From Uncommon Prayer
Why O God are you silent
why does evil have the upper hand?
The sweet earth is wasted, why?
Torturers crush the bones of the strong
Blank-eyed juntas sit in judgment
Firing squads dispose in a moment’s bark
a single snarl, of the troublesome heroes
Meantime you hide out
meantime you are silent
Maker, ruler of all, into what hands have
the reins slipped?
The horseman named death
the horseman named plague
the horseman named hell
They race like mad dogs to the four corners of the world
they round up like an Auschwitz herd, your
Are you a mere onlooker
a witness fleeing the murder scene
one whose evidence, if given, would convict Cain
vindicate the blood of his brother, balance off
the scales in the hand of the blind woman
who for aeons behind her stone bandage
must be thanking her stars for being
blind blind blind
Don’t call it contemplation. We need someone other
than a platonic walker of the sea of tranquility
You, those who speak for you
taught us to despise
the otherworldly Others
eyeballs riveted on the empyrean
hands innocent of compassion
white robes, harps, the paraphernalia of parasites
And don’t please plead innocence—
the prophets in your chronicle
scenes of judgment, bring us hangdog
before the court, rake us
Question arises: whose side are you on?
You weren’t always so distant—
Not a page of that famous book doesn’t say it.
You—plucking the people from disaster
turning natural forces around
nailing things down, clarifying,
repairing, night watching
not allowing evil a rat hole to slink out of
You’re clumsy, futile sometimes, fretful
paternal, a fussy godfather—
At least you’re there. Someone to argue with
push against, yell goddam at,
a public defender, a bondsman
someone to advance a loan
in a lean month
some unexpected courtesy
helping a bad day go down
like a single rose, the luxury
that now and then
is absolute necessity.
Now admit it
everything’s fallen apart.
You’re nowhere to be found
the roof’s down, the place gutted
the rats run the building
You know how their fame is played—
[I don’t blame you for it, I can almost see
the faraway look
the way you drift off your own page
leaving it blank,
a first page we’ve got to write
all over again, “in the beginning. . .”]
—It’s called Rodent Logic; or Since The Worst
Is Inevitable, Let’s Help It Along
With An Electric Shock To The Parts—
THE RODENT THESIS:
the owner of this building can’t be found
[if found, could be prosecuted]
let’s clean the mess up, just enough
to bring the tenants back
grateful to the new management
one sweet night when they’re abed, attentively counting
papa sheep mama sheep baby sheep
We’ll push the button
we’ll blast them to powder
we’ll send them sky-high
a jig-saw jumble for the nimble fingers
of Genesis One to reassemble
So be it.
In any case,
You’re not about to change your habits
Those well-paced aeons of non-intervention
will go on and on. Your own son
couldn’t break that shield of silence
He hung his head and died
after such a cry
would have brought a starving bitch from her hole
to comfort a dying whelp
If you must do what you do
if you refuse to do what you could do
If we’re to drag on
as best we might, a sorry game
if the youth in a harness of wings
must fall from the sky
the old woman bleed on the pavement
the banks call the shots on the poor
the hooker shiver in the night air
her cute ass bringing in no cash
if this mess, this maelstrom
this funky off-off-off-B’way
badly conceived badly written
hardly critically acclaimed
[soon to close] show—
Must go on, one more performance
ego inextricably involved
[He’s let it be known
through subalterns, press reps
like an invisible billionaire—
“the show’s dammit a good one, it’ll pick up
he’s willing to stake the whole pile on this one.”]
It seems arbitrary as that.
The show goes on because you want it to go on.
The show goes on the way you want it to go on.
minor adjustments of time and place
iron necessities skillfully masked—
there’s space in the prison scene
for a prison yard
within which inmates
play like mad
at twenty or thirty variations
of a game called FREEDOM.
