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Unreasonable Courage – 1/22/2012

He knew the jig was up when he saw the guards at the door. The police hadn’t said why they wanted to talk to him, but he knew what he’d done and what they must want him for. Sweating with fear, he tried to be casual and nonchalant about it, until he saw a chance to bolt. Then all at once there were gunshots, and a mad dash down the corridor. No more than half a step ahead he caught sight of a familiar, well-dressed man up ahead – not quite a friend, exactly, but someone he desperately hoped he could trust.

Ugarte ran up to the other man, the man who owned the bar they were in, and grabbed a hold of him. “Please, help me, hide me; you must do something.” He shook the stone-faced man by his white tuxedo jacket, pleading with him. And then his pursuers caught up, grabbed him, and took him away, as he howled the other man’s name. The bar owner stood there, watching, until another customer remarked to him, “When they come to get me Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.”

On occasion, I offer one of my sermons for auction as a fundraising device for our congregation. The winner of the auction gets to choose the topic I will reflect on and the text that I will wrestle with. This sermon was won at auction by Jay Coburn – I thank him and his wife Gina for their generosity to the worthy cause of our community. The subject he has given me is courage – specifically the moral courage to do what is right even when it might be dangerous or seem foolish. And the text that Jay has chosen for us to consider this morning is the movie Casablanca.

This is one of the most popular English-language films of all time, so no doubt many of you know that the main character in Casablanca is Rick, the owner of a bar in that city on the North African coast. The movie was made in 1941 and set in that year as well; the plot turns around the Nazi occupation of Europe. A stream of refugees are fleeing the continent and fascism. Many of them passed through Casablanca, in French-controlled Morocco, in a round-about route to Lisbon, where they could travel on across the Atlantic. The official French government has been subjugated by the German army, and so this mass of people, fleeing for their lives, must pass through dangerous territory in the hopes of escape.

Casablanca is a work of fiction, but its backdrop was a real humanitarian crisis that was actively going on during the making of the film. Many of the actors in the movie were French and German and Austrian exiles who had fled the Nazi advance. The story that they were telling was a shadow of their own. One of the main elements of that story was a set of transit papers: documents attesting to the bearer’s identity and right to travel freely across national borders. Before he was dragged away by the authorities, Ugarte gave Rick a valuable set of these papers. Now the bar owner – a self-consciously disinterested, ex-idealist – must decide what to do with them.

It turns out that Unitarian Universalism is a lot like the movie Casablanca. Because as this fictional story is happening, in 1941, focused on transit visas to the Port of Lisbon, a story critical to our own faith is happening in the real 1941, and it is also all about papers for travel through Lisbon. You see at the outbreak of the war in Europe, the Unitarian Service Committee – this was in the last decades before the marriage between the Unitarians and the Universalists, remember – the Unitarian Service Committee was formed to help refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Most of Europe was occupied, and the sea beyond was blockaded by British war ships. Anyone trying to get out and across needed all the help they could get.

The USC was one small group helping to smuggle refugees – some political dissidents, most of them Jews – out of fascist territory and to the United States. But on top of all the other difficulties you might imagine in getting a hunted person safely to Lisbon’s open port, there was the matter of getting them permission to cross from there to the US. These were people whose own identifying documents had often been lost or destroyed in the flight for freedom. And though they were being threatened with imprisonment and death by it, they were still citizens of an enemy power, and so American authorities were inclined to be suspicious.

To try to help more people through, the USC began issuing identity and travel documents of its own – it had no authority to do anything of the sort, but it did it anyway. And as the USC’s European commissioner, Rev. Charles Joy explained, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and with police, it is important that it look important.”[i] So he asked an artist among the Lisbon refugees to create a symbol they could put on their papers as a seal to make them more official-looking.

That artist was Hans Deutsch, a cartoonist who lived in Paris before the war and published satirical cartoons of Hitler. The image he created was of a flaming chalice – a wide cup holding a burning fire. We lit our own version of this symbol together earlier as we and most other Unitarian Universalist congregations do every Sunday. It has become the primary symbol of our faith, but it began in the urgent need to help people across the Atlantic. The inventor of our emblem was not a Unitarian or a Universalist. He was, specifically, an atheist. But he was impressed with the work that the Rev. Joy and his colleagues were doing. He wrote,

I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith—as it is, I feel sure—then religion, ceasing to be    magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and—  what is more—to active, really useful social work. And this religion—with or without a heading—is one to which even a ‘godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes![ii]

It is the lives each of us leads that serve as the profession of our faith; our religion can claim no loftier ideals or grander expressions than the ones demonstrated by the activities of its adherents. In every moment we can choose to act out of love or bitterness, pettiness or mercy, compassion or contempt. But our actions matter most when the chips are down – when the right thing is far from the easy thing. It is easy to be a saint in paradise. It is a harder thing to risk life or freedom or the acceptance of the people around us. The lizard brain instinct for self-preservation runs against it. And yet, people like Rev. Charles Joy do leave comfortable homes in relatively safe countries and travel to war torn continents to help strangers struggle against long odds for escape. It was a time when getting out of Europe, to paraphrase a line from Casablanca, ‘would take a miracle – and the Germans had outlawed miracles.’ Still, brave people, some of them our religious ancestors, did it anyway. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said that, “Faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.”[iii]

In Casablanca, when Rick was still deciding what to do with those transit papers, the local contingent of German soldiers commandeered the bar’s piano. They joyfully belted out German patriotic anthems, offending and humiliating the clientele, particularly the French, who had just recently had half their country stolen and their government upended by the Nazi war machine. But the crowd remained quiet, and does not complain or interrupt, out of fear, and the Nazis kept on singing. Until Victor, a Czechoslovakian resistance leader, ordered the band to play the Marseillaise: the anthem of the French Republic.

