Sunday, July 05, 2009

Public Enemies

If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

Public Enemies takes place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which we watch today as we sit in our movie theatres in another time of great depression.

In fact, the irony is not lost on us when we watch John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) cool off from the summer heat by escaping to see gangster movies, just as we, the audience, cool off from our own summer heat to watch this particular gangster flick in 2009.

For me personally, this movie was like taking a stroll down memory lane. I grew up near Crown Point, Indiana (where Dillinger escaped from prison with a wooden gun), went to college not far from Michigan City (where he staged another escape), lived for a short time after college just off Fullerton Ave. where I used to see movies at the Biograph (the exact spot where Dillinger was gunned down), and now live and work in some of the areas where the movie was filmed (in fact, every day on my way to work, I pass by the prison seen in the first scene of Public Enemies).

All these connections point to the old adage: If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

In Dillinger's time, the economy was so horrible that some people turned to a life of crime just to stay afloat. Added to that was the blatant corruption in law enforcement at the time. The police did little to stop the outlaws because they were bribed, which paid more than their salaries. In fact, the Feds did not include Chicago Police in their raids against Dillinger because so many people in the department were being paid off.

Added to this was the rise of celebrity culture in the 1930s. Dillinger and his gang were public heroes, not public enemies, to the masses of people desperate for some entertaining distraction from their misery and strife.

To counter this growing threat, the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thought the only tactic was to capture the gangs "by any means necessary," according to J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Torture and brutality were now acceptable means of justice.

If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

In the Scriptures, the prophets are constantly reminding the people of Israel of this adage when they kept repeating the sins of the past over and over again. Their words even ring true today.

When Amos declares, "Woe to those who turn judgment into wormwood and cast justice to the ground!" (Amos 5:7), he could be talking to the high priests and aristocrats of his day, to the corrupt police and FBI torturers of the 1930s, or to corrupt politicians in our time.

When Amos admonishes, "Because you have trampled on the weak and stolen from them their treasures, even though you built elegant houses and counted your money, it will all be taken away from you! Even though you planted your vineyard, you shall never drink from its wine!" (Amos 5:11), he might be speaking out against the hierarchy of ancient days, or the outlaws like Dillinger who steal what little money was left in the Depression, or to those who take advantage of the middle class, the worker, or the everyday people trying to live within their means in the 21st Century.

Perhaps the movie is titled Public Enemies in the plural rather than the singular to show that it was more than a single person that we should learn our lessons from. In this movie, we need to look carefully at all the parties involved - the gangsters, the corrupt police, the vengeful FBI, or even the clueless public preferring outlaws over justice.

We are once again faced with economic trouble, yet another time ripe for the events of this movie to unfold again, but this time around, let us pray that we are up to the challenge and might face this new era in gospel-inspired ways.

Then, when we face this crisis anew and learn our lessons this time around, Amos promises something greater as he prays to God: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream!" (Amos 5:24)

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