No More Than We Allow

Recently I’ve been thinking back to my earliest days as a congregational rabbi. In truth I was a Student Assistant rabbi at the time, work in a New York City congregation as I completed my final two years of seminary. One of my responsibilities was as the lead teacher for our Confirmation Class (a responsibility I still love over 35 years later.) I recall that at the end-of-the year celebration my students gently kidding me about my use (overuse?) of trigger films in provoking our discussions.

It’s true. I found then, and still do find on occasion, that a short trigger film can draw a group into a lively discussion in a relatively short period of time. Over those early years I developed a “playlist” of standards. As I think back, it’s sort of a pre-music video era teaching tool. One such film I used almost annually was an animated treatment of Maurice Ogden’s haunting poem, “The Hangman.” It quickly sets an eerie scene:

Into our town thHangman 05e Hangman came.
Smelling of gold and blood and flame-
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air
And build his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side.

Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,
Than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

And we wondered, whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal, what the crime,
That Hangman judged with the yellow twist
Of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were, with dread
We passed these eyes of buckshot lead;
Till one cried: “Hangman, who is he
For whom you raise the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
And he gave us a riddle instead of reply”
“He who serves me best,” said he,
“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”

The poem wends its way through a narrative, which by its end, has seen the total destruction of a community as its members are hung one by one; group by group. By poem’s the scene is nearly desolate save for one lone survivor, to whom The Hangman turns.

Then through the town the Hangman came
And called in the empty streets my name-
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall
And thought: “There is no one left at all
For hanging, and so he calls to me
To help pull down the gallows-tree.”
And I went out with right good hope
To the Hangman’s tree and the Hangman’s rope.
He smiled at me as I came down
To the courthouse square through the silent town
And supple and stretched in his busy hand
Was the yellow twist of the hempen strand.
And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap
And it sprang down with a ready snap-
And then with a smile of awful command
He laid his hand upon my hand.Hangman 12

“You tricked me, Hangman!” I shouted then,
“That your scaffold was built for other men …
And I no henchman of yours,” I cried,
“You lied to me, Hangman, foully lied!”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye:

“Lied to you? Tricked you?” he said,
“Not I, For I answered straight and I told you true:
The scaffold was raised for none but you.
“For who has served me more faithfully
Than you with your coward’s hope? Said he,
“And where are the others that might have stood
Side by your side in the common good?”
“Dead,” I whispered; and amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me;
“First the alien, then the Jew . . .
I did no more than you let me do.”

I’ve been thinking back to Ogden’s haunting piece a lot in recent days. We are nearing the end of the Primary phase of our nation’s 2016 Presidential campaign. Soon the focus will turn towards July’s Nominating Conventions, and then around Labor Day the campaign will intensify in earnest.

This has been a deeply disturbing campaign for way too many months now. Rather than a passionate and complicated debate over the critical issues our nation faces, and those we face as the world’s leading superpower, this 2016 campaign has been nasty in disturbing ways unsurpassed in my memory. It’s as if we, as a nation, are being dragged through sewers and gutters; bombarded with ugly name-calling and ferocious character-assassination. Fingers are pointed every which way across our nation, within the two major parties; across the bow from one party towards the other; and from many quarters at the media.

Body parts, bodily functions, crude and nasty nicknames, assaults on judges and more. So much of what is playing out before our eyes, and assaulting our ears is diversion. Rather than discuss real issues, policy proposals, and how we will forge a path forward as one nation, when this is all over, our attention is drawn to ugly diversions. Personally, I fault all of the above – the candidates, the party leaders, and so many in the media, in all its myriad manifestations.

How did we come to this? A version of the Hangman’s words to his final victim, for whom there was no one left to turn, echo loudly in my ears: “They have done no more than we’ve let them do!”

The name-calling, the side show acts, the broadside swipes at whole ethnic, racial and religious groups . . . it all acts as a lightning rod. And the media, in large part, makes certain that the lightning strikes so we are paying attention.

There is blame enough to go around for the circus that is passing for a campaign for the highest office in our nation. We, too, own some of it. For, “they are doing no more than we allow them to do.”

I pray that as the calm of summer sets in, we will pull back from the fray and regain some sense of individual and collective perspective. We are better than this as a nation. We must demand better than this from our candidates, our already-elected officials, our media . . . and ourselves. If we do not, we may be left to wonder how we came to a devastation metaphorically portrayed by Ogden in his poem. I urge you to read it in its entirety!

Click here to read “The Hangman”

Clink here to watch the 1964 video of “The Hangman”


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