship, they’re not talking about the very thin manmade canal in which the ship is stuck, the Suez Canal. What’s behind that? Well, the Suez is a region of Egypt in the Middle East. And going all the way back to antiquity, going all the way back to the classical age, remember how powerful the Egyptian Empire was and how powerful the Greek Empire was in Egypt and how important Egypt was later to the Romans? The fact is that in antiquity, there arose the dream of some kind of manmade canal that would link the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

Now, even then, that would have circumvented the so-called Silk Road, a land-based conduit from Asia to Europe that took months and sometimes years to traverse. Europe developed quite a taste for goods from Asia. It went back and forth, but there can be no doubt the Europeans wanted everything from silk to spices to eventually coffee and tea. They wanted it from Asia. They were willing to pay for it, and thus, the convoys began. But those convoys had to traverse everything from giant deserts and some of the world’s tallest mountains to some of the world’s most dangerous territory, speaking of crime and bandits and the ever-present danger of war.

International shipping changed everything in the development of the modern age. And so what the ancients dreamed of, well, and actually came to fruition in the 19th century, the canal was opened in 1869. It was an international project, but it’s interesting to note that serious attention to building the canal came only after the invasion of Egypt and the entire area by Napoleon Bonaparte, then the emperor of France. Napoleon wanted to build a worldwide empire as you well know, and he saw the commerce with Asia and the control of that commerce as a vital gain for France. That didn’t happen. Of course, Napoleon was defeated and his forces were defeated finally at the Battle of Waterloo. And at that point, that territory came under the control of the British Empire.

And when you’re talking about the British Empire, you are talking about India, its greatest prize during the age of empire. You’re talking about England, you’re talking about transit, and you’re talking about trying to find the shortest transit between the United Kingdom and India. And thus, the British became the primary impetus, basically working to some degree with the Ottoman Empire, that was the Islamic Empire that was headquartered in what is known as Istanbul, and then claimed at least some sovereignty over the territory. But the canal opened in 1869. By the way, one of the reasons that it wasn’t built earlier is not just that the technology didn’t exist, but because you had hydrologists who feared that there were different sea levels of such a remarkable nature between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, that building the canal could lead to the forces of gravity, flooding Egypt, not just the Delta, but all of Egypt.

By the way, I mentioned the ancients had the idea. Where did they get the idea? Well, because in periodic flooding, it would be almost as if there were a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, but not one for ships, not one, especially for ships, the size of the Ever Given. The Suez Canal, when it opened in 1869 was 120 miles long. That’s pretty remarkable in itself. And it did transform shipping and international trade immediately. Of course, the United States would get into the canal building business for the very same reason early in the 20th century, especially the years between 1914 and 1916, the Panama Canal opened. And there’s a big story behind that, but it basically comes down to the determination of the United States to build a canal.

The main difference between the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal is not just the distance of length. The Panama Canal is much shorter, about 50 miles, as compared to the more than twice as long Suez Canal. But the Suez Canal does not require locks. The great invention that allowed the building of the Panama Canal was the building of a system of locks, able to raise and lower great ships. A more recent updating in the Panama Canal has allowed it also to provide transit for some of the world’s larger container ships.

How important are these canals? Well, the Suez Canal is 120 miles long. It’s 5,500 miles to go around Africa to have to traverse through the Cape of Good Hope. The passage through the Panama Canal is again, less than a hundred miles and it is also as going around Africa several thousand miles to go around South America, and that means transiting around Cape Horn. And that also means navigating through some of the most dangerous seas, not only say in the 19th century of shipping but also right now.

But before leaving this, let’s remind ourselves that the Suez Canal has played an outsize role in the history of the 20th century as well. One of the major foreign policy crises of the 20th century came in what was known as the Suez Crisis of 1956. England was basically losing its empire in the aftermath of World War II. The British Empire was being dismantled, and the Suez Canal was one of the prizes of Britain and it did not want to lose it. But a newly nationalistic and resurgent Egypt, under the control of Colonel Nasser, claimed ownership of the Suez Canal. Using a pretext of an attack upon Israel by Egypt, that actually didn’t happen, France and Israel and the United Kingdom entered into a military effort, and it was basically England or Britain more than any other power to regain the Suez Canal. It ended in a debacle and a moment of national embarrassment.

That explains why, for example, the leadership of Britain and its war effort regaining the Falkland Islands from an Argentinian invasion in the 1980s, why that was considered to be so important for Britain. As Thatcher said, “Britain is back.” It certainly wasn’t back in 1956. President Dwight David Eisenhower of the United States refuse to back Britain in that effort and it failed. It failed, as I said, in a debacle. But the canal was also closed for a number of years during the last half of the 20th century, during the Arab-Israeli War. It’s another reminder to us that there is nothing more dangerous to the international economy, international peace and international trade you could use as a subset international shipping than war. War is far more devastating in total terms than the weather.

Just to sum all of this up. It is very interesting to think that when the modern aircraft revolution took place and airfreight became a possibility, people almost immediately declared that shipping would come to an end and these canals would no longer be necessary. Just remember those headlines when you look at the pictures of the Ever Given, stuck in the mud in the Suez canal, and hundreds of ships, carrying the things you want and may need stuck in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Part III

Don’t Miss the Theology in the Headlines: Yearnings for Forgiveness and Grace — In a College Classroom

But next, I want to look at something that is explicitly theological, even though the article really doesn’t acknowledge such. I’m talking about an opinion piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times by Michael S. Roth, and Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. It’s a very interesting piece. The headline gets our interest immediately, “Forgiveness in an age of cancel culture.”