Doubtless I run a risk
in speaking this way
I sound unregenerate at times, to myself
(“the poseur will now mime rebellion”)
innocent blood should have a voice
otherwise butchers become gods
and you take up a butcher’s trade
Whatever is outrageous then, ill advised
bitter of tone, heedless, crude in my argument—
a son does not mince words
compose his agony into “speeches before the court”
out with it
take it or leave it, he’s your son
Who you are
is far less clear
given the evidence
daily shoved in our faces—
Let me then make bold to remind you
faith is a two-way street
hope is a hand-to-hand clasp
come believe in me
take my hand
As for that well-known
our Father who art. . .”
I’ll unclench my fist
bloodied at your wall
shake the tear from my face
(that never failing rainfall)
like a yoga, all will and darkness
in a formal stasis, attitude of prayer
will, believe me
keep trying, keep trying, keep trying
The problem of evil is so overwhelming that it threatens to devour us. It does in fact devour many. It is their master enigma, so to speak, the clue to non-understanding, despair, the darkness covering the face of the Earth.
Because evil is the only problem, no God can possibly exist. As the problem is commonly stated, it seems to me that such a conclusion is inevitable. Evil overwhelms us because we stand within the so-called problem, up to our necks, like the guilty in Dante’s inferno. We miss our plight precisely because it is our own, not a “problem” at all, not “out there,” in a malfunctioning universe but here, now, under this skin, in this skull, wrought by these choices. We are good consumers, even while we question “the system” which feeds our appetites like captive animals, on the hour. We are a people who prepare doomsday weapons, pay for them, are silent about their existence — even as we purportedly seek peace. We are intelligent serpents, our own tails are our menu.
One could suggest another tack than the merely problematic, which seems to me to get nowhere. The original sin of Genesis, with its murderous overtones, offers a clue. Murder breaks out, the slaying of one brother by another. And in time (not much time was required) murder was legitimated: it became a quite ordinary event. Weaponry was taken in hand again and again as a way of resolving human conflict. Get rid of one (or both) of the parties, and you get rid of the difficulty. Could anything be neater, swifter? Cain was the ancestor, Hitler the natural descendant. Not to speak of the nuclear Strangeloves.
In such a way the original sin remains original, in the sense that murder can always be resorted to, new weaponry dreamed up, the old quarrels renewed, when all else (as they love to say) has been tried and has failed. (Which is to say, in the ordinary course of power diplomacy, when practically nothing has been tried; when the little has quite predictably failed.) So murder is invoked, incanted even, consecrated (the appeal to religion, the response of religion, is mandatory); the scope of murder is enlarged (each way must be bigger to make its point; the percentage of civilian deaths must increase to make its point; the percentage of civilian deaths must increase to make a point); the murder must be immaculately justified (hence the requirement of an ever more stringent ideology of Our Superior Moral Rectitude). It must also be technologized (the making of our point requires us to multiply indiscriminately the capacity of weaponry; bomb them back to the Stone Age).
In such ways, murder becomes the ordinary menu of ordinary folk in the twentieth century. The motto: you are what you eat. Now if you, dear reader, dear Christian (or I), catch your breath now and again with a gasp of pure horror, if you are wrenched about by a demon hand with the thought — what are they doing to us and to our children, what are they doing to the children of the world? — such episodes after all mean nothing except a tic of memory, a recidivist spasm so to speak, the vagrant phantasm of a hypersensitive conscience, long ignored, long pacified, almost extinct. Still, here and there, in out-of-the-way religious gatherings, in corners and cellars, even in churches, people still gather and dare to ask questions which the times themselves have declared, if not absurd, then beyond answering. Like: can there not be another way? Can no one show it to us? Who will lead us to a human future? And if we push away in disgust from the cannibal feast, how are we to survive?
The part so-called religion has played in inflaming and justifying violence is part of the tragedy of history. The tragedy has had a long run; it is still playing. Have no fear, dear Christians, God is with us, our country, right or wrong. Thus a blessing is invoked on the hideous banquet of war, the guests lean forward in silence; with gusto, with a good conscience, they tie their napkins about, balance knife and fork, await the entrée.
