Russell and Duenes

Archive for November 2013

The Central Park Five

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The level of this deadly “readiness” to do evil in all of its forms . . . is very high in almost everyone. It is no mere abstract possibility but a genuine tendency, constantly at work. It does not take much to get most people to lie, for example, or to take what does not belong to them, and shamefully little to get them to think of how nice it would be if certain others were dead. . . [T]hese “readinesses” for various kinds of wrongdoing will be constantly provoked into action by threatening circumstances. And when we act, others around us will, of course, react. And then we will react to them, and so forth, until we and others are stunned into quiescence by the spiraling disasters.     – Dallas Willard

Few films I have seen illustrate the above reality more than The Central Park Five, the 2012 documentary by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The documentary chronicles the experience of five Harlem youths (now men) who were wrongfully charged and convicted of the brutal beating and rape of a young, white, Wall St. investment banker as she jogged through Central Park one night in April, 1989. For those of my readers who are old enough, you’ll remember that this got heavy national attention. There was a group of some twenty young black and hispanic boys who entered Central Park that April night. They proceeded to accost and/ or beat up several people in the Park, but the rape was not part of their actions on this particular evening. Indeed, the five boys who were ultimately convicted of the rape were not in that part of the park when it happened. Rather, the rape was committed, we ultimately find out, by a serial rapist named Matias Reyes.

Let me begin by simply commending this documentary to you. Without reservation I give it five stars. The average Joe should see this film for its insight into human nature. But from now on, no law school student should be able to attain his or her J.D. unless he or she has seen the film and engaged in robust discussion of what is portrays. If I ever end up teaching some kind of pre-law courses at a Christian university (which I hope to do some day), this will be required viewing. For this film brings home to the viewer the “spiraling disaster” that comes of innate human sinfulness and folly. It is especially powerful because it shows us how our “readiness to sin” is stoked by the circumstances and realities of the world around us.

We dare not judge quickly, however, for we all may find ourselves somewhere in this cautionary tale. We begin by setting this rape in the larger context of a New York City coming out of a decades-long struggle with crime, as well as social and economic degradation. Racism has plagued the city, and thus, as the film points out, there is a sense of horror at the thought of a wealthy, white “upper East Side” woman being attacked and raped by “minority” youth. Indeed, a black woman had been raped and thrown from her roof in Harlem around the same time, and yet this received scant media attention. But when the white woman is raped, in sacrosanct Central Park, no less, the media’s rush to find some object of judgment is swift and powerful. And, if we’re honest, understandable.

The NYPD and New York City D.A.’s office had to be aware of this. Clearly they need to find the perpetrators, and find them in a decisive way. Apparently there was not much of a police presence in the park that night, but whatever their presence, they come upon these five boys, and the chain of events is set in motion. The documentary takes you through the handling of the boys initially, but the upshot is that the police and the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, get into these boys well enough to get them all to confess, in some form or fashion, to a crime they didn’t commit.

Why would the boys do that? Do people really confess to beatings and rapes they didn’t commit? One need only sit through a Criminal Law or a Criminal Procedure class in law school to find the answer, but it really shouldn’t take all that. The average person, myself included, has no idea what it is like to be subjected to police interrogation tactics. The level of pressure and fear can be enormous, and when that’s the case, people will act according to their short-term, selfish interests, which is what these boys did. As the film demonstrates, they were young, they were inexperienced, they were foolish, and they wanted to go home. So they confessed.

Most of them wrote out their confessions, but the D.A., Elizabeth Lederer, went further. She video-taped their confessions, and the City of New York went to trial with that, and just that. They had nothing to put the five boys at the rape scene. The cops had taken semen from the scene, but not a lick of it matched any of the five boys. Indeed, none of the DNA evidence matched any of the boys. The crime scene did not point to five boys attacking the woman, and the confessions were a mess of inconsistencies and inaccuracies. All of this could have been figured out by police or district attorneys who were looking for the truth. But they weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for something else, the kinds of things that we all look for: Pride, reputation, ambition, social approval, comfort, security and the like. These things get mixed up with our good motives, and to paraphrase the apostle Paul, we do not understand that which we do. They had a story, and they needed to stick with it. Individual policemen were going to lie, if need be. It gave them a “home run” with the press, with the public, and with their own sense that they had gotten the bad guys. They were tough on crime, and New Yorkers, and the New York press, which dubbed the rape “The Wilding,” were going to know it.

