Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?

An Anti-2kers Dream Come True

Thanks to our southern correspondent:

Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Vestavia Hills is trying to establish its own police force.

The move requires approval from state lawmakers. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Shelby County) cleared its first major hurdle Wednesday. The House Public Safety Committee gave its OK.

Briarwood Presbyterian Church calls this a way to create a safer campus in a fallen world.

Some lawmakers argue allowing a private church to have its own police force could begin a slippery slope.

“What do we do when other church affiliates come and ask for the same thing?” questioned Rep. Mary Moore (D-Birmingham). “They’re not a college. They’re a church and they’re a church asking for police jurisdiction.”

Many questions were posed during Wednesday’s committee meeting.

“Who do the officers answer to?” asked Rep. Chris England (D- Tuscaloosa).

“They would answer to the leadership of the section of the church,” a representative from the church answered.

Rep. Connie Rowe (R- Jasper) is a former police chief. She supports allowing Briarwood to create its own force.

“They will conduct their own investigations,” explained Rowe. “They will conduct their own security. They will make their own arrests and instead of calling on the local law enforcement agency to take over the particular situation they’re trying to control, they will do that themselves. All they will utilize from their other law enforcement agencies is their lock up facilities.”

At a time when the PCA is repenting of racism and Black Live Matters is calling for reform of the police, has not the word “optics” entered the PCA thesaurus?

Jimmy and Freamon Never Had It This Good

Back then they needed a search warrant. Not now:

Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor’s attorney wanted to know.

The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor’s trial was evasive. “There’s equipment we would use that I’m not going to discuss,” he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

“You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court,” replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor’s cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.

And don’t imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.

The technology at issue is known as a “Stingray,” a brand name for what’s generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children’s game Marco Polo. “Marco,” the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, “Polo, and here’s my ID!”

Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well.

And they wouldn’t even need Pryzbylewski to break the code.

No peace, no justice.

Why I Love the Modern State

It helps me keep straight the difference between the city of God and the city of man, at a time when so many Christians want Christianity to define “ALL of me.”

Mark Oppenheimer thinks it possible to distinguish Christian as a noun and adjective:

And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.

For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.

And what about James Bratt’s suggestion that politicized evangelicals should own the moniker, “Christianist“?

Whatever the label, believers have trouble (without the help of modern politics) sorting out their Christian and non-Christian aspects. Just consider the confusion in this response to yesterday’s bombings in Belgium:

I’ll leave it to people who know what they’re talking about to expound further on the radical nature of what Christ is demanding of us when he says this. Suffice it to say for now that it’s clear and direct and we don’t have any choice if we call ourselves Christians: we have to forgive our enemies.

And that includes the terrorists who killed 34 people in Brussels on Tuesday. We have to forgive them.

BUT…But…but it is also written, “thou shalt not kill.” And that means that we need to kill all the other terrorists who are still out there.

Why? Because justice and reason and the teaching of the Church. The Fifth Commandment (don’t kill) imparts on Christians a duty to protect and defend innocent human life. Sooooo…it is morally just to use lethal force to prevent the killing of innocent people. Self-defense, just war, etc. etc. etc.

So kill ISIS.

First, I thought God through the ministry of the church forgives sins. It’s not up to me to forgive people who have not wronged me. Do I even have authority as an elder to forgive sins that are crimes against humanity? The Book of Church Order doesn’t say so.

Second, I don’t have the power to kill anyone legally unless I become part of the executive branch of our constitutional order. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I could legitimately kill someone. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I am also carrying out orders of someone else. As a Christian policeman, executioner, or solder I am carrying out the duties of my vocation. But I am not acting “merely” as a Christian since non-Christian police and soldiers carry out similar orders.

So as a 2k Christian I don’t have to forgive or kill. I defer to those with higher pay grades, which includes — piety alert! — praying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

What Bushy Top and Stringer Bell Might Teach Us About Mr. Laden

After saying my morning prayers (see, I am devout), tending to the livestock, and fixing the coffee, I tuned into my favorite radio show (my wife’s most hated) to learn not only that Phillies had lost but that Osama Bin Laden had lost his life. To hear sports-talk radio hosts commenting on life, death, and terrorism was obviously strange, though they would have also been my path to news of 9-11 if streaming audio were available back in the dark days of Windows XP.

