“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
– Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace.*
– Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace.*
It had been a difficult few days—struggling to tame my rage. Invasive memories of past trauma, spiritual contemplation of a recent loss to death and another one imminent. A poem writing itself as I try to type and keep up, an old wound reopened and a repeating demand to do something about that which I know is wrong but can find no action to resolve... yet again in my life.
The triggerOn the second of July, I was waiting on the city bus which would take me to a restaurant I intended for dinner. I had a Herman Wouk book with me for company at table and was in a joyous spirit.
As I approached the bus stop, glancing at the darkening sky, and silently speaking the Phos Hilaron, (“… our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing Thy praises O God…”) I saw three unformed officers facing a man seated on a low stone wall. The man was homeless, and possibly mildly intoxicated—I saw no signs of that other than his passivity. According the homeless persons with whom I have worked, the University of Texas police rough them up as a message not to go near the campus.
A few years ago, I saw it for myself and spoke up. I was thrown down and arrested for my trouble. About a dozen people watched the homeless man be assaulted, and the police somehow assumed that the homeless man must have deserved it. That same dozen stood by, silently, as the police then turned on me for speaking up for the homeless man.
Not surprisingly, I watched the three officers closely in how they treated this homeless man. Here is what took place:
My bus never came. Anyone of four routes should have come by in the thirty minutes I waited, but not one did. I walked two or three blocks to the next stop in the direction of the restaurant and looked back. Not a bus in sight. There was a reason for this. I was to see what I saw.
An unshaven man, of about sixty five years of age, teal colored shirt and beside his backpack was sitting on the landscaping wall bordering the sidewalk, along northbound Guadalupe just before 24th Street, apparently waiting for a bus. Three University of Texas police officers stood facing him, spread out so as to make about a third of a circle about him. The one in the center was a blonde male. Flanking him were two females, one tall and thin, and the other medium height and dark.
The bus was long in coming, I thought, and spent my time sitting on the wall and standing, sometimes pacing. I was about twenty feet from the officers who had been talking with the man, when suddenly the blonde police officer began yelling angrily at the homeless man. It was a sort of “You will agree with me, or else!” sort of tirade.
I do not know what had caused the police officer to be so afraid that his anger had taken the better of him like that. The homeless man was small framed, and appeared to be half a foot shorter than the officer even if he were to stand. He presented no threat at all.
I pulled myself up to sit on the wall about twenty to twenty-five feet from them and facing the scene and close enough to hear what was said in normal tones. The angry officer told the man to stand up, and turn around. The homeless man did stand, and understandable whined a bit about it, “Ah, you don’t need to take me to jail.”
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
He did as the officer ordered, turned his back, stood still and placed his hands behind his back with his wrists about three inches apart.
One of the women officers placed the cuffs on the man’s right wrist. The blonde man yelled, “Hands behind you back!”
“They are!” The man declared, rightly.
Instead of simply cuffing the other wrist, the tall, curly haired officer yelled, “Stop resisting!”
Right then, I knew what was happening. The man was compliant. His hands were behind his back, wrists together. He was not resisting, not even moving. If you could have hit a pause button, and asked me what was going to happen, I would have told you this:
The three officers are going to throw the man to the ground and rough him up, because they think that yelling “Stop resisting!” will make everyone assume that the man deserves it. Nobody will notice that he is not resisting and the officers count on that. They do this because they want to send a message and they do it to the homeless because their voice of protest means nothing to most people; and, most of all, they do it because they are bullies to whom our officials have armed and granted authority to use force.Exactly what I knew would happen, did happen. After throwing him down, they yanked his arms around for show, knelt on his head, and cuffed him. One of the three, taking turns, was constantly kneeling on his back or his head for the next several minutes.
The dark haired female was mostly up and pacing. She glanced around several times to see who, if anyone, was paying attention. She made eye contact with me three times-- once, briefly, on her first circuit around the man and her partners. A second time, briefly on her second circuit; and then a third time, longer, because she realized I was making and holding eye contact with her.
