It was in my freshman year of college that I wandered in to see Casablanca for the first time. It was part of a Humphrey Bogart film festival during exam week (who would ever do such a thing?) I remember the opening monologue beneath the crude airplane flying overhead and the words, “people wait, and wait and wait.” We were introduced to the good guys, the bad guys, to Captain Renault, to Sam and Rick. And then she walked in! Elsa—Ingrid Bergman—and the rest they say is history! I was in love! Not just with her, but the movie!
The American Film Institute named it the 3rd greatest American film of all time, but it is my favorite! So many incredible lines, so much drama, and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart! But beneath it all lies an eternal question. How do you react when you are living in occupied times?
The characters are so vivid. You have Major Strasser, the face of the occupiers. He is certain in his allegiance to the German invaders, convinced that the time is coming when they will control not only Vichy France, but England and all of the US.
There is Captain Renault, the chief of police who has no allegiance except his own survival. He has chosen accommodation. He will go wherever the winds blow, as long as he can maintain his position and his roulette winnings.
There is Rick, the cynical rank-sentimentalist who has always sided with the underdogs; who, even though he displays a cool exterior, wants to be in the fight only he is aware how much it will cost him.
There is Victor Laszlo, the resistance fighter, the one who can arouse the most passionate feelings of the heart by his actions, by his courage, by his very being.
Then there is Elsa, torn between one whose admiration knows no bounds, and another who has captured her heart.
Though it was produced in 1942, at the height of World War II, it has so many similarities to the world in which the church finds itself. Divisions are growing, not only politically but religiously. Evangelicals who just recently promoted values now bow at the altar of a man who flaunts those very ideals. The “least of these” are now seen as invaders. Those words penned on the Statue of Liberty,“Give me your tired your poor,” have now been revised to say “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Children are too often used as target practice or placed in cages, rendering meaningless that song we learned, “Jesus loves the little children.” Faith has become subservient to politics. Too many Christians have become Major Stassers, following the commands of a realm that knows not Jesus.
While that danger is apparent, what is perhaps more insidious are the Captain Renault’s of the church—those who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” These are the accommodators, the ones who know better. We see them all around—in our pulpits, in our churches, and too often in our mirrors. They can see the way in which their very souls are being compromised, but the desire to maintain their position, to not upset those in power is stronger. At times they might give a silent nod to those working for a better world. They might “like” a Tweet or a Facebook post, but that is as far as their resistance goes. Their appreciation of the courage of others just makes their own cowardice more reprehensible.
Thankfully, there are those Victor Laszlo’s in our world, who continue to speak out a courageous word. Though their lives and positions are in danger, their fear of abandoning their deepest calling is greater. They must speak out, reminding all of their deepest beliefs, stirring them to action.
Caught in the middle are the Rick and Elsa’s of our world. Admiring the heroes, despising the invaders, yet they have been hurt before. They want to play it safe, until… Until something moves within them, until someone makes the decision for them. At some point a line is crossed and there is no going back.
The question is when might that happen? In a recent New York Times editorial, Robert Zaretsky makes the point that there is a fine line between collaboration and accommodation. Collaboration he says is a choice, while accommodation is an act of resignation by people unwilling or unable to tear themselves from everything they have known and taking on unwanted restraints.
Over and over again we have seen evangelicals teetering on the line of collaboration and accommodation. To paraphrase Zaretsky, “with few exceptions, evangelicals have accepted, if not always applauded, the gamut of morally disastrous and legally dubious acts” played out in our recent world, turning their backs on formerly held standards. At what point will we say, “No more!” What is the moral line that we refuse to cross? That is the question not just for our timid leaders, but for all of us, those of us who remain silent in our accommodation of this evil. What will cause us to join the fight?
This is a choice! A choice that not only has enormous implications for their soul, but for the soul of Christianity. As the Captain Renault’s of the church become more entangled with the Captain Strasser’s of the world, it is more imperative that we have the Victor Laszlo’s of the world to remind us where our true allegiance lies.
It might be the only way those of us who so often give in to our lesser angels might find a way to rejoin the fight. It won’t be easy, and not without the costs, but if we do, we might just find the beginning of a beautiful friendship with ourselves, with our world, and our God.
3. Ephesians 4:14. NRSV.