I'm Not Sure...

[a scene in the third season of David Simon's THE WIRE where Baltimore Police Major Bunny Colvin gives some rare straight talk on the futility of the drug war]

WOMAN: I come home from work, I can't even get up my front steps 'cause they occupied by the drug dealers. Is that in the picture you got up there?

POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: I'm Major Colvin. I apologize for giving you the wrong impression tonight, we mean no disrespect. I know what's going on in your neighborhoods, I see it everyday. Ma'am, it pains me that you cannot enter your own front door in safety and with dignity. But truth is, I can't promise you it's gonna get any better. We can't lock up the thousands that are out on those corners. There'd be no place to put them even if we could. We show you charts and statistics like they mean something, but you going back to your home tonight, we gonna be in our patrol cars, and the boys still gonna be out there on them corners. Deep in the game. This here is the world we've got, people. And it's about time that all of us had the good sense to at least admit that much.

MAN: So what's the answer?

POLICE MAJOR COLVIN: I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it can't be a lie.

Last night, I watched Bill Moyers interview David Simon, a newspaper beat reporter turned television writer and producer. The program began with these words from Moyers: "When television history is written," one critic says, "Little else will rival 'The Wire.'" And when historians come to tell the story of America in our time, I'll wager they will not be able to ignore this remarkable and compelling portrayal of life in our cities.

What followed was a brilliantly angry voice I'd not heard before, one who spoke with conviction and experience and honesty. Simon spoke specifically of the drug war and inner city realities, but the larger backdrop was America, for better or worse, the America "in our time."

I woke up this morning about 4am, couldn't go back to sleep, so I figured hey, why not go online and read the entire transcript from last night's PBS program? That's what most people do early Saturday mornings, right? Anyway, I did, and was again both shaken and stirred.  Here is the link. 

Police and law enforcement have waged the war on drugs for years now. However, regardless of what statistics you may hear to the contrary, drugs are more readily available these days and more pure than ever before. Obviously, the war efforts are not working. As Simon says, "...this war's lost. This is all over but the shouting and the tragedy and the waste."

Here are two scenes I'll share from the interview, both taken from THE WIRE. As you read through them, I'd encourage you to consider them in light of the Church...that's where these scenes and this interview took me.

BILL MOYERS: And there's a wonderful scene in which this kid, himself, talks to the teacher about the hypocrisy of the very system that you've just described. Take a look.


NAMOND BRICE: Like y'all say, don't lie, don't bump, don't cheat, don't steal or whatever. But what about y'all? What, the government, Enron, steroids? Yeah, liquor business, booze-- the real killer out there? And cigarettes, oh [deleted]. You got some smokes in there?

FEMALE TEACHER: I'm trying to quit.

SOT: STUDENT 2: Drugs paid your salary, right?

HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: Not exactly, but I get your point.

NAMOND BRICE: We do the same thing as y'all, except when we do it, it's like, "Oh my God, these kids is animals!" It's like, it's the end of the world coming. Man, that's bull [deleted]. 'Cause this is like, what, hypocrite? Hypocritical.


And then this one -

BILL MOYERS: Yes, one of my favorite scenes, in Season Four, we get to see the struggling public school system in Baltimore, through the eyes of a former cop who's become a schoolteacher. In this telling scene, he realizes that state testing in the schools is little more than a trick he learned on the police force. It's called "juking the stats." Take a look.


ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.

ROLAND "PREZ" PRYZBYLEWSKI: I don't get it, all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we're teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

TEACHER: Nothing, it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can't.

PREZ: Juking the stats.

TEACHER: Excuse me?

PREZ: Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and major become colonels. I've been here before.

TEACHER: Wherever you go, there you are.


I'm hoping you can draw at least a few parallels. The Church has waged the war on sin for, well, let's just say a long time. However, sin is just as available and pure these days as it was, let's say, a long time ago. It is possible for us, as the Church, to come clean? What of the confessional church? And I'm not talking about creeds. Folks adverse to church have long said "it's full of hypocrites." Why can't we say "Absolutely! And I'm one of them"? I know there is an atmosphere in many churches right now of "getting real" and "authentic" but I believe there is a ceiling on it; we will only endure so much "real." A church full of gypsies, tramps and thieves won't make the front of Outreach magazine's Top 100 Churches; it just won't, for that would indicate a failure of leadership or vision or mission or something. Might it indicate the way things are?

And as to "juking the stats", well...goodness. What of all the Church's efforts to teach our children well and make sure our kids stay Christian in college and create community so we can do life together and live out the "one anothers"? Might those efforts be juking the stats? If we can just come up with something for folks to do or memorize or support or assemble for, we feel that progress is being made and someone might take notice of us and write an article about us or ask us to write a book about our paradigm shifts or invite us to speak at conferences on how we facilitate change. Might all of these "things" be assessments of ourselves and not assessments of the least of these that we, the Church, have been called to serve? An ongoing "trick" to fool ourselves into thinking that wherever you go, you're not really there?

Sorry for such a long post, but my mind is reeling. If you think this some mad rant against the Church, you're not listening. Only those who love her can think such thoughts...

Well, John, what is your answer to all this?

I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it can't be a lie.


  1. Very curious. Very. It's about 17 hours since you posted this and I'm the first one to comment? John, you always give me hope, even when you pick up the rock and look at the dark underside that's wet and muddy and grimy - I don't know what it means, but I know it is true. Bless you for being my brother and for wiping the mud from my eyes each day.

  2. It seems about all that's truly left is hope and faith. Because I don't think we're leaving this for a long time.

  3. John,

    I think you're right that some churches are at least beginning to speak of authenticity and realness. (Some are much more talk than walk.) But that ceiling may be more about the "when" of sin than the "what."

    Here's what I mean: Churches that are attempting to engage authenticity tend to be really good at looking backward - talking about the yesterday sins with a certain frankness (sometimes even a "shocking" frankness, when it's the pastor speaking), and they're pretty good about looking ahead with great care and caution at the certainty of sin (thus all the prayers for keeping us on the straight and narrow), but when it comes right down to this moment - to the sinful stuff I'm experiencing or chasing or struggling with right there in that pew (or the minute I step out the double doors) - well, churches seem rather uncomfortable with this muddy reality and become desperate to move these sins as quickly as possible into yesterday so they can be safely categorized as "past sins." Sure, that's a good goal - to stop all this sinning (this is my oversimplified explanation of sanctification). But the truth of "now" sins is messy and not so neatly organized as setting the current one on a conveyor belt as soon as it's recognized so it can be properly disposed of by the spiritual Hazmat team or cleaned up real nice for use in a later illustration or testimony.

    Of course, this is my just-drove-16-hours-still-wired-on-energy-drinks take, though. I could be way off the mark or speaking in hieroglyphics.