Now, the background of this article by this university president is the fact that he, as a good academic president, not only presides over the institution, but he teaches in the classroom, and it’s clear that he must be a good teacher, and it’s also clear that he loves teaching and he loves college students. So we’re talking about a very good place to start here. And he’s been teaching a class on forgiveness to the students at Wesleyan University. Now, that’s a pretty liberal institution. You can imagine its social context. You can imagine the students. It would be, predictably, a pretty liberal conversation, a pretty secular conversation. And as I said, there’s nothing explicitly theological acknowledged in this article, but it is very interesting.

Wesleyan’s president writes, “Our class, combining philosophy and literature, begins with Confucius and ends with Spike Lee. We meet in person, though all of us are masked and separated by at least six feet. We begin with the ancient world’s emphasis on moderation and practice, and end with our own emphasis on survival itself as a marker of virtue.” Early on, he tells this, “We explore how notions of love, charity and forgiveness fundamentally changed the Western ideas of morality. What does Augustine mean when he says, ‘love God and do what you will’? What do grace and forgiveness have to do with each other in Thomas Aquinas? Later, we’ll ask questions about thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Butler.” He’s saying that he’s going from the ancient to the moderns. And when he mentions two of the most seminal figures here, he mentions two theologians, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. So he is dealing with the theological definition of forgiveness. And he talks about how interested these college students, young people between the ages of 18 and 22, are when it comes to the issue of forgiveness.

“Grace and forgiveness attract the students’ attention. Many use utilitarian arguments to explain why it’s beneficial to forgive. They say it’s psychologically healthier to not dwell on the past, or that it’s a waste of time to hold a grudge.” This is where the article for Christians gets really, really interesting. He writes, “They have a harder time with the idea of forgiveness as a moral good in itself. ‘What about justice?’ some quickly ask.” He goes on to write, “I remind them of our discussion of the parable of Jesus and the tax collectors: ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ ask the Pharisees. And Jesus answers: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'”

Roth then writes, “Then the question becomes, is repentance necessary before forgiveness is granted, or is mercy unconditional?” He says that’s a question for medieval theologians, “and it turns out also for young people navigating the complexities of contemporary culture and politics.” President Roth goes on to say that in the class discussions, when the students are asked about their own experience, forgiving or being forgiven, they often mentioned things such as cheating in a relationship. It turns out that dating is a big moral context that comes out in a big way in this class. It’s also interesting that given the ages of these students, some of their experiences of being forgiven and forgiving, or not for that matter, have to do with disputes between siblings.

President Roth tells us that the issue of repentance did resonate with a couple of students, he says, who thought about forgiveness in a political context. He goes on to say that his students really did want to talk about forgiveness and justice. Is it just to forgive someone without justice being achieved? Is it fundamentally wrong to forgive some people for some fundamentally unjust acts or even attitudes? President Roth goes on to tell us that the good news is that these students were actively engaged in the course, they were leaning in, they weren’t cynical, they didn’t give in to the cancel culture. At least, they didn’t want to say that they’re giving into the cancel culture.

But from a theological perspective, just a few huge insights here. Number one, theology is going to come out one way or another. Here you have a university president at Wesleyan University writing about his students, and they’re very, very interested in forgiveness, either experiencing it or not experiencing it. They’re also trying to figure out the morality of forgiveness, and the three issues that come up are justice and repentance and grace. And this is where Christians need to pay a lot of attention. It appears that the idea of grace is perhaps the hardest for these students to embrace and understand. But that’s where, from the Christian experience, we have to remind ourselves that we can only understand grace when we understand that we have experienced grace.

And of course, I’m talking about the grace that is at the very center of the Christian gospel, grace that is named Jesus Christ, grace which means God’s unmerited favor in Christ to those who fundamentally and eternally can never deserve forgiveness. It means God forgiving us on the basis of the merits of Christ what is literally and eternally otherwise unforgivable. But it’s a deep, New Testament insight that we really understand grace once we have experienced grace. Before we’ve experienced the grace of God in Christ, grace does appear as an abstract, and frankly, fairly irrational concept. But that just points to what the Bible describes as the wondrous grace of Christ, the miracle of grace, the fact that God is a gracious God.

Another dimension of this article that caught my attention is the fact that many of the students had turned forgiveness into something of a therapeutic category, something of a pragmatic equation. It doesn’t pay not to forgive seems to be the attitude here because the one who will not forgive goes around carrying a psychological burden of not forgiving, but we have to recognize that there are severe limitations to that pragmatic understanding of forgiveness. There’s a world of difference between forgiving someone for a wrong because we don’t want to hurt ourselves any longer by carrying around the grudge or the burden. There’s a world of difference between forgiving because we think it will do us good to forgive and understanding the grace that comes from God, which is not rooted in God’s need to forgive, but rather his love, something that is fundamentally and infinitely different.

I just want to end The Briefing today by pointing out that these students at Wesleyan University are, in this respect, pretty typical of college students everywhere, which is to say they’re pretty typical of human beings everywhere, absolutely more interested in forgiveness than they ever expected themselves to be, and absolutely confused about what forgiveness actually means and what it means to be forgiven.

And all that just reminds us that all around us are millions and millions of evangelistic opportunities, opportunities to address the issue of forgiveness as a way of talking about what it means to have our sins forgiven by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, our Lord. In this case, theology comes to us from an article in the Los Angeles Times by a university president.

At the very least, the people of grace, Christians, ought not to miss it.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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