Wednesday, August 5, 2015

On The Waterfront and Shuffling Your Feet on the Way to the Promised Land

There's a couple interesting things about today's readings:

  • I watched On The Waterfront for the first time the other night. I ordered the Elia Kazan collection from eBay ($30 for a metric ton of great films) and just kinda jumped in with the obvious ones.

    The movie is a great story in itself: a dockworker and former prizefighter experiences a crisis of conscience concerning his (unwitting) role in the death of a fellow dockworker who stood up against their corrupt union boss. If you've seen it you dig it. But if you haven't it's rightly considered one of the great moral tales on conscience. It also can shed a really interesting light on today's readings.

    The story is also considered a veiled self-defense by Elia Kazan of his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Commission. He named some colleagues for being communist, forever marring his relationships to many people in the entertainment industry.

  • The first reading today is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the narrative of Exodus through Deuteronomy, save for the exodus from Egypt itself. After approximately a year of travelling through the wilderness after their deliverance from slavery, the people of Israel are on the cusp of the Promised Land. They need only send scouts to survey the land and figure out the next step.

    The year of traveling had not brought the best out of the people of Israel. The narrative up to this point has been filled with rebellion, revolt, and rumors. But if they can stick it out just a little while longer, they would be home free.

    However, this is not what happens. Spies scout the land and bring fruit for the people to taste. The land is exactly as it had been promised to them. It is, however, still occupied. This isn't the first time Israel has had to fight: in Exodus chapter 17 they did battle with the Amalekites and won. From that day they understood that the "Lord will fight for you, and you have only keep still" (Exodus 14:14). Those early experiences with Egypt and the Amalekites were all to prepare them to this moment. The spies come back and all, save a man named Caleb, disenchant the people, convincing them that they cannot enter the land or take over its inhabitants. In fact, the Amalekites, whom they had already defeated, are one of the peoples inhabiting the land (Numbers 13:29). 

    The story of the wandering of the wilderness is a story of how the worst hardships should bind us closer to God in trust, even if the odds are against you. When things get worse, they are only the next bad thing in a line of occasions where God follows through with his promise to deliver. If you do not learn the lesson you only further harden your heart, like the oppressing Pharaoh who held Israel as his slaves (Exodus  7:13, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, and so on). As Pharaoh's heart would never change in any lasting way, so it will be with you if you do not allow yourself to trust and be moved.

    God's response to the people's rebellion is to bar the people from the Promised Land. Their children will enter but not them. God's puts it to Moses in this way: when God first came to Moses at the very beginning of the story, he is moved to deliver Israel because "the cry of the Israelites has now come to me (בָּ֣אָה אֵלָ֑י ); I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them" (Exo 3:9 NRSV). But now, he tells Moses: "I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me (עָלַ֖י)" (Num 14:27 NRSV). In their need they were oriented towards God in their need. Now they are opposed to him.

    This moment is the turning point for them. Their light will dim as their children's light increases.

  • This got me thinking about On The Waterfront. Marlon Brando plays a man named Terry whose brother Charley is a lawyer for the mob. Charley often convinces Terry to serve as a lackey for his employer, the corrupt union boss. Their whole relationship comes to a head in what is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema:

  • Terry is almost 30 and his boxing days are behind him. The best he can do now is be a dockworker and to run sketchy errands for his brother and the union boss. On one occasion he threw the match against a boxer named Wilson because his brother told him to. His bosses bet against him and made a lot of money. That proved to be the most pivotal moment in his life. Terry would have won the fight and that fight was the fight that would have opened up a continuous series of opportunities. But because of his trust in his brother and his belief that his brother wanted only what was best for him was enough for him to give up his dream. 

  • Now, nearing 30 and past his prime to be an up and coming prizefighter is over. The world has passed him by, all out of loyalty and love, yes, but also misplaced trust. Leaders have responsibilities to guide those led and Charley, while loving his brother, manipulated him instead at the cost of his brother being who he was made to me.

  • The generation of Israelites after the Exodus were destined for greatness. But while Terry in On The Waterfront gave his loving trust to someone who proved to be untrustworthy, the Israelites withheld their trust from their loving God who was trustworthy. In both cases, their great moment in life was squandered, leaving only ruin. Greatness would be for those who came after them, but not for them.

    But all is not lost. Terry is later given an opportunity to redeem himself and, in a sense, that proved to be the greater moment. Terry's actions completely unravels the injustice that his fellow dockworkers experienced on a daily basis. So it is with the Israelites. They had shuffled their feet on their way to the Promised Land in their rebellions and complaints. But the failure of losing the Promised Land gave way to a new generation and that generation exemplified everything the first generation could not be. Their failures would also come and they would be profound, but the entered the Promised Land strong, faithful, and committed.

    At any rate, if you haven't seen On the Waterfront in the while, it's worth the time.

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