I was nicely dressed, clean-shaven, recent hair cut and calm. My face and eyes were expressionless. I also sit cross-legged, and that lends itself to being interpreted as a peaceful “lotus position” by some. I did not feel peaceful. I felt resigned. I had been in this very battle before and hurt for days from what the UT police did to me for sticking up for the innocent.
I have an arrest record—no conviction, of course-- but I have been arrested twice for doing the right thing. I am not an activist, just a citizen--just like that man being roughed-up by those three officers. Knowing that one of them realized that I had seen what they had done and were doing, was concerning. She looked like she was going to ask me something. I think she was also checking to see if I had an iPhone out, for worry that I was recording the events.
She chose not to speak. I chose not to speak up. I’m used to hating myself, and sometimes more than other times. This was one awful moment in my life.
They got the man up and escorted him onto campus.
The restaurant would be too close to closing-time for me to feel right about going in to order a meal, and my sense of joy was long gone. I grabbed a hot dog from a 7/11 and ate it as I walked into my local pub.
“Our forefathers would be shooting by now”
I wrote a poem yesterday… sort of. I am not a poet. I do not attempt verse, and have no knack for rhyme.
What I typed, I called, Apathy of the Dead.
Those four words stopped me in my tracks. They just came to mind. I was thinking about injustice. I was thinking about the Christian tenet, expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Communion of Saints” and my mind whirled into the depressive spiral of “I cannot solve this intolerable problem without help!”
And help is ten years late in coming for me, and five years too late. I know that, and so the death spiral of demanding an answer is rarer than it once was. The desperation is gone, because it is too late. The anger, however, haunts me now and then.
It could happen again! It could happen to others! It is happening to others!
But no one wants to hear that… except for those others.
And so, and getting to the point, I pondered praying to the Communion of Saints in whom I believe. Those are the persons who have died believing. Of the dead, the Communion of Saints are made up of the holiest, and the most powerful. If they have power, I wondered, why do I not see it used?
I have a mystical answer, but at that moment, I smiled, and nodded my head in silent understanding—but not agreement—of how so many have reached a point where they are forced to tolerate the intolerable-- so deciding, “They do not care.”
“The Apathy of the Dead.”
The words came, I knew them to refer to the apparent reality, but not the mystical Reality—and I meant them that way when I spoke them out loud, alone in my room. I nodded again, submitting to the awareness that I was done with what I had been busying myself with, because I knew I was supposed to write.
I typed as quickly as I could as the words came. I was afraid I would lose some and not remember; but the words came just as I was able to keep-up, and then paused. I looked and saw a pattern. I looked for rhyme and there was none. I looked for meter, but knew it could not be.
I filled in with what seemed to fit, neglecting the pattern, which had been visually apparent, knowing that it could not be sustained, and that I had not knowingly intended it in the first place.
I stopped. Emotions, memories, desires, and my whole life-story fought for attention and placement in the poem, but I would not—could not—set the experience of the words down, but only the words given me.
I then read what was before me for the first time.
A tired smile on my lips, I asked myself, “Perhaps, in whatever language these words originated, they might rhyme? Perhaps in that language, they are also in meter. I know I only put signs to what poem was given me, incomplete, but I think power is still underneath what I typed. Perhaps it is for me alone; but perhaps I consider all my stories too intimate—too much “for me” and “too much of me” to believe they are for anyone else.
But then, a flood of thoughts given me by others over the years, confirmed over and over again…
Dr. Reginald Fuller, New Testament Scholar and Anglican Priest told me this mystery first—before any other shared this truth with me. He said it as if wondering why he had to explain it to anyone.
“The Exodus story of the Hebrew people, led by God, escaping from bondage out of Egypt, and spending forty years in the desert before entering into the Promised Land—that is also the story of the Church. You knew that. Right? Of course you did. But have you considered that it is also the story of the individual soul? It is, you know.”
I did not know any of that when Father Fuller spoke those words to me. It is, of course true; I just did not want it to be true.
The PoemSo, the poem is intimately my story, and just as possibly a story of many.
The Apathy of the Dead
Or so it seems
Devoid of material force
And lacking temporal immediacy
Days of extending autonomous power at an end
The Church Militant feels very much alone, abandoned by Them.
