Before the Cock Crows

Peter answered and said unto him, “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.”

Jesus said unto him, “Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”

Peter said unto him, “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.” Likewise also said all the disciples.

I’m not much of a Christian, if I am one at all. But I do have deep respect for the insight into the human condition that pervades the Bible. One might even call it divinely-inspired.

So read Peter’s denial and think about the spluttering outrage surging forth from so many uninvolved mouths concerning the Penn State atrocities. I made the mistake of listening to talk radio for a few moments driving home yesterday. The lesson I took away is that if only the 300 million Americans not dressed in Blue and White had been on campus at those key moments, we would have prevented this evil. Those institutional functionaries and larger-than-life coaches who failed here are simply of inferior moral fiber to the rest of us, who revered them as “leaders” about 10 days ago. There must be something in the water up there that makes them different from us–the good people.

325/365: Vigil at Penn State

Vigil at Penn State

Look around you, good people.

Look at your own community and your own lives. How much misbehavior of power do you see? How many consequences have you endured for the sake of your conscience? How many institutional forces–how many paychecks–have overwhelmed your sense of right and wrong? Economic and social forces mold and restrain us in ways we don’t even recognize until we’re called upon to act and find ourselves immobilized. This is not new. Ask Peter. It is the human condition.

When I think about this, more than rage, I feel something like terror. It terrifies me to think that a 6 ft, 5-in former Penn State quarterback apparently witnessed an old man anally raping a 10-year-old boy and walked away to call his dad. It terrifies me to think that so many people–within Penn State and without–knew or suspected that something was very wrong for a very long time and managed to rationalize and store away that worry, all in service to the demands of our putrid national “leadership” class. But that’s just the specifics of this case. All humans must reckon every day with the corruption bred by the our loves and fears. I am terrified of failing as miserably in that reckoning as the fathers and sons of Penn State. I’m terrified because I know I might–not because I’m a particular coward, but because I’m just as human as Mike McQueary. I’m terrified that I may have already failed and don’t realize or can’t acknowledge it.

It’s a Saturday, and I’m off to enjoy an overpriced concert festival while Penn State hosts another massive football game, which I would probably attend with a foam finger were I a student there. The world turns and grinds wounded boys beneath it. It can make you despair. But, if nothing else, we should avoid the indulgence of considering our despair unique.


My new favorite song these days is a cover of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row by, of all people, the neo-pop-punk band My Chemical Romance.

I first heard it at the end of the movie Watchmen, which I saw for the first time a few months ago. It’s by far the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen, which is a discussion for a different time. But somehow the mingling of Bob Dylan’s abridged words with the earsplitting, celebratory insolence of the music catches something. The first verse goes like this:

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad, they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Selling postcards of the hanging. Indeed. Every generation of humans faces its own incarnation of Desolation Row. In many ways, ours is less desolate than our forebears. But that doesn’t change how little of our lives are fully in our control. At best we control them on the margins, I would say. But we do get moments. We get our chances to make Desolation Row a little less desolate. As Penn State shows, those moments do not present themselves on our schedules. Rising to them is achingly hard and always involves real consequences. Most of us will fail to meet those moments as thoroughly as Joe Paterno did; yet the world will still produce more humans, and no one will ever know about it.

We should keep that in mind when we casually bleat about halting evil.


Creative Commons License image credit: Christopher Long

2 thoughts on “Before the Cock Crows

Comments are closed.