Pastoral Care On the Waterfront

Even if you have not seen Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954; streaming for free on Amazon Prime), you likely have heard its most famous lines, delivered by Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger): “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

The film is complex, although the story itself is straight-forward. Multiple characters change during the course of the movie, including Terry, Charlie, Father Barry (Karl Malden), Edie (Eva Marie Saint in her first movie role) and Joey’s father (John Hamilton), and the other stevedores. Edie is the constant, the voice of everyone’s conscience, born from her grief and anger that no one will speak about who killed her brother. She tells Father Barry that “saints don’t hide out in churches” and she refuses to accept Terry’s excuses for not doing the right thing. In the church, when Father Barry is trying to call a small group to action, Edie is the one who angrily rebukes them for their cowardice.

Edie’s conscientiousness highlights the central theme, as we are asked to consider both the difficulty of overcoming the (in)action of a fearful crowd in the face of an injustice, as well as what we would do in a similar situation. Eventually, the crowd will join the right side, but only as the result of one individual’s actions. It takes Terry’s willingness to be beat up by Johnny Friendly’s thugs for the rest of the dock workers to turn against Johnny and his mob-run union. Edie has her moments of standing alone, first over the body of her brother, then in the church among the parishioners, and later with Terry. And Father Barry stands alone after Kayo Dugan is killed, ironically, by a pallet of the Jameson for which he had been hoping. The priest takes the abuse, as well as the rotten and rocky projectiles, of the mob enforcers and the silence of most of the workers.

I tend to stay away from making direct comparisons of people’s suffering with the crucifixion of Jesus, as Barry does in his speech. I prefer to let Christ’s crucifixion stand uniquely as the suffering of the Just for the unjust, the Holy One of God in the place of sinners. It seems to dilute the singular nature of His mediation to associate every instance of unjust human suffering with the cross, especially when the person who suffers or dies is not doing so because he or she bears the Name of Jesus as a believer.

And yet, there is an undeniable power—at least from a human perspective—in people who suffer or are killed for doing the right(eous) thing, as Joey does, as Kayo does, as Charlie and Terry do. Because Father Barry stands and speaks while suffering the assaults of those who want to silence him, some are convinced to see clearly the nature of Johnny Friendly’s methods of intimidation and control. Within the system as it stands, it seems impossible for anyone to resist the will of the union, especially when such resistance would threaten one’s livelihood. After all, hasn’t Johnny Friendly made us prosper? What does it matter if he bends or breaks the law to help us get what should be coming to us anyway?

Father Barry reconsiders his position in part because of Edie’s rebuke of him over Joey’s body, but he also realizes that this is the parish to which he has been given. (Incidentally, I wonder what our ecclesial life would look like if we had a parish system, where all the Christians of a particular tradition had one church, whether they liked it or not! We might, then, be able to bear better witness about being the Body of Christ in a place. But we’re Americans, so we continue to split and splinter and fragment.)

Barry does not get a choice in the cross he will have to bear, but it comes within his vocation, in that particular place and that particular time. Not everyone physically suffers, but if suffering comes to him, he’s willing to bear it, especially in light of his promise to Dugan that he would stand with him to the very end. It is required of him that he be where his people are, even if they (or he) do not particularly like it, because he is their pastor.

In On the Waterfront, the righteous are vindicated at the end, but of course that does not always happen in real life, at least as far as we can see. But the film gives us striking examples of resisting evil, quite apart from whether the victory seems assured. And in this case, it is a reflection of Christ, whose death seemed to be a defeat. Indeed, without the resurrection, His unjust crucifixion would remain an empty “moral” victory. While the deaths of Joey, Kayo, and Charlie are examples, it is only in the light and hope of Jesus’ resurrection that the righteous know that victory is certain.

Maybe, then, in spite of my own reservations, the splattered and bleeding Father Barry has a point.