One of the jurors who voted to convict the five boys speaks up in the film. The jury took ten days of deliberation before returning the verdict, and this juror saw the significant inconsistencies in the boys’ confessions and tried to get the other jurors to consider them, but they would not be swayed. After all, the boys had confessed, hadn’t they? And this overcomes everything else, because, in our misunderstanding of human nature, we think that no one ever confesses to serious crimes they haven’t committed. Yet ultimately, this juror simply “gave in.” He was tired, he wanted to get out of there, so he voted to convict.

The most powerful part of the film, and its most damning indictment of our sinful human nature, is its treatment of what happens after the boys are exonerated. We find the police justifying their own inept and wrongful conduct, and one of the prosecutors justifying herself by maintaining an assertion toward the five boys that, by the true rapist’s own testimony, was baseless. And why? Because, as one reporter in the film says: “This was institutional protectionism that was going on.” As another reporter points out, the D.A. who got it wrong, and who made a name for herself through the case has “got a lot to lose by saying, ‘I got everything wrong and I railroaded these kids into jail.'”

Regarding the press’ wrongful judgment of the crime, and failure to admit their wrongness later on, one reporter says: “I don’t think the press faced its mistakes. I don’t think the police department faced the truth of what had happened. Because the truth of what had happened is almost unbearable. By prosecuting the wrong people for this Central Park Jogger case, Matias Reyes continued to hurt, maim and kill, and they could have had him, but they got stuck with a mistake. And they’re still invested in that mistake.

One commentator said it best: “I want us to remember what happened that day and be horrified by ourselves, because it really is a mirror on our society. And rather than tying it up in a bow and thinking that there is something that we can take away from it and we’ll be better people, I think what we really need to realize is that we’re not very good people, and we’re often not.” Or as Dallas Willard also says: “It’s a vision sufficient to impart a vivid realization of our terrible readiness to mistrust God and hurt others and ourselves as we take things into our own hands. This sharp, heartbreaking realization of our condition silences all argument and hair-splitting rationalization.”

I cannot get this film out of my mind, likely because it causes me to shudder. I must face the sinful rationalizations and narratives in which I am “still invested,” and which might cost me a great deal to give up. I see that, I, too, am not a very good person, and I’m often not. I see in myself, in the daily choices with which I am confronted, my “terrible readiness to mistrust God and take things into my own hands,” and it is indeed terrible, though I often know not how terrible. “Lord, keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me.” (Ps. 19). I myself have aspirations of being a prosecutor or a defense attorney, and though I may not try any “case of the century” like this one, I would be naive and foolish to think that the choices faced by the attorneys in this case will not come to my doorstep. Character matters, and I’m reminded of what my Criminal Law professor, Michael Kaye, said about the tremendous power that judges, law enforcement personnel and attorneys have; power to put people in prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. It is the character of Christ I will need in such circumstances. The preparation must come now, before the time of testing is upon me.



Written by Michael Duenes

November 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Duenes, Ethics, Movies

This Cataract of Horrors

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I am grateful whenever I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said: The fact that all people are born evil and sinful is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” And I usually find it proved in my reading of history.