The marching-orders only understood in vague and inner sight
The Marian assent of Let it be, the carrying of cross to private Calvary
The uncertainty of purpose when confronted with certain defeat.
The wounded hero’s failure against the victories of a lusty youth
A Merlin’s life convoluting time, purpose’s gain became loss
Boldness still, but confidence at no time, one struggles in weakness
Few siblings-in-arms, few siblings at all, you fight as spy or scout.
A mocking world without sight but much loudness of voice
Drowning your own, preparing you for when, soon, you will be mute to them
Gleaned truths, intimate sights, strobic flashes of Reality
Tell a story of More. Promises unimaginable purpose
Inners tears and unseen blood, the ancient co-mingling of human heart
The left-behind will leave no others, the bleeding heal, the defenseless defend.
Refugees seek out the forsaken because of this; and they, the other.
Neither seeking victory but only meaning, only the More.
The Dead have lived as refugees, shepherds and martyrs;
They were the teachers, the seers,
Intimates with God whose cries of passion still ring and merge into Song
I leave the poem there, hanging—or finished, I do not know which. Out of time to write, and my Muse departed anyway. I must hurry to a friend’s for Fourth of July activities of barbeque, beer, a film and fireworks. The film part seems odd, but my host has mentioned wanting to watch this film with us several times and we had not yet done that.
The film was Boondock Saints.
It is a story which begin in a Church. A Priest—a Monsignor—is preaching about a second kind of evil: Good people watching evil done and not taking action.
Of course, I was busy justifying myself in my inner dialogue as the movie continued:
But I have taken action, and usually alone, and when alone, I have rarely made a difference and usually been hurt. I used to think leading by example worked, but no one follows.
It wasn’t working. My excuses did not exonerate my conscience.
According to what I have read, the screenwriter said that opening scene is based upon his own personal experience. Clearly, its is mystical experience in the film—two brothers suddenly stand up in while the Monsignor is preaching, walk right past him to the Altar, kneel, pray, then rise to kiss the foot of the Crucifix above the Altar before turning to leave.
Outside the Church door, one of the brothers says, “It seems the Monsignor finally gets it.”
The rest of the film’s story is those two brothers finding themselves thrust into vigilantism… and loving it.
They have a prayer which mystically justifies what they do, and are considered Saints.
I have no such “marching-orders.” I have no brother who has been thrust into the fray at my side. I have no police force silently approving any such act. I have been the scout, alone behind enemy lines. I have been wounded. “Taken out by sniper fire” as John Eldredge states it in, Wild at Heart.
What I do have is a Muse. A Principality, technically—an Angel. He recited a poem, or a song in my inner hearing and I typed it out—for me, but maybe for another. It said nothing of a promised victory. It said nothing of brothers-in-arms, much less legions of angels at my side. The song said my prayers are heard, but the action is mine to take until I am so wounded that I can take no more.
This, I think, is the same Angel who once told me that God, too, acts by a spiritual restraint—having the power to stop evil and punish evil, but instead crying tears with us to the injustice, and loving me for not demanding justice, but only living it as best I can no matter how much my inabilities bring about rage in me.
When I was young, more than once a police officer chastised me for a good deed, making it clear I should have waited fro them. Only once did one take the trouble to say to me, “You are going to do what you do no matter what; but expecting us to be there is foolish. You did the right thing, but you got lucky. Son, I am telling you that you ought to have a gun. That man is not going to forget that you stopped him—and he is not going to forgive you either; and chances are, he will find you before we find him.”
He was right. That evil man did find me before the police found him. I did not like the advice he gave me, but I had begrudgingly taken it. I did not like Father Fuller telling me (as if I already knew it to be true), that my path would be in wandering in the desert. When family and friends warned me about an evil in my midst, I did not heed, did not believe… and the unthinkable happened; that is, Eldredge’s “sniper” took me out; but he claims that happens to true warriors.
Today, I do not feel like a warrior, but merely a nomad. But it was never apathy.
Postscript - Not Alone
*Sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke