September 1, 2011

Frank believes. Help, Lord, his unbelief.

by Teresa Peneguy Paprock

“God have mercy on a man who doubts what he’s sure of.”
– Detective Frank Pembleton, “Homicide – Life on the Street”

Two detectives are walking away from the scene of a crime – a dumpster in the alley beside a Catholic church, where the naked and battered body of a young woman has been thrown like yesterday’s trash. The victim, Katherine Goodrich, had run a women’s shelter. As random and meaningless murders go, this one seems particularly random and meaningless.

“Damn him!” exclaims Detective Frank Pembleton.

“The killer?” asks his partner, Detective Tim Bayliss.

“God,” says Frank.

“Frank, I don’t think you can ask God to damn himself,” responds Tim. “And if you do, don’t stand next to me, because I don’t want to get hit by lightning. This is a new suit.”

“Homicide – Life on the Street,” a crime drama that ran on NBC from 1993 to 1999, was once called “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” by TV Guide. The series, set in gritty Baltimore, followed the lives of detectives who faced the ugliness of murder every day – and who, for their own survival, had learned to minimize the emotional impact of each case with postulating and gallows humor.

“Homicide” featured few shootouts, and ever fewer car chases. While many critics and viewers now hail it as the best cop show ever on television, viewers apparently wanted more action and less philosophizing. But on “Homicide,” the dialogue was the thing. As they went about their daily business, the cops discussed love and marriage, wealth and poverty, good and evil. And Detective Frank Pembleton was one of the rarest finds on network TV – a practicing Catholic who often struggled openly with his faith.

The character of Frank (played by the charismatic and mesmerizing Andre Braugher) had attended St. Ignatius Prep in his youth. “The Jesuits taught me how to think,” Frank tells people; “I haven’t felt safe since.” As an adult, Frank attends Mass regularly, often before his shift where he’ll be dealing with stabbings and rapes. Frank speaks Greek and Latin, and he takes the teachings of Catholicism seriously.

“You’re not Catholic and you took Communion?” he asks his partner in the episode, “Extreme Unction” (written by D. Keith Mano, a family friend). “Yeah. Why – is that wrong?” asks Tim. “Well, if my God wins, you’re screwed,” Frank says.

Frank has a wife and, eventually, a daughter. Every evening, after experiencing the traumas in Baltimore’s inner city, he goes back to the warmth and innocence of his home. But as the years wear on, and Frank sees slaughtered children and guilty men go free, he finds himself questioning the concept of a loving, omnipotent God.

When it comes to religion, television writers are fantastic at creating caricatures. You have your flashy Baptist … your neurotic Jew … your ethereal Buddhist. But Frank Pembleton, with all his complexity and paradox, is a rare find. Here’s a man who simultaneously trusts God and doubts Him; who loves his church but considers walking away.

In the mornings, Frank kneels and swallows the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; two hours later, he’s holding his gun to the head of a crack dealer. Religious status? “It’s Complicated.”

Frank gives credit where credit is due. When another detective tells Frank he’s fortunate to have avoided injury in a gunfight, Frank responds, “Luck had nothing to do with it. God reached down and graced a fool with wisdom.”

In addition, Frank doesn’t take God – or goodness – for granted. He’s seen far too much to believe in a “Precious Moments” sort of Bible. “You gotta know the darker, uglier sides of yourself,” he tells his partner. “Virtue isn’t virtue until it slams up against vice. So consequently, your virtue’s not real virtue. Until it’s been tested … tempted.”

And Frank’s faith is tested acutely when – as a young and healthy man with a newborn daughter – he suffers a stroke and must learn to walk and talk again. Having spent his adult life working against evil, he wonders just what God’s done for him lately. He faces a massive spiritual hurdle when it’s time to have his little daughter baptized, and he seriously contemplates denying her the sacrament.

“God has become ‘the great light show,’” he declares. “(He can’t help me because) He’s in the next county making hunchback babies.”

When Frank’s partner Tim is wounded in action, Frank’s anger at God peaks. “There’s no truth for me anymore, not anymore,” he announces to the department. But alone with Tim in the hospital room, Frank’s need to connect with the Creator is desperate and raw. “Dear God, make Bayliss fight,” he says. “God, please. I swear. I will do anything. Let him live. I’m askin.’ I’m beggin.’ Help my friend. I want him to live.”

Tim does live, but Frank’s had enough of the street. He quits the force abruptly, but not before he takes God on one more time. To a fellow detective who is weak in her Christian faith, Frank says, “Let ME box with God. Because in this line of work – be it mutilated priest or overdosed drug addict – faith only gets in the way and twists you up.”

“Homicide” writer Tom Fontana says that his character Frank reflects Fontana’s own struggle with his Catholic faith. “I’m in a constant debate with God on how He runs the universe,” Fontana says.

So often in the Christian life, anger and doubt are placed at one end of the seesaw, while joy and faith are on the other side. It’s wrong to have doubts about God, we assume, and it’s certainly wrong to be angry at him. But the truth is that neither anger at God nor doubt can exist without faith. How can you be angry with an entity you don’t believe exists? How can you feel righteous indignation that bad things happen unless, in your heart, you prefer the good?

Everyone is familiar with Mark 9:24: “The father of the child cried out, and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’” Here there is no escaping the fact that doubt and faith can exist at the same time. Doubt is not the problem: what matters is one’s willingness to leave a window open for the spirit to come through.

“There should be some desire to believe,” says Bishop Kallistos Ware, author of “The Orthodox Way.” “There should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus who as yet we know so imperfectly.”

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