But faith is more tentative, shows more pain and less certainty. A faithful few refuse the menu and are, of course, punished for bad manners. Not at all certain about “sides: God on ours.” Not possessing Him, not having the key to his conduct. Sensing obscurely indeed, that such keys are usually in the hands of the mighty, the guardians of good fortune, the keepers of prisons, the nuclear jugglers. Please note, too, the scene, the geography of faith. The faithful do not hang around the banquet, tempted here, nibbling there, hoping to reform the institution of eating humans. Not trying to formulate Nine or Ten Conditions for a Just Cannibalism. The banquet is not a good scene, such folk say stubbornly; they are intolerable spoilers, beyond converting. They keep saying things like, the banquet cannot really be reformed.
The plain trouble is, human beings are the main course. And they shouldn’t be. This is not a very exalted morality. We’re not particularly proud of it. We ought to be able in such an advanced century to go further than that. But there you are, we’re stuck with saying no to a question that should never have arisen in the first place: whether human beings ought to eat human beings. What a question!
They go further; they insist the question can’t even be discussed in the banquet hall. It’s too late, it’s the wrong place. For as a matter of fact, the menu is already agreed on; somewhere in the vast kitchens, victims are already being brought in. You can read it in the eyes of the guests; they’ve paid for such and such a meal, they’ve worked hard for a night out, they’re not about to sit there and put up with a change of menu, substitutions. Have you ever seen Americans, those who know the good smell and feel of money who know how it speaks loud and moves fast and gets things done? Have you ever seen such people take the ruination of a big evening lying down? Cut off their supply, say the faithful few. Tell the truth where it’s never been told, where the truth is forbidden, open the question in IRS offices, courtrooms, prisons, Pentagon (a few years ago, draft file centers); this is where we speak from, where we act from.
You know how this sort of thing ends. The other name of faith, its worldly name, its baptismal name, is trouble. The faithful are in trouble: all the rest are dreaming of that feast, saving toward it, counting on it. Thus the problem of evil, the problem of a cannibal culture.
The feast is by now a national observance.
It requires the following: skill, nerve, persistence, corrupt religion, big appetites, profit motives, main speakers, cleanup crews, military hard and software, taxes and taxpayers, voters, the chefs (chiefs of staff), a military band, beautiful voracious women, heroes in battle dress, thirty-five gun salutes, a chief in whose honor “Hail to the Chief” may be struck up. And then, of course, since the banquet is international in flavor and principle, all sorts of foreign lackeys, subalterns, colonels, shahs, and their retinue and network of torturers, hit men, police, soldiers, et cetera, et cetera.
In any case, no light on the human predicament.
In any case, darkness upon darkness.
The prophets speak of another way.
A crisis, an outcry, a burning question.
They have no seat at the banquet, their world is an outer darkness. There, for all their clumsy, abrupt speech, stubborn silence, refusals to negotiate, they have won the right to question God. For they have renounced the bloody meat, the infernal feast of history. Their very lives are a question. Not a problem, but an expression of the mystery.
They are the “other side” of the mystery of evil. Which is to say, they are the mystery of goodness. They speak for life, their lives speak for it. Their lives lead further, beyond themselves. Further, to Jesus, who being innocent of all crime, was slain.
It is not enough, it will never be enough to ask: why are humans evil? A question as futile as: why are human inhuman?
No, the real question, the question which appalls and puts to silence, the question which is avoided in principle and neglected in fact, the question for which is substituted every trick of technology, every nostrum of psychology, all the airy and groundless ground rules of “religion” — the real question seems to me quite simple. For instance: what is a human being? And how may we become human once more, in a bestial time?
Of one thing we may be fairly certain. Those who sit at the feast, those complicit in crimes against humanity, will never come on the question. They are too busy eating, they have eaten their own souls.