The HBO series The Wire just ended its five-year run last Sunday, and it is one of my favorite television shows. In my estimation it’s one of the best series ever produced. Over the course of its five seasons, The Wire has looked at the structures of the city of Baltimore through the lenses of the organization of the drug dealers on one side and of the more “official” city bureaucracies—the police, the city government, the school system, the press—on the other. What you come to learn over the course of watching The Wire for five years is that the power issues are the same in any system. Whether it’s a drug lord, a mayor, a school superintendent, or a newspaper editor, managers tend to function in similar ways. For some reason, institutional leaders often get confused about their loyalties. They put their energies into saving and promoting the system and are often willing to sacrifice individual human beings in the name of the institution.
Last week David Simon (the creator of The Wire and a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun) was interviewed on Fresh Air, and Terry Gross asked him why he was so cynical about newspapers. Here is what he said in reply:
I’m cynical about everybody in management. . . . I think the archetype of all of our bosses comes from [Stanley Kubrick’s film] Paths of Glory. That is to me one of the fundamental political films of the twentieth century. You look at George Macready and Adolphe Menjou in that movie and those are The Wire bosses throughout seasons one through five.—David Simon on Fresh Air March 6, 2008
Now if you haven’t seen Paths of Glory ever or in a while, I suggest you go out and rent it. Made in 1957, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s film recounting a true incident in the French army in World War I in which three soldiers were executed symbolically because of the so-called “failure” of three regiments to undertake a suicide mission aimed at a well-defended German hill. In the movie Kirk Douglas portrays the military lawyer defending the soldiers; Adolph Menjou plays the General who orders the suicide mission; George Macready is the General who orders the execution of his own men for cowardice. It’s one of the most chilling movies ever made, and I think it’s that because it gets at a fundamental truth of systems. Whether it’s an army, a government, a school, a business, or even a church, systems tend to organize around the protection of the elite who run them. That’s why Enron betrayed its employees and stockholders. That’s why the Roman Catholic hierarchy sided with abusive priests against their victims. Even systems which exist to serve the larger good end up being about something else; and that “something else” usually involves both advancing and protecting the institution at the expense of the human beings involved.
My mind went back to The Wire and Paths of Glory when I began to reflect on our Gospel for tonight:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’—John 8.31-32
I’ve heard many sermons about this familiar saying, yet I never feel that the preacher has engaged it quite adequately. Jesus’s saying here is a mysterious one. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Usually when we hear this phrase quoted, the first clause gets lopped off. How are we to know the truth? We know the truth if we continue in Jesus’s word. Only as we do that will we know the truth, and only then will the truth make us free.
So Jesus does not use the phrase “the truth will make you free” precisely in the way we normally hear it quoted for us. This is not an abstract proposition about staring “the truth” in the face, stepping out of denial, coming out of the closet, or any one of a million other ways we are asked to “know the truth.” When Jesus talks to us about knowing the truth, he does so in the context of assuring those who already believe in him that if they continue in his word they will know the truth and then be set free.
Now when I think about what John’s Gospel means by “Jesus’s word” it has something to do with what you and I call the “Incarnation”. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world. That light is present in Jesus and in the community which gathers in his name. After one cuts through all the fancy, complicated prose of the Fourth Gospel, what remains is one underlying proclamation: God is at work in Jesus and in the human community. Human beings are precious both in their own right and in the light of the One in whose image they are created and who is now, because of Jesus, incarnate in them. Human beings matter.
And John’s Gospel is, like David Simon and Stanley Kubrick, rather cynical about institutional human systems. Both Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin come off like the French army in Paths of Glory and Baltimore drug dealers in The Wire. They are more interested in self-protection than they are in justice. The painful ironic reality of our situation as a church is this: we are the custodians of a proclamation about human dignity and worth, and we hold that truth in the “earthen vessel” of an institution, a system, which can routinely mistreat people even as it proclaims that Gospel. That’s why we have Reformations every so often.
And, obviously, the tension between the institutional and the human realities is very much on my mind these days as Seabury makes whatever transition we are making into our next mode of existence. On my worst days, I feel like Avon Barksdale, the drug dealer in The Wire or General Mireau, the George Macready character in Paths of Glory. Part of the pain for me, and I believe for all of us in this present moment, is that we are, in order to preserve Seabury and remake it for the future, taking something beautiful and healthy and good and putting it to death. I understand that this has to happen, and that new life can only come after something actually dies, but I also realize the human cost. And that, it seems to me, is why we have a more trustworthy image of leadership than the one provided for us by human systems in Jesus--because Jesus, and his word, are rooted in the preciousness and dignity of people as the ultimate reality. Institutions are fictions. People are real. When we ground ourselves in that Gospel, then we know the truth. And it is that truth that will set us free.
These are hard days for all of us. The best guide we have for navigating them comes to us from tonight’s Gospel. The most important thing about this place is God’s people. The system exists to serve them, not the other way around. Both Paths of Glory and The Wire give us examples of what happens to institutions when they organize themselves around fictions and not around facts. Seabury needs to die in order to be reborn. But its rebirth must be one that serves the Gospel purpose of Jesus and his trustworthy word to us about life and light and hope and truth. If we ground ourselves in that reality, then even as we do hard things we will be fully present and alive to each other. We will know the truth. And the truth, as hard and as beautiful as it is, will set us free. Amen.