Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lesson's Learned in Public Enemis: Radical Depravity

I mentioned in Yesterday's post that I would be drawing some spiritual applications from a secular, non-fiction book I recently read called Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. I do not think that any of the conclusions I draw will be particularly new to anyone. The Bible is clear about most of these insights. You could read about anyone of them from the millions upon millions of Christian books available. Yet, I treasure my findings. The book made me think. Through real life examples, theological truths I know to be true came alive within the pages of a book. I learned something.

Let's get started.

Public Enemiesis is about 600 pages of the true-life account of America's first, and greatest, "war on crime." The Author strips away layers of myths and tells the full story of the birth J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. He describes the two year battle between Hoover's band of Special Agents and famous criminals such as John Dillinger, Machine gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang. Burrough tells this story in a way that is both intriguing and enlightening. It reads much like a fiction book, but is filled with the factual account of what actually happened. This book was given rave review, became a bestseller, and it was even made into a major motion picture.

I was surprised at how this book drew me in right from the start and kept my attention throughout. Along the way I learned about a subject that was originally completely foreign to me. In addition, I was able to draw many spiritual conclusions and applications from this book. It would be difficult for me to describe all of them, so I chose the three insights that were proven over and over again. I will be spreading these out over three blog posts.

The first conclusion that can be clearly seen throughout the book relates to the depravity of man. The Bible is absolutely clear on the condition of man. All people are born dead in their sins and under the wrath of God (Ephesians 2). In addition, there is not a single one who is righteous in the eyes of God (Romans 3). Even our best works are like filthy rags to Him (Isaiah 64:6). We do not even seek after God. We don't want anything to do with the True Creator God. This does not mean that we are all as bad as we can be, but it does mean that as far as God is concerned, we are not able to do anything that pleases God (Romans 7:18, Romans 8:8, Hebrews 11:6).

Public Enemies gave me a real, historical example of that. You do not have to read the book long, before you see examples of man's utter sinfulness. After all, the book is full of the accounts of some of the greatest criminal masterminds of the early 30's.

The Depravity of man is seen almost immediately with the criminals. Within the first chapter, the readers learn of the largest robbery of the 1920's: a mail train robbery. The train was passing through Roundout, Illinois when criminals made out with $2 million. In addition, one of Burrough's first points is that behind bars criminals are supposed to going through "rehabilitation," but they are actually learning how to become more skillful criminals. Soon, it was no longer robbing banks, but it was kidnapping and murder. Stolen and ransomed money would be used for prostitution, gambling, and partying.

Perhaps one of the most striking instances in the book is after John Dillinger kills someone for the first time. In the public's eye's, Dillinger was more of a Robin Hood figure than a criminal mastermind. The public loved Dillinger's charm and personality. In early 1934, Dillinger Robbed the First National Bank near Eastern Chicago. The robbery itself went well for Dillinger. Burrough comments that he, "performed like a hungry actor on a brightly lit stage." When Dillinger walked in and yelled, "This is a stick-up," the customers raised their hands and lined up against the wall. One forgot his cash on a counter and Dillinger said, "You go ahead and take your money. We don't want your money. Just the bank's." One can see why the public might view him favorably with lines like that! By the time Dillinger was ready to leave the bank, a group of police officers had formed outside. A forty-three year old detective named Patrick O'Malley shot Dillinger in his bulletproof vest. In a rare loss of temper, Dillinger fired back. The bullets from his submachine gun tore through the detective. The policemen fell dead on the side walk with eight bullet holes across his chest. He was a father of three.

The killing would weight on Dillinger's mind for the rest of his life. However, this had less to do with his guilt over murdering and more to do with his own sense of self and his public image. Dillinger would continue to deny the killing to lawyers, lawmen, and even friends. Several times, he volunteered his denial to complete strangers. Burrough comments, "At the heart of his appeal, Dillinger knew, was his joshing Robin Hood Spirit, the sense people had that he was a regular guy making the best of hard times. Dillinger didn't want to be the bad guy." This was an astounding statement for me to read. Dillinger didn't necessarily feel guilty over the murder. Rather, he wanted to protect his unique public image as a "friendly neighborhood bank robber."

One thing I know from evangelism is that everyone wants to answer, "Would you consider yourself a good person?" with a resounding, "YES!" Even for a murderous, bank robbing, kidnapper this was true. Dillinger cared more about glory, praise, and adoration than human life and perhaps even money. He was a depraved, radically sinful human being.

And he wasn't the only one. The "good guys" weren't as good as we would suspect. The FBI would be the heroes in the war on crime. But their own depravity was brought to light throughout the book. Whether it be the special agents use of torture to extract information from victims (some women, some who weren't even connected to the respective cases), Marvin Purvis' pride and glory-obsessed media exposures, or Herbert Hoover's lie-filled efforts to paint the Bureau in a favorable light, the FBI weren't the heroes they were cracked up to be. Let me give one example.

Herbert Hoover was the man behind the Bureau. He was the fearless leader. The FBI, in fact, was his baby. In many ways, he created it. One of the unfortunate myths that came from the War on Crime was started by none other than Hoover himself. The myth centered around a lonely lady named Ma Barker. She was the mother of several members of the Barker game. She was killed when a group of FBI agents fired guns at a house she was in for over an hour. Fred Barker and Ma Barker were killed sometime during the gun spraying. Fred Barker was a stone-cold killer and thief. His death would bring little criticism. Ma Barker, on the other hand, was an estranged and lonely lady who spent her last few years putting puzzles together. She had no criminal record. There is zero evidence she had anything to do with the Barker Gang's antics. How would the Bureau justify her killing? Soon after the killing, Hoover announced to the world that Ma Barker was the "brains" of the gang. She was the criminal mastermind behind all of the secret plans. Reporters were told that she was found dead with a machine gun in her hands. Hoover said that she was the smartest outlaw they had ever encountered. Reporters went with it, a legend was born, a lie was believed.

These claims are completely unfounded and deceitful. History is written by the victors remember? Burrough asks, "There was no one alive who would come forward to dispute Hoover's fabricated story." This is just one example of the lies, cover-ups, and great lengths Hoover went to in order to advance his precious Bureau. The fact of the matter is that even the good guys, the people we hold dear to our hearts as heroes, were radically depraved as well.

And they aren't the only one. One final example: Me. My sinfulness showed throughout this book. I realized about halfway through the book that I could not decide who to root for. When the good guys lost battles that led to Dillinger escapes because of mistakes the bureau had made, I cheered for Dillinger. I was rooting for the bad guy. I was rooting for a murderer and thief to escape justice. I had to really reevaluate my heart. This is a perfect example of how I can be unjust even while serving a perfectly just Lord.

But thanks be to God! I have Jesus Christ who covers my sinful past, present, and future. He bore my sins in His body. The wrath God has towards my sin was poured out on to Christ. Jesus died in my place. While justice was not always done to the criminals in Public Enemies, God's justice is always perfect. Justice was done for me because Jesus Christ paid my fine. Grace was given to me and I repented and trusted in the Savior. I was once dead in my sin, but God made me alive. You know, at the end of the day not a single one of us is any better off than Dillinger, Hoover, or even Ma Barker. We are radically depraved. Only when we trust in Jesus Christ will justice be met and we will be made alive. God will give us a new heart and we can begin growing to be more like Him. I pray that this is you. Glory to God alone!

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