Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other’s way;
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day…
I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by…
I know not whether Laws be right
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long…
This too I know — and wise it were
If each could know the same —
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest God should see
How men their brothers maim…
With midnight always in one’s heart
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.
And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word;
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone…
— Oscar Wilde
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
They say that life comes full circle; yet to see that fullness achieved in one’s lifetime is an exaggerated expectation. Yet sometimes we can live long enough to trace the arc trending back towards home.
As a young boy I sat in Shea Stadium in New York City and watched the great Jim Bunning shut the Mets out handily. As a young man I reported on his work as a Senator from the great State of Kentucky. I was a close neighbor of Kentucky, living in Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1994 through 1998, often wandering over the bridge into Covington or Newport. Now, in middle age, I am aghast as I watch the Senator’s son, Judge David Bunning, jail Kim Davis, an elected County Clerk who will not issue marriage licenses to couples of the same gender.
The Judge admonishes the Clerk that she took an oath, and “oaths are important things.” Really? Why are they important, and what is the basis of their importance? When standing before a judge in this country to testify or to accept a public office, oaths are generally recited with a hand upon the Bible. This tells you that the Bible is the basis of the oath, and the oath binds only through the power of the Bible to stand as an arbiter of truth.
The very notion of swearing on a Bible to uphold the law presupposes that the Bible signifies a higher authority than man can wield through his power to legislate. Consider the absurdity of telling a woman she should be jailed for violating the oath she took upon a Bible to uphold the Law, when in fact she violated that Law to uphold the Bible.
In Jewish tradition, the argument is made a bit differently. The principle is that when Noah was permitted to rebuild after natural disasters had decimated human life, it was based on an oath he took to create lawful societies. Some of the specific rules he accepted were prohibitions against abortion and suicide, and a commitment not to enshrine homosexuality in the framework of marriage. When Jews accepted the Bible, they swore an additional oath to fulfill a series of special obligations, including dietary restrictions.
Thus the fealty demanded by the Creator to His Law is itself framed as an oath, which in turn supersedes any subsequent oath proffered to a human government or authority.
Thus it is our oath to the Bible which gives significance to oaths we take upon the Bible. By definition one cannot take an oath upon the Bible to contravene the moral law of the Bible. Kim Davis is not being untrue to her oath. Quite the contrary. She is being true to the Bible which forms the basis for, and which lends the authority to, the oath she took upon it to uphold the laws of the land.
In a just world it would be Anthony Kennedy in that Kentucky cell. He is the one who violated his oath, his mission, his duty. and his humanity. He is the one who arrogated to himself the right to overturn two to four millennia of civilization, of societies governing themselves in good faith within the definitions accepted by all the greats of human history.
As long as we live in this topsy-turvy world, where Kim Davis is jailed for behaving within the time-honored modes of decency, and where Anthony Kennedy is lionized for cavalierly dispensing with those modes, I have no choice but to pack my heart carefully in a Fedex package and send it to Kim Davis in her cell. I envy her heroism, her forthrightness, her fearlessness, her persistence, and now her travail. Perhaps my heart can earn in her company the courage it has failed to garner from America’s Wizards of Oz.
Many men on their release carry their prison about them into the air, and hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned things, creep into some hole and die. It is wretched that they should have to do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong, of society that it should force them to do so. Society takes upon itself the right to inflict appalling punishment on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realize what it has done. When the man’s punishment is over, it leaves him to himself; that is to say, it abandons him at the very moment its highest duty towards him begins. It is really ashamed of its own actions, and shuns those whom it has punished, as people shun a creditor whose debt they cannot pay, or one on whom they have inflicted an irreparable, an irremediable wrong.
— Oscar Wilde