As an individual act of defiance, it was far more dangerous than practical: he didn’t have much to gain by it, and he still had his life to lose. But he did not find himself alone in rebellion: the rest of the café followed his lead, and up on their feet, sang loud enough to drown out the Germans. Vaclav Havel, who died last month, was, like Victor, a Czechoslovakian resistance leader – just a non-fictional one. He described acts such as these as “living within the truth”. Any great injustice depends upon a very large number of people living out a lie: pretending to believe what they do not believe, pretending that they are indifferent to people and things that they care about, and generally denying what is true in their heart out of fear or complacency. But any moment of living in truth, even a small one, threatens the unjust status quo because it points to the lie, and points out to everyone who lives in it the absurdity of that lie.

Vaclav Havel compared this absurdity – the absurdity underlying all injustice to the night that he was walking down a road in the dark and fell into an open sewer. Suddenly submerged in a pool of – well, a word that I’m not going to use from the pulpit – Havel was in trouble. Some friends began to scramble around the edge of the hole with flashlights, making different attempts at a rescue, while he focused his energies on trying to swim. It was a good bit of time before anyone had the wise idea to run and fetch a long ladder. The situation was momentarily a hopeless one – few things will suck the hope out of you like being trapped in a lightless sewer pit. But hope still managed to reach into that forsaken place – it is, Havel said, “a state of mind, not a state of the world…In the face of…absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”[iv]

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition challenges us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. In Casablanca the front and center evil is Nazism, which makes it hard to reflect on as a metaphor without sounding polemical. It is one of the corollaries to the famous Godwin’s Law that whoever compares their problem or adversary to the Nazis has automatically lost the debate.[v] But at its basis, Rick’s story in Casablanca is the story of a person who thinks they’ve rid themselves of their ideals, only to find themselves questioning their own cold-heartedness at the moment when it matters most. It is a crisis of conscience, but the good kind: the crisis that your conscience makes for you when you’ve been ignoring it for too long. As the noble Victor says after Rick expresses disinterest at whether the world lives or dies, “Do you know how you sound…?…Like a man who is trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.”

In the movie’s final scene at the airport, Rick has made up his mind about what to do with the letters of transit. He has made the unreasonable, courageous decision to use the papers to send Victor on to America, and freedom, even though it will cost him everything. As the final flight leaves for Lisbon, he has given up his love, sold his club, gambled his life and freedom and seems on the verge of losing it all. Sometimes the cost of courage is failure; we do not live in a world in which virtue always triumphs in every instance over hate. Nor is most of any person’s life made up of grand gestures and sweeping moments where the music swells and the camera captures the face in a bold and dashing pose.

Life is a series of choices; most of them feel small enough that we don’t even notice we are making them. What we say, and what we do not say. What things we see or hear, but ignore. What things we do, and regret, but never seek to make amends for. But also what love we show, what mercy we offer, and what truth we choose to live within. And every one of those choices carries a risk. Reason alone with not allow you to navigate such a maze of options. But the still, small, truthful voice in your heart; that may somehow see you through.

The feminist Jill Ruckelshaus said in her memorable call to action, “I am asking for everything you have to give. You will lose your youth, your sleep, your patience, your sense of humor and occasionally…the understanding and support of people you love very much.”[vi] There can be a high cost to do what is right. But sometimes there are benefits we cannot fully anticipate. In the last moments of Casablanca, the plot nearly crashes into oblivion as a German officer gives the order to stop the plane for Lisbon and arrest Victor before he can escape. Rick has no choice but to shoot the officer, right in front of the chief of the local French police, Captain Renault. Renault has never shown even a hint of a moral compass up to that moment, declaring earlier that he is only a “poor, corrupt official.” As another contingent of police arrive, the gun still in Rick’s hand, his fate seems to be sealed.

In Rick’s final gamble of defiant virtue, he takes the risk of living in truth, and that creates an opportunity for someone else to be moved by his moral courage and follow his example. Captain Renault, the only figure in this black and white film drawn with more shades of gray than Rick himself, proves at the last that he cannot abide living in the absurdity of an unjust system either. “Major Strasser has been shot,” he announces to his guards. “Round up the usual suspects.” If there is some reasonable reason for the unreasonable courage of doing what is right, it is that it is contagious. The more that we choose to let our actions be shaped by love, and justice, and a devotion to what is true, the more those around us may be drawn in. And from moments of unreasonable courage like that, real change can result – and it might also be the start of some beautiful friendships.

[i] Warren R. Ross, The Premise and the Promise, Skinner House Books, 2001

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] From his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964

[iv]From “Never Hope Against Hope,” Esquire Magazine, October 1993:

[vi] At the 1977 NWPC-CA State Convention in San Jose


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