But even stranger and more inappropriate was to listen to sports fans chime in with glee about Mr. Laden’s death. To treat this man’s execution and burial like another Joe Blanton loss is clearly not fitting. What the event seems to call for is a ceremony – akin to the one in which President participated at the National Cathedral after 9/11. My Old Life sensibility tempts me to conclude that our culture cannot ceremonialize the death of a national enemy because we are no longer a ceremonial culture – too much Praise & Worship worship. But this would be a cheap shot in the worship wars. What is actually the case is that human beings have a long history of celebrating an enemy’s death in a manner more appropriate to a sporting even. Just think of what the Italians did to Mussolini. The communist Partisans captured him, executed him, and then hung him by his feet in a public square in Milano where the locals proceeded to jeer and throw rocks. Don’t underestimate human vindictiveness.

But don’t underestimate either the dark side of this bright moment in this chapter in the chronicles of justice. Since I have been re-watching Season Three of The Wire – the season where the fate of the drug lords, Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale is settled – I have thought about the events of last night through the lens of human frailty so brilliantly depicted in that award-winning HBO series.

First, I heard on NPR that one of the oddities about Mr. Laden’s compound was that such a massive and expensive place would not have either internet or phone service. Boy, does that have The Wire written all over it. To evade the special unit given the task of catching Avon, which had used a fairly sophisticated system of wire taps, even to be able to track disposable phones, the head of the entire drug enterprise went without a phone altogether. To contact him, people had to talk to his minions, or executive minions. Mr. Laden didn’t need to be a fan of The Wire to see the logic of going without electronic communication, but sometimes life does imitate art.

Second, if Mr. Laden were an American citizen selling drugs or directing terror, chances are the authorities would not have had the freedom to kill him on sight. Their first action would have been to capture him, read him his rights, and then start the wheels of U.S. jurisprudence rolling – which might involve some roughing up behind closed doors in police office buildings. But if Mr. Laden were like Avon, he would likely still be alive (if he did not resist arrest).

Third, what kind of strategy did the American military use in killing Mr. Laden? In The Wire the mayor and police chief are often more interested in symbolic victories – declines in statistics, or drugs piled on tables for journalists to see and photograph – than the real source of the problem. In other words, they are more interested in winning re-election than in strategic allocation of resources. In which case, was Mr. Laden a target of military and intelligence officials? Or was he a trophy for administrators in the Pentagon to maintain budgets and for the White House to look tough on terror?

Another layer in managing the publicity of Mr. Laden’s death is the relationship among the United States, its Western and middle-Eastern allies, and Pakistan. Military and civilian authorities are choosing their words carefully to prevent embarrassment for the Pakistanis. What The Wire’s police chief Burrell says to his Colonels is different from what he says to the mayor behind closed doors which is different from what Burrell says to the press. Another instance of personal, professional, and civic calculations is Tommy Carcetti’s decision to run for mayor of Baltimore. As one of the few white councilmen in the city, the only shot he has to defeat the black incumbent is if another black councilman runs in the Democratic primary and splits the African-American vote, thereby letting Tommy emerge as the great white hope – who even during the mayoral campaign is calculating how to manage city politics in a way that will allow him to run for state (governor) and or federal (senator) office. Celebrators should not let Mr. Laden’s death prevent them from seeing the layers of interests – what the Coen brothers do when exploring the mixed motives of their characters – that inform presidents, generals, chiefs of staff, kings, ministers of parliament and journalists in their massaging of, taking credit for, or distancing from this event.

Last, celebrators should remember the experience of Bushy Top, Jimmy McNulty, once he finally hit his target. Jimmy had to do some real soul searching about whether he was going after Avon and Stringer for the sake of the city, his commander, or personal fulfillment – colleagues did tell him he needed to get a life. To the degree that his own identity was bound up with convicting one of B&B Enterprises’ co-owners, Jimmy also saw how incomplete he was. The defeat of Avon and Stringer turned out to be a thin reed on which to hang Jimmy’s search for meaning. The death of Mr. Laden will generate great ebullience. Americans should beware of the rapid and scary descent on the other side of this roller coaster ride.

What in anyway does any of this have to do with Reformed faith and practice? In keeping with the neo-Puritan insistence on application, the theological payoff of a Wired reading of Mr. Laden’s death is this: although the Bible teaches human depravity God’s word doesn’t really explore it in its amazing and complicated depth – as in the wickedness that clings to the best of human actions – the way that productions like The Wire do, or the Coen Brothers’ movies, or even the occasional French film like Jean de Florette. To be alert to the variety and tenacity of human sinfulness, you need to look at the poignant portrayals of human existence that come from some of the best artistic expressions (though the Old Testament has its moments).

What the Bible does teach is the remedy for sin. Its salvation is not a government that enforces God’s law or even that reinforces the rule of law, as good as those forms of rule may be. The only remedy is a savior whose work of redemption is so amazing that he could even, pending faith and repentance, save Mr. Laden from his obvious sin.