Greater love hath no man…

The title of this post refers to a very well known line from John’s Gospel:

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The surrounding lines provide a bit of context – it’s part of a statement made by Jesus, shortly before he goes in to the Garden of Gethsemane where he’ll be betrayed by Judas.

“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.”

The call to selflessness has become culturally associated with the military services, and the phrase is often used with regard to people who have died in the heat of battle, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others around them.

But I also associate this line with a fictional story.

I enjoy the James Cagney gangster movies from the 1930s, particularly the two he did with Humphrey Bogart; ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’.  In the latter, Cagney plays a gangster, Rocky Sullivan, released from jail and owed money by Bogart’s character, Jim Frazier, who collaborated with Sullivan on a bank raid.  Sullivan took the rap, in return for the money to be paid to him after his release.  Sullivan also has a friend in the local Catholic pries, Jerry Connolly.  As boys, both Rocky and Jerry carried out a robbery together but only Rocky was caught, and sent to reform school, where it might be argued his criminal career began.  Jerry was a faster runner, and became a priest.

Jerry coaches a group of boys playing basketball, who rapidly become impressed with Rocky’s charm and bravado, and his courage and general approach to life. Jerry is concerned that this may lead the boys in to a life of crime.

To cut to the chase, Frazier double-crosses Rocky, and Rocky ends up in a gun fight in which he kills a policeman, which ultimately leads to Rocky being on death row, awaiting execution.

The boys are convinced that Rocky will die like he lived – a hero, going to the electric chair with swagger and bravado. Jerry goes to see Rocky and asks him to go to the chair ‘as a coward’, with the hope that the boys will lose all respect for him and not set out on a life of crime as they try to emulate their hero. Rocky refuses.

However, when he’s taken in to the execution chamber to be executed, he begs and weeps and fights against the guards. His courage and bravado are gone; he goes to his death in an undignified and cowardly manner, pleading for mercy. Jerry, who’s present in the role of Rocky’s priest, prays as the execution takes place.  The boys later read the headlines that Rocky died a coward, and ask Jerry whether it was true.  After a brief pause, he tells them that it was all true. The boys lose respect for Rocky; it’s hoped that they will steer away from crime.

Whether Rocky was acting the part of a coward, or whether he really did ‘break’ at the end isn’t revealed in the film. In later life, Cagney kept quiet about it as well. I saw this film first time around in my early teens, watching it one Sunday afternoon with my parents, and I couldn’t quite work out myself whether Rocky was acting or not.  I got the feeling that Jerry thought that Rocky had done the right thing, though – that moment of pause when the boys asked whether whether the newspaper story was true seems to suggest he was wondering whether to tell ‘the truth’ or the truth.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to think that Rocky DID do the good thing – he made whatever sacrifice he could at the end to help his friend. His life was already forfeit, so he gave up his character, his dignity, his courage; he gave up the rest of him, so to say.

As for Jerry, the older I’ve got the more I have to ask ‘Was it too great a thing to ask of Rocky? After all, but for your ability to run faster, you might have followed a similar life. You asked of him to give away the very thing that made Rocky, Rocky, in the eyes of the world. That was a great deal to ask. Was it too much to ask?’

I’ve not yet got an answer for that one.

Fiction allows us to explore complex morality at ‘low cost’ – this film has stayed with me for my whole adult life. I occasionally watch it when it’s on TV to see if I can gain some more insights; I know, it sounds daft trying to pick out morality from a film that’s almost 80 years old, but sometimes we need fiction to allow us to answer some of the big questions.


For a fuller description of the plot, take a look here.


The girl with the parasol

I’m a bit of a film buff – probably not as much as I once was but I love old films, and unsurprisingly Citizen Kane is up there in my list of favourites.

There’s a scene in there which I’ve always loved – it’s between the reporter researching the life of Charles Foster Kane and Mr Bernstein, one of Kane’s business colleagues. Of much more importance than the sparse information that Bernstein gives about Kane, is the following monologue:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

I used this as the start of a sermon recently (I’m a lay Reader in the Church of England – you might like to take a look  here…) about the importance of memory.  I’m often staggered by the way in which tiny incidents seem to stick in our minds – I’m one of these folks who can barely remember my own phone number, but a tiny event from 40 years ago will often spring in to my thoughts as if it had happened 5 minutes ago.  Maybe it’s the onset of dementia – I don’t know.  But I expect ALL of us have our own ‘girl with the parasol’ –  a person that may have engaged us for but a few moments but that we remember for decades afterwards with such strong memories that they can generate powerful emotions.

I wonder whether these moments are some sort of pivot point in our lives? A point at which we came to a significant fork in the path and had a split second to make a decision. And somehow, our sub-conscious mind, or God’s grace, or the collective unconscious of the world puts a marker in the page of our lives and says ‘Well, you might not have realised it, but THIS moment was very significant”

Would Bernstein’s life have been different had he somehow managed to leap back to shore and catch up with the girl? Could he have come back at the same time over several days to see whether she showed up again? Or does that way lead to obsession?

Or when we have these moments, are we getting some sort of insight in to how important this person would have been to us had a different path been taken prior to that split second?

I have no idea. Maybe our desire for control over our lives stretched backwards in time as well.  Perhaps we look through our life and try to spot those moments when our future would be defined by a few seconds of at the time apparently chance and subtle events. Science Fiction writers are keen to take us to those BIG moments in time and say ‘What if…’ – What if Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt (take a look at Stephen King’s 11/22/63 as an interesting take on this idea) or if Hitler had not invaded Russia? I guess that we can easily see that such events might have a massive impact across the world and on lives, but what about the ‘small stuff’?

I think that it might be the small stuff of our lives – things like the meetings and near misses indicated by our ‘girl with the parasol’ moments – that are often the most influential. Like steering a massive container ship, a small tweak might not seem like much when it happens, but 40 years later a whole life pattern has been changed.

Maybe when we remember those split seconds, we’re getting to see the highlights of our journey.

Just don’t get any ideas about building time machines and fixing things differently – we don’t know where we’ll end up!