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On the Waterfront

October 16, 2022

On The Waterfront (1954) -- (Movie Clip) It's A Crucifixion - Turner Classic Movies
Actor Karl Malden as Fr. Barry in “On the Waterfront”

“On the Waterfront” is one of several seminal films that came out of the McCarthy Era of the 1940s and 1950s [1].  On the surface a story of mob control of the waterfront, it examines on a deeper level when we should stand up against evil.

The McCarthy Era and the “blacklisting” that followed grew out of the ego of a single man, Sen. Joseph McCarthy [2][3].  In the naked pursuit of power, McCarthy made a spectacle of challenging supposed “red sympathizers” and former Communists to betray their companions.

A great many promising careers were ruined, in the process.  Often, these were simply idealistic individuals who had once misguidedly joined the Communist Party, in an effort to alleviate the plight of the poor.

Those were dark times.  No darker, however, than our own.   The spirit of the anti-Christ walks among us (1 John 4: 3). Authoritarianism, Christian Nationalism, wokeism, and the Transgender Movement are among the evil forces rising.

Confronting influential leaders, false teachers, and other adversaries who believe they are doing good by opposing Christianity is an enormous challenge.  The very prospect can be daunting.

In a moving scene from “On the Waterfront”, Fr. Barry (played by Karl Malden) addresses dock workers after one of their fellows is murdered by the mob for testifying before the Waterfront Crime Commission [4].

The dialog is remarkably relevant for today’s Christians.

“I came down here to keep a promise.  I gave KO my word that if he stood up to the mob, I’d stand up with him…all the way.  And now KO Dugan is dead.  He was one of those fellas who had the gift for standing up.  But this time they fixed him.  Oh, they fixed him for good this time – unless it was an accident like Big Mac says.

Some people think that crucifixion only took place on Calvary.  They better wise up.  Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion.  And dropping a sling on KO Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow that’s a crucifixion.

And every time the mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion.

And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if He was dead.”

“Boys, this is my church.  And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming.

Every morning, when the iron boss blows his whistle, Jesus stands alongside you in the shape up.  He sees why some of you get picked, and some of you get passed over [in the selection for work].  He sees the family man, worried about getting the rent and getting food in the house for the wife and the kids.  He sees you selling your souls to the mob for a day’s pay.

And what does Christ think of the easy money boys who do none of the work, and take all of the green?  And how does He feel about fellas who wear $150 suits and diamond rings on your union dues and your kickback money?

And how does He who spoke up without fear against every evil feel about your silence?

You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront?  It’s the love of a lousy buck.  It’s making love of a buck more important, and a cushy job more important than the love of man.  It’s forgetting that every fella down here is your brother in Christ.

But remember Christ is always with you.  Christ is in the shape up.  He’s in the hatch.  He’s in the union. He’s kneeling right here beside Dugan, and staying with all of you.

‘If you do it to the least of Mine, you do it to Me.’  What they did to Joey and what they did to Dugan, they’re doing to you…and you, you, all of you!  And only you, only you with God’s help have the power to knock ‘em out for good.



It is worth noting that Fr. Barry is harassed throughout his speech.  But he does not allow that to stop him.  He does not falter.

We, too, are on the waterfront.  We are God’s hands there, His voice for the downtrodden.  We cannot falter.  We cannot let our courage fail us.  We cannot give in, whatever the forces of darkness may do to us.

Whether we win or lose, we have to stand up.

…[S]tand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God” (Phil. 1: 27-28).

[1]  Wikipedia, “On the Waterfront”,

[2]  Wikipedia, “McCarthyism”,

[3]  Wikipedia, “Blacklisting”,

[4]  Turner Classic Movies (TCM), “On the Waterfront (1954) – (Movie Clip) – It’s a Crucifixion”,


  1. Liebe Anna,
    man muss sich immer die Worte von Christus als Leitfaden nehmen “Wenn ihr es den Geringsten von Mir antut, dann tut ihr es Mir an.” Das gibt einem Mut.
    Ganz liebe Grüße, Marie

  2. We are, indeed, “on the waterfront.” Thank you, Anna, for this timely post.

  3. Allan Halton permalink

    Anna, I think you would enjoy reading “Live Not By Lies” by Rod Dreher. The title is taken from a writing by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who refused to live by lies and paid the price by spending time in the gulag, till finally he was banned from his homeland.

  4. Yes! And illustrated using one of my favorite films.

  5. Great article, and so relevant. Thanks, Anna.

  6. There is a generally shared belief amongst many institutional ‘Christians’ that to defend the natural environment from the planet’s greatest polluters, notably big fossil fuel, is to go against God’s will and is therefore inherently evil. Some even credit the bone-dry-vegetation areas uncontrollably burning in California each year to some divine wrath upon collective humankind’s ‘sinfulness’.

    This, regardless of Jesus, though no pushover, having been fundamentally about compassion, charity and love.

    Jesus coming to serve, rather than to be served, is also most profound and hope-inducing. Most notably, at least for me, his washing his disciples’ feet was/is the most profound and hopeful example of the humility of the divine, who, through Jesus, joined humankind in our miseries, joys and everything in between.

    Personally, I picture Jesus as being one who’d enjoy a belly-shaking laugh over a good, albeit clean, joke with his disciples/followers, now and then.

    I believe Jesus was viciously murdered because he did not behave in accordance to corrupted human conduct and expectation — and in particular because he was nowhere near to being the vengeful, wrathful, and sometimes even bloodthirsty, behemoth so many people seemingly wanted or needed their savior to be and therefore believed he’d have to be.

    Jesus’ nature and teachings [from my understanding] left even John the Baptist, who believed in him as the savior, troubled by his apparently contradictory version of the Hebraic messiah, with which John had been raised. Perhaps most perplexing was the Biblical Jesus’ revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy.

    [Though I’m probably preaching to the long-ago converted] Jesus was/is meant to show to people that there really was/is hope for the many — especially for young people living in today’s physical, mental and spiritual turmoil — seeing hopelessness in a fire-and-brimstone angry-God-condemnation creator requiring literal pain-filled penance/payment for Man’s sinful thus corrupted behavior. Fundamentally, that definitely includes resurrection.

    The way I perceive it, followers of Islam and Judaism generally believe that Jesus did exist but was not a divine being [albeit Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet]. After all, how could any divine being place himself/itself down to the level of humans (and even lower, by some other standards)? How could any divine being NOT be a conqueror — far less allow himself to be publicly stripped naked, severely beaten and murdered in such a belittling manner?!

    • You touch on a great many topics here. I am not entirely sure what you mean by “institutional ‘Christians'” and cannot agree that Christians view defense of the environment against polluters as contrary to God’s will, since we are meant to be biblical stewards. However, you are absolutely right that Christ is the hope of the world, and that He died for our sins. God does want us to repent. But He meets us where we are.

      • By “institutional”, I mean those ‘Christians’ who are most resistant to Christ’s fundamental teachings of non-violence, compassion and non-wealth.

        With hard-conservative institutional ‘Christianity’ having gotten so vocally involved with pro-Trump politics, too many of such ‘Christians’ have effectively created God’s nature in their own fallible and often-enough angry, vengeful image — especially the part insisting via publicized protest pickets that God hates this or that group of people. Often being the loudest, they make very bad examples of Christ’s fundamental message, especially to the young and impressionable.

        And I can honestly imagine many of these ‘Christians’ even finding inconvenient, if not plainly annoying, trying to reconcile the conspicuous inconsistency in the fundamental nature of the New Testament’s Jesus with the wrathful, vengeful and even jealous nature of the Old Testament’s Creator.

      • I agree that many well-meaning Christians have confused their religious and political beliefs. I cannot, however, agree that there is a real inconsistency between the God of the Old and New Testaments. Any apparent inconsistency results from a superficial reading of Scripture.

        God’s nature remains the same — yesterday, today, and forever (Malachi 3: 6; Hebrews 13: 8). In the Old Testament, God punished the sacrifice of children to idols as, for instance, by the Canaanites. But He repeatedly forgave the Israelites their transgressions. In the New Testament, Christ is both the Lamb of God (John 1: 29) and the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5: 5) who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead (2 Timothy 4: 1).

      • But Jesus’ nature and teachings even bewildered John the Baptist, who believed in Jesus as Savior. He [John] was troubled by the Hebraic messiah, with which he had been raised, being so unlike the Jesus version. Perhaps most perplexing was the Biblical Jesus’ revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy.

        Jesus coming to serve, rather than to be served, is also very notable. For me, his washing his disciples’ feet was/is the most profound and hopeful example of the humility of the divine, who, through Christ, joined humankind in our miseries, joys and everything in between.

      • It’s odd to see something coming out of Hollywood with dialogue from a Christian perspective. How things have changed!

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  1. On the Waterfront – Tonya LaLonde

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