I’m currently in the third volume of William Manchester’s (and Paul Reid’s) masterful work on Winston Churchill: The Last Lion – Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. My attention is rapt as we reach the point in WW2 when Germany invades the Soviet Union. Manchester describes the moments before the invasion:

The engines of more than 3,600 German panzers growled to life. Gunners eased high-explosive shells into the breeches of more than 7,200 pieces of artillery; officers stood ready, langyards in hand. More than 600,000 mechanized vehicles, their engines idling, spewed exhaust that drifted low through fields and woodlands along a front that stretched almost nine-hundred miles, from the Baltic, through occupied Poland, and south to the Black Sea…The German army of the east, the Ostheer, 153 divisions strong, was ready. More than three million assault pioneers and infantrymen (including fourteen divisions of reluctant Romanian infantry) crouched behind railway grades and in shallow ditches…A few miles to their rear, nearly a million pack horses – almost five thousand per division – grazed on an infinite sea of grass…Farther still to the rear, companies of Einsatzgruppen, SS killers, waited near their trucks for the word to go forth, to carry out their orders and their glorious destiny as codified by Jodl on Hitler’s order: to kill commissars, Jews, intellectuals, Bolsheviks of any age, and nationalists of any persuasion….Just before 4:00 a.m. more than 2,600 German Messerschmitts, Stukas, and Junkers medium bombers lifted off from airfields in Poland, East Prussia, and Romania…Along the entire line, almost three million German troops lunged forward. The eruption and flashes of the great guns would have been visible from space.

Almost ten million Russian soldiers and at least fifteen million Russian civilians would pay with their lives in the next four years for Stalin’s bungling. (pgs. 376-77)

Churchill would speak about the invasion over the BBC that evening. As Manchester notes, “Churchill that evening would try to convince Britain – and himself – that old differences [between England and the Soviet Union] must be put aside. The effort would tax even his oratorical skills, for in the eyes of fully half his countrymen, the godless Joseph Stalin was more fundamentally evil than Adolf Hitler.” (pg. 379) Though Churchill loathed Bolshevism, he understood that the Nazi menace was the most virulent threat to the survival of civilization. Churchill was under no illusions about Joseph Stalin, but he understood that “[t]he Russian danger is…our danger, and the danger of the United States.” (p. 380)

As I tend to do with such accounts, I began to ruminate over the numbers and to visualize specific persons being cut down. In addition to the tens, yea, hundreds of millions of people killed during peacetime in the 20th century by the Chinese, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Soviet, and North Korean regimes, one must add the millions of deaths brought about through the base contempt and lust for human life through the warmongers of WW2. I hasten to add the genocidal – and “constitutional” – designs in the killing of some 30 million of the most helpless human beings among us in our own nation. And yet we persist in some secular trance, flattering ourselves that these hundreds of millions of people put to slaughter are mere accidents of history, the product of a few especially mad or bad individuals, as the late Dallas Willard would say. One can hardly conjure a more strident denial of reality. Which I suppose is part of the wickedness. We are in the business of suppressing the truth, or walking in darkness, because our deeds are evil. My deeds are evil.

Churchill, no Christian he, had a better grasp on things. He at least had the clear-eyed courage to not mince words, proclaiming that Hitler was “‘a monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder,’ and ‘a bloodthirsty guttersnipe’ who found satisfaction ‘grinding up human lives and trampling down the homes and rights of millions of men.'” (p.379) Churchill finished his speech off with his vision of “ten thousand villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens and children play. I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers….I see also the dull, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts….Behind all this glare, behind all this storm, I see that small group of villainous men [who launched] this cataract of horrors upon mankind.” (p.380)

Yes, it is a “cataract of horrors,” and Hitler’s invasion of Russia was just one part of it. The effect of contemplating such human decimation becomes a kind of mental dismantling. One cannot take it in, and must avert his mental and emotional gaze. It cuts through my self-flatteries and sentimentalities about my own goodness, about our alleged “decency.” Of course, almost none of us is engaged in some kind of blatant and overt wickedness 24/7. We are, after all, human beings created in the image of God. But when I allow my mind to consider a three million man army, marching across a 900 mile front, with the goal of inflicting a bloodbath on millions of people and subjugating them under an iron yoke of oppression and murder, my illusions about “innate goodness” are burned away like the morning fog. “Progress” is a myth, if it is gauged by what really matters, namely, spiritual and moral progress. No, we are in the grip of a power ingrained in us, far beyond our ability to tame or manage. Hitler and Stalin are just two men. Their millions of ordinary soldiers and subjects were not. We deceive ourselves if we think that their weakness does not this moment run in our own souls.

