The Wire: The Virtue of Getting Up in Others’ Business
I was twenty years late to HBO’s The Wire, but it was worth the wait. Not unlike much of the best modern TV, it’s morally complex, littered with antiheroes, and tells an honest, even raw, story.
The show is chock-full of memorable one-liners, too, from Omar’s quip about capital (“Man, money ain’t got no owners. Only spenders.”) to Slim Charles’s lucid articulation of that wistful affection for the past we call nostalgia (“The thing about the old days: they the old days.”). But no one-liner lands quite like the Deacon’s reply to Dennis “Cutty” Wise’s question about why he seemed so interested in what people like Cutty were up to: “A good church man is always up in everyone’s shit. It’s how we do.”
I knew there was something special about the Deacon’s pith when I heard it, so I jotted that one down. Since then I have mulled it over, dropped it in conversations with friends, and wrestled with its implications, a couple of which struck me as worthy of exposition.
Confrontation Is a Virtue
First, the Deacon’s remark reminds us that no matter how abused, or how uncomfortable it sometimes makes us, getting up in others’ business can be a virtue, or, in this context, something “good church people” should be doing regularly.
I suspect many readers will be disinclined to agree with the Deacon, likely for one of a few bad, albeit understandable, reasons. Perhaps, like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of some kind of bastardized confrontation. You’ve been subjected to an ungodly show of force or manipulation during a face-to-face exchange with a parent, spouse, or employer. Or perhaps someone (or some bot) you’ve never met has subjected you to a digital, although no less demeaning, assault, using social media to aggressively, and unfairly, blast you to Timbuktu via tweetstorm.
Or maybe the idea of confrontation rubs you the wrong way because the Jesus you’ve been taught to admire was purportedly only “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” I may as well tell you plainly that a Jesus like that belies the account of Scripture. But don’t take my word for it: read the eyewitnesses’ accounts of Jesus’s cleansing the Temple (Matt. 21:12-27; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16).
Whatever your reasons for thinking otherwise, I submit that the Deacon—whose remark to Cutty reminds us that confrontation is something we should be doing regularly—was on to something. That said, getting up in others’ business has—regardless of an Alan Jackson chorus to the contrary—the potential of becoming too much of a good thing and must, like all good things, be hemmed in and wisely deployed.
Which leads me to my next point: to maintain its status as a virtue, confrontation must, to co-opt the phrasing of Larry David, be curbed.
Curbing Our Confrontation
Although it has a nicer ring to it, I couldn’t entitle this article “The Virtue of Getting Up in Everybody’s Business” because getting up in everybody’s business isn’t a virtue; it’s a vice. In short, just as fire belongs in a fireplace, or sex to marriage, so confrontation must be appropriately cabined. Let confrontation run rampant, and it’ll singe—if not outright incinerate—everything in its path.
Put another way, the kind of confrontation I’m endorsing (and, I think, our Deacon illustrates) isn’t supposed to be global. Instead, confrontation ought to be an imminently local business, wisely deployed within relational circles of care and responsibility. Think Wendell Berry, not Thomas Friedman. And one more point. If you ask Google to define “confrontation,” you’ll be told it means a hostile or angry meeting between opposing parties. Although that may constitute a dictionary definition, that’s not the sense in which I’m using it here. Those with whom we’re in relationship don’t need another angry encounter but a friend who sees and knows them.
If you’ve seen the show, then you know the Deacon’s relationship with Cutty bears this out. In fact, you can draw a straight line between the Deacon’s intervention in Cutty’s life and Cutty’s decision to open a boxing gym—where dozens of young men are encouraged to turn away from drug dealing in favor of sports, even if only temporarily.
Still, you may have caught yourself wondering why the Deacon didn’t establish some kind of program or project, where his “wisdom about who should be where” could be shared more broadly. After all, at least as portrayed, it seems possible—even likely—that the Deacon could have made more waves in more parolees’ lives, thereby doing more to address the Baltimore drug problem. No doubt there were more parolees in need of friendship and paternalistic care. But the Deacon’s “program” stayed small, even personal (contrast that with police commander Bunny Colvin’s “Hamsterdam” project).
Although we’re never told whether the Deacon operated out of an explicitly biblical worldview or professed evangelical faith in Jesus (only that he was “a good church man,” whatever that means), the “curbed confrontation” he practiced with Cutty is ostensibly sanctioned by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, a passage commentator Frederick Dale Bruner memorably describes as “the Magna Carta of confrontation.”
In full disclosure, Bruner says that Matthew 18:15-20 teaches that “it is only the Christian brother or sister whom we are to confront.” I suppose that’s fair, especially given the conditional “If your brother sins against you . . . ” with which verse 15 begins, and the “churchly” turn taken in verses 16 and 17: “But if [your brother] does not listen, take one or two others along with you . . . . If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
There’s a special kind of confrontation (i.e., church discipline) for ecclesial communities. Still, I think a broader principle justifying confrontation within relational circles of care and responsibility (like the Deacon practiced) can be rightly deduced from Matthew’s text by good and necessary consequence.
While many might do well to avoid The Wire for the sake of a pure conscience (the show is, after all, laced with hetero- and homosexual sex scenes, callous violence, and foul language), we’d all—churched and non-churched alike—benefit from a large-scale adoption of the Deacon’s mindset, namely, not to be afraid, as appropriate, to get up into others’ business. As the Deacon would say, “It’s how we do.”