Redeeming the Wire

Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, And hastens to the place where it arose.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted…”

[Note to readers: This is a re-post from a now-defunct blog where I posted a handful of things in 2011.  I made only minor formatting and reference changes.  I think it serves as a good transition between the last new post and the next, and is as timely as ever, with some of the issues mentioned not even making headlines anymore despite possibly getting worse.]

Solomon, the son of King David, was famous far and wide for his wisdom.  Kings, Queens and wealthy men traveled far to see his riches and learn from him.  The book of Ecclesiastes, by one theory, is Solomon’s testimony to these visitors that all their earthly pursuits are “vanity”, or fruitless efforts that produce no lasting results.  Pleasures create desires for stronger pleasures, instead of fulfillment.  Kingdoms and buildings could be lost by foolish descendants or conquered by enemies.  Legacies can be forgotten.  Nothing is forever, and thinking it was is like trying to catch hold of the wind.

To illustrate his point, Solomon points first to nature, then to mankind.  In chapter 1 of Ecclesiastes, he writes about the wind going one way, then the other.  Rivers flow to the sea, but the sea never gets full.  Everything runs in a cycle that doesn’t have an obvious long-term purpose or effect.  In the famous passage in chapter 3, he argues that mankind follows similar cycles.  We are born; we die.  We cry; we laugh.  We gain; we lose.  We love; we hate.  There is no apparent master plan, no sense that humans really progress in any way that matters.  True, we gain technologically, but we never fundamentally change how we relate to each other, or our vain ambitions.

Solomon concludes: This realization can be very depressing!  “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”  (Eccl. 1:18)

I have often felt depressed watching the world as well, but never more so than after watching what has become my favorite TV show – HBO’s The Wire.  Yes, my favorite show of all time is also the most depressing, by far.  Since it is based in nearby Baltimore, many friends insisted I see it to “learn about the city.”  Because of the persistent language, violence, and sex, the show is certainly not for everyone.  To give you an idea in case you have not seen it, here are some of the major themes and events of the show, which could apply to many inner-city neighborhoods (minor spoilers of course, but the show is so well-written it would still be worth watching – if you don’t want spoilers, skip the bullet points):

  • Drug dealers work openly on the streets, and the cops are powerless to mount any significant resistance.  The drug dealers are better funded by far than the police, and the Federal government hardly has enough resources to deal with terrorism, so can’t be bothered with “low-level” drug dealers (who happen to be destroying entire sections of the city).  The picture is so bleak that one of the show’s story lines contemplates that it would be better if they just stopped fighting illegal drugs – would it result in less murders, better treatment programs, etc?
  • Many cops are violent, corrupt, or more concerned with their own promotions and pleasing their political masters than enforcing the law.  The cops that aren’t corrupt are hamstrung by those that are, and by legal and procedural hurdles.  It’s not enough to have an eyewitness to a drug deal or murder if they aren’t willing to testify, and the police can’t protect them.  One of the main characters – and perhaps the best at actual police work – takes out his frustrations with “the system” on himself through alcohol abuse, and on his family through adultery.
  • The leaders of a dying longshoreman’s union look the other way as shady characters pay them massive amounts of money to smuggle whatever they want into the U.S.  They turn around and use this money to pay for political influence in an effort to create new jobs and revive their industry.  A current Maryland Congressperson is even mentioned by name.
  • Politicians use the city as a stepping stone to larger ambitions, and find out that most of the city’s worst problems are beyond anything they can do anyway.
  • Generations of economic despair have turned the school system into a waste of time for most children, who stand a far better chance at a “job” in the drug trade than in any legitimate business.  Kids who manage to show up are often passed from one grade to the next, to meet political goals required to get Federal funds.

Not bleak enough for you yet?  If you research the show, you find that nearly all of the people, circumstances and events are based on real life — the show was created and written mostly by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and Ed Burns, a former Baltimore city homicide detective.

The Wire’s creators admit their show is about human institutions; institutions that have failed to produce any real progress in inner cities.  There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” – just a failed police department, school system, newspaper, and government.  The impact is felt by the citizens – whenever you start rooting for someone who looks like they will improve their lives, or try to go against the decadent grain, it usually ends badly.  Nobody “wins” in the end.  The show provides no solutions and just leaves people depressed and hopeless – like Solomon might have predicted.  The closing montage of the series shows that one generation of players is simply replaced by another.

“One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.  The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.”

Evidence of the cyclical nature of human behavior is not limited to TV shows about inner cities.  Since I work in the investment industry, cyclicality is very familiar to me.  I’m currently reading a book about investing by Howard Marks, where he writes: “In investing, as in life, there are very few sure things.”  But, the one thing he is most sure of is: “Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical.”[1]  Why?  “The basic reason for the cyclicality in our world is the involvement of humans…people are emotional and inconsistent, not steady and clinical.”[2]

Marks argues that, in investing, the best course of action is not to fight against human nature and assume it has changed, or will change.  He argues the best course of action is to take it as a given, and work around it.  He also argues that investors (and people) who think this way are “often lonely.”

Why is this?  Because people – all kinds of people, religious ones, non-religious ones – want to assume that mankind is getting better.  It’s not popular to suggest that it’s not.  The reason watching the cyclical futility of the world, especially when it’s viewed in extreme close-up like in The Wire, is because it contradicts our wishful assumptions that mankind has, or will eventually find, solutions to our problems.

Acting on these assumptions, political scientists of all stripes tell us that we’ll eventually find a system that works, and turns the cycle into a relentless upward trend toward utopia.  However, until this system actually exists in the real world, it’s not “science” but “faith”.  As Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  But, in practice there is.”  Economic and political theories rise to prominence when they have promise on paper, but they eventually confront the basic reality of human nature, in practice.

Belief that this world can be perfected – that human nature can be overcome systematically – goes against the wisdom of the Bible and the lessons of history.  Wishing it to be true won’t make it true, and acting as if it is true is almost certain to be dangerous.  The church is no exception – history is full of examples of disastrous results when the church tried to pursue utopia on earth.  As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

One theory passes away, and another theory comes; But the earth abides forever.

Unlike Howard Marks and the writers of The Wire, Solomon proposes a fundamental answer: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.”  (Eccl. 12:23) The commandments that summarize all of God’s law are: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Solomon knows the key to joy in this world – in contrast to despair – is to stop trying to create a master plan. Instead, trust that God has a master plan and has given you what you need to know. I’m not aware of any Scripture that tells anyone to seek the “hidden meaning” behind it all, and then take action only after you’ve figured all that out. Scripture does not say there is an ideal political system, other than a future monarchy in heaven, under God. Scripture does give specific commands. That’s because He thinks that’s better. In spite of how bad the world looks, and how meaningless it seems, history is moving toward a grand conclusion and you have a part in it. Inability to accept it is a lack of faith. Instead, remember your Creator while you have time on earth.

Draw near to God and allow Him to change you, then act on God’s love for you by loving people.  God wants His followers to focus on specific people – “neighbors” – not abstract people or future world orders.  After all, “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.”  (2 Peter 3:10)  If we know God can return at any time, why focus on a distant future instead of what can be done today?

Christianity is not intended to “fix” this world.  It will not create jobs for everyone, or make the economy perfect; it will not make all substance abuse go away; it will not make all politicians altruistic; it will not make all the schools produce model citizens; it will not make all journalists noble.  But neither does any earthly solution.  Thinking this is God’s will is like grasping after the wind, and is a distraction from His true purpose – to redeem individual people into citizenship in a new world, making them like strangers and aliens in this one, which is temporary.  We will find perfection in the next world, not this one.

I am not saying that Christians have no stake at all in making this world a better place.  What we do know about God’s plan for this world is that He wants to transform people in a way that will provide a glimpse of the next world.  He doesn’t need perfect people here, but changed people.  People who will share God’s personal love and produce specific results, here and in eternity.   The Wire, ironically, provides a great example.  Donnie Andrews[3], the real-life inspiration for one of The Wire’s most notorious characters, met Christ while in prison.  He is now working to give kids another path in Baltimore, “through mentoring programs, a summer camp and jobs training”.  For most people, heaven is just another Utopian dream on paper, but changed lives are far better evidence of its existence than mere words.  Even Ed Burns, one of the show’s creators, says “I’m quite jaded, but I believe in Donnie.”

To Andrews, it’s not about fixing the system.  “We have to get together as a community. We have to stop blaming the mayor. We have to stop blaming Obama. It’s our community. It’s our responsibility. It’s our city,” Andrews said. “We know who’s selling dope in our neighborhood, we know who’s shooting who. Don’t point your finger at the police, ‘You’re not doing your job.'”[4]

As for the old Donnie Andrews who inspired a merciless killer in a TV show?  “That person was buried 15 years ago,” he says.[5]  The Bible says Christians can show the world a path to a perfect world, but also that they have to be willing to give up this one.

To me, watching The Wire was a message to put less faith in this world.  To realize worldly progressivism doesn’t mix with Christianity.  There is no solution for “the world”, but there is a way out.

[1] Marks, Howard.  The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor (2011).  P. 67
[2] Ibid.  P. 68
[3] Donnie Andrews died in December 2012.  Michael K. Williams, the actor who played Omar Little, the Wire character based on Andrews, died in September 2021.  Michael’s death gained far more media attention than Donnie’s.

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