We are in need of a new birth and a new power within, a power that cannot be found in any human device or plan. It must come from our Triune God, and he is a God who will freely give it. How we desperately need to be laid bare before him. May he awaken our hearts to see that we are beyond self-cure, and that the healing of the nations, healing of the utter and unspeakable brokenness of the nations, is in a wide-eyed acknowledgment of our hopeless condition, and a turning to him in repentance and faith.


Written by Michael Duenes

November 15, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Why Our Children Walk Away From Christ

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I want to think out loud about this issue some more, and weave in various strands along the way. I take it as central to one’s faith in Christ that one believe in the overall narrative of Scripture. In other words, genuine faith in Jesus must include confidence in the fact that a sovereign, intelligent, good, wise, just and loving God created everything and rules over everything, that sin and rebellion entered into our human existence and brings with it the judgment and wrath of God, that God’s response to our sinfulness is a program of redemption – culminating in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, that God is accomplishing his redemptive purposes in this world through His people – the church, and that God will consummate the ages of our earthly history through the return of Christ and the bringing about of the new heavens and the new earth.

I want to key in on the part that God’s people play in bringing about God’s redemptive purposes in the world. If God has saved “a people for His own possession” and made them “ambassadors for Christ” in order to bring about the promised reconciliation between Christ and the nations, then it stands to reason that God’s people, embodied in local communities, must have a shared life together that bears witness to the movings and motions of God’s gracious rule. There must be some kind of rhythm and culture, if you will, to the way in which God’s people live their shared lives of faith, which then bears witness to others around them. This rhythm and culture will obviously look different in the multitude of Christian communities around the world, but by God’s command, any genuine Christian community – no matter what language, ethnicity, geography or folkways – will reflect certain things. What are some of these things?

To list them all would go well beyond the scope of this piece, but let’s consider a few. Any genuine Christian community, anywhere in the world, will “not give up meeting together” (Heb. 10:25), will “love not the things of the world” (1 John 2:15), will be “devoted to one another in brotherly love,” (Rom. 12:10), will “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13), will “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2), will eat the Lord’s supper together (Luke 22:19), will bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), will “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7), will remember the poor (Gal. 2:10) and will “disciple the nations” (Matt. 28:19). These are not things that can be done in a radically individualistic way. There must be not only some strong identification with God’s people and program, but also significant loyalty to it, some deeply ingrained and internalized sense of the distinct, world-despised culture of redemption. The Christian has to feel, taste, if you will, the fact that his or her allegiance is to an alien worldview, a peculiar people and an other-worldly calling and mission. His or her priorities and loyalties are distinct and move along different universal and “cosmic” lines than those of his or her non-Christian counterparts. The Christian must sense that the gospel’s alternate loyalties and priorities are good, are compelling, and are in tune with reality and the way life is best lived. And perhaps most importantly, the Christian must sense that these things are true in community, among God’s people, in a shared redemptive culture, and not just individualistically.

Yet so very little in our church communities pushes us toward this, at least in my limited experience. Our children do not grow up responding to the motions of an alternate, yet winsome, communal culture. Even if they grow up in church, they do not structure their lives around the biblical plot lines and loyalties. There is a kind of “Christian culture,” but it is not largely one where the Christian feels himself a part of something transcendent, global in scope, cosmic and universal in purpose. The “hard drive” of our Christian lives is not formatted along gospel culture conforming itself to the biblical plot lines, and therefore, many children in the western church grow up identifying far more – both emotionally and intellectually – with the rhythms, loyalties and priorities of the secular culture. They see themselves at home there, rather than within God’s missional community, and therefore, the secular culture maintains a more firm “air of plausibility” within their hearts, whatever their personal and individual commitments to the faith might be.

And I wonder if this, as much as anything else, is why so many children grow up to “leave the faith.” They have never experienced truly “living in” a thick Christian community, one that inculcates a distinctive, gracious and redemptive culture, which becomes compelling for them in terms of their identity, that is, in terms of the way in which they see themselves and want others to see them. I wonder if leaving far too much of the secular “cultural hardware” in place has left our children adrift, without both the intellectual and affectional tools to remain loyal to Jesus when his gospel is tested in their lives. I wonder what role education plays in this. I wonder what role geography, urbanization and our postmodern, highly mobile, industrialized culture plays in this. And even if we knew what role these things played in our children’s abandonment of the faith, what would we as local Christian communities be prepared to do about it? Would we, by God’s grace, be willing to construct “thick” Christian community and culture by choosing differently in matters of, say, where to go to church, how to educate, how to structure our church gatherings, how to meet one another’s practical needs, and many more things?

I’ll leave it at this for now, but I wanted to put these thoughts out there, poorly formed though they may be at this point.


Written by Michael Duenes

November 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

That Every Person Lives By Faith in Something

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Another benefit of an explicitly Christian education is that your son or daughter will learn and internalize the truth that every position that a person takes about reality, about life, and about the universe, is a “faith position.” Some people, particularly those who want to say that they depend entirely on “reason,” seem to think that their position about reality is not a faith position. That is, they take it as gospel that only “religious” people have faith, defined as a blind leap of belief in something that is lacking evidence for its truth. This false view is the view your child will internalize in the officially agnostic government schools. For the government schools teach that there is this great dichotomy between “faith” and “reason,” between “facts” and “values,” and between “evidence” and “opinion.” Religion is a nice little opinion, to be clung to in the face of evidence, while the technocratic worldview is “fact,” pure and simple.

But an explicitly Christian education will put the lie to this false dichotomy. A proper Christian education teaches your children that the person who says she wants to “base everything on reason,” has to give a “reason” for wanting to do so. But there is no such reason. This person simply takes it on “faith” that we should base everything on reason. The person who thinks that his view of the world is based on “facts” because he has no religious faith has not thought about all of the different “facts” necessary to construct his worldview. For many things he will take to be “facts” – to take but one example – that the universe either popped into existence out of nothing or has always existed – cannot be demonstrated as facts. They are simply accepted as articles of faith.

A Christian education instills confidence in the young Christian, that his or her faith is robust and true, and that “faith” is not some turn-off-your-brain, fairytale, wish-fulfillment while others get to believe “facts.” No, the Christian education will teach the young Christian student that every position is a faith position, and some objects of faith are more worthy than others, and only one object of faith – our Lord Jesus Christ – is worthy of our total confidence and allegiance, though He is unseen.

Another glorious reason for providing an explicitly Christian education for your children.


Written by Michael Duenes

November 5, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Posted in Duenes, Education

Mathematics to the Glory of God

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It is typically assumed that there is no “Christian” view of math, or of the teaching of math. We simply say: “2 + 2 = 4 is true for both the atheist and the Christian” and assume that we’re done and that math is one of those subjects that is morally, spiritually and philosophically neutral, and can just as well be taught in a secular government school as in a Christian school. We can let the government schools teach our children math and science, and clear up the social studies at home, we think.

Yet I think this betrays a lack of serious consideration and imagination on this topic. I’m not a math teacher, but I was a Christian educator for ten years, and it is clear to me that the teaching of “math” goes far beyond simple numerical calculations and formulas. I could muse at some length about this, but if you are a Christian and you think that God might desire a Christian education for your children, indeed, for all of His children, then I would commend to you a perusal of some writings on this, beginning with these two brief pieces.


Written by Michael Duenes

November 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Duenes, Education