Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”

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Lessons of faith from “Casablanca”

Our church has had a ministry teaching English for speakers of other languages for nearly 55 years. The classes focus on teaching the English language and American culture. To help with the latter, we recently had a conversation about the movie “Casablanca.” I was thrilled since it is one of several movies that sit atop my list of “Favorite Movies of All Time.” The movie has everything: romance, humor, political intrigue, plot twists, an iconic cast, and dialogue that has been quoted so often over the past 80 years it now seems trite and cliché.

Frankly, I’m a sucker for a well-told story with noble heroes. I have seen the movie too many times to count, but naturally, I watched it again in preparation for discussing it with my class. I watched as the characters navigate the difficulty of their world. Each one faces a choice between selfishly indulging their personal wants and desires or selflessly sacrificing their own happiness for the greater good (the defeat of the Nazis). For Viktor Laszlo, hero of the resistance, defeating the Nazis is his only reason for living. No personal sacrifice for the cause of freedom is too great for Laszlo—or for his wife, Ilsa. Ilsa Lund, out of loyalty to Laszlo and belief in his cause, chooses to sacrifice a life with her true love, Rick Blaine, and remain with her husband to help in his fight. Rick Blaine, the cynical bar owner, also sacrifices a life of love as well as a profitable bar in Casablanca to (re)join the fight against tyranny. Every character—even the lecherous, larcenous prefect of police, Louis Renault—sacrifices to patriotically fight the “good fight.”

The noble sacrifices of these characters reminded me of the call of discipleship. In fact, the decisions of the characters in “Casablanca” resonate with the highest faith that human beings can offer. In “On Loving God,” 12th-century mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, expressed three stages of faith a person could go through on earth:

Stage 1) Loving Self for Self

Stage 2) Loving God for Self

Stage 3) Loving God for God

Stage 1 is where everyone begins. People start life completely selfish. Babies don’t care if you’re sleeping at night when they’re hungry. Babies don’t care if you’re wearing a clean shirt when they need to throw up. It is always and only about them and their needs—and that’s okay. Babies couldn’t survive otherwise! The problem comes when people don’t grow out of Stage 1. Too many people, long after infancy, still care only about themselves.

Eventually, some grasp a sense of the divine and learn to love God, but even then, they are only self-motivated. They might act in obedience, but only because they seek eternal reward in heaven, or perhaps, fear eternal torment. They are faithful because they may want healing, protection from difficulty, or wealth. While they acknowledge God, the divine is little more than a heavenly vending machine into which they insert their obedience waiting for good things to pop out for themselves. Think of Stage 2 as analogous to when children will perform chores for a reward. They don’t actually care about clean dishes, clean clothes, or a clean room. They simply like the reward (or don’t like the punishment).

If we could learn to live our lives with deep empathy for “the other” and truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Stage 3 is the highest form of faith one can attain on earth according to this system. It is to love God simply because God is God. This level of faith doesn’t seek reward or blessing. The follower is in tune with the needs and concerns of the divine, and no reward is necessary for obedience. The follower will obey God’s call for nothing—even endure hardship—because of their love for God. As one might imagine, this is level of faith is rare. Perhaps even as rare as children who come to understand the value of clean dishes, clothes, and bathroom and clean them for no reward or fear of punishment.

The Bible speaks to and about people at each of these different levels of faith. It condemns hedonistic narcissists like Pharaoh and Herod. Scriptures like Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and even some teachings of Jesus promise reward for obedience and warn of punishment for disobedience. Much like a parent encouraging obedience with a reward, God, it seems, encourages humanity in the same way at times. The Bible also makes clear, however, that this is not the end of discipleship. Jesus said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 CEB). Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 CEB). Loving God and saying no to self is the goal of anyone wishing to be a disciple.

Sometimes the Bible talks about people in different stages of faith in the same story. In Jeremiah 7:23-24, God marvels at the fact that Israel will not be obedient even though blessing is promised—they won’t even clean their room for an allowance! In Jeremiah’s story, however, his obedience to God does not bring blessing. Jeremiah obeys God and finds imprisonment, beatings, scorn, and tradition says, a martyr’s death. Israel can’t even make it out of Stage 1, and Jeremiah is in Stage 3!

As I watched Laszlo, Rick, and Ilsa deny themselves and take up their cause for the greater good in their political reality, I wondered about what it might look like to aspire as a person of faith to live more into Stage 3 in our political reality. What would it look like to vote with no regard for my needs or concerns, but rather the needs of the least of these? What would it look like to advocate for a tax system with no regard for what might help me, but what helps my neighbor—my poor neighbor, my homeless neighbor, my immigrant neighbor? In John 15, Jesus says we are friends of his if we keep his commandments—if we love one another. If we could learn to live our lives with deep empathy for “the other” and truly love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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