Good cop, bad cop works really well. It is an effective strategy for obtaining confessions. The bad cop always interrogates first. His goal is to frighten the suspect. His words, his tone, his refusal to accommodate the suspect in any way (a glass of water, use of the bathroom) are meant to intimidate. He provides a jolt. By his severity, he increases the suspect’s sense of isolation and impending danger. All of which makes the appearance of the good cop a welcome relief. This is someone who is on his side, someone who wants to help him. The good cop wants things to go well for the suspect, but he can only help him if he helps himself. He has to tell the truth. Often enough, a confession is given.
Good cop, bad cop is a classic interrogation technique. How classic? Consider the case of John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist appears first (Mt 3:1-12). He is a frightening character. There is nothing comforting about him. Dwelling in the desert, dressed in camel’s hair (not exactly cozy), his main meal consists of insects. This is not a consoler. He calls out “you brood of vipers...the ax lies at the root of the trees...every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Like the bad cop, he succeeds in communicating the severity of the situation. Many are converted on the spot, “being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” But facing the terrible prospect of the “unquenchable fire,” every one of them would welcome a consoler. Every one of them would welcome the good cop.
Jesus, of course, brings the message of mercy. While he doesn’t shy away from reiterating the possibility of fire (see Mt 7:19), nonetheless his message is overwhelmingly centered on the Father’s tender compassion and mercy. As the good cop, he has come to lighten the burden (Mt 11:28); he has come to offer us friendship (Jn 15:13-15); he has come to be our advocate before the Father (Mt 10:32). But, we first have to confess the truth (see 1Jn: 1-8-10). We are sinners. We need God’s mercy.
When people are returning to, or coming into, the Church, they sometimes come with a bit of anxiety. They sense that the ax lies at the root of the tree. They take seriously, and rightly so, the warning of fire, which is authentic gospel. They are eager to make their paths straight. This is an essential prerequisite for meeting Jesus. It is up to us, the Church, to make sure that they do. Without denying the fire, we need to show them the Friend.