Gilbert Berg imagines the helpless children of Bethlehem during Herod’s reign and wonders what would happen if he, a military underling, chose to disobey a commander’s order because of the wish to save innocent children.
The poem arises from Gilbert’s belief that negotiation is preferable to the forceful imposition of one’s wish, that peacemaking is preferable to subjugation, and that civil disobedience and risking one’s own life is preferable in juxtaposition to the senseless destruction of innocent children. The feast of the Holy Innocents is normally observed on December 28.
If I were on the streets of Bethlehem tonight
A soldier under orders from the king
His ruthless words still ringing in my ears,
“Get all the children two years or less
Don’t spare – don’t wait!”
One hundred strong command the quiet town
Glistening shields and swords belie
The hidden questions and the quake of soul.
We bring news of terror and of tears –
In groups of ten the evil deeds are done
In my mind the mental turmoil
Turns my stomach into knots
Who can end the life of one unspoiled
One so trusting and content
One with voice unschooled and powerless
In halls that shine with shallow pomp.
The king’s command rings loud and hollow –
Two voices competing for allegiance.
Each of us assigned one silent street
My street – ten homes with children
The first door – closed, locked
Inside a fearful, anxious family
Three children, seven years, four and one
A quiet knock, a breathless wait.
The door is opened – a trembling family cowers.
A wordless, deathly stillness –
“I have good news; your baby will not die!”
I close the door
And nine more homes can breathe in stillness once again.
In my soul the knot unwinds
And peace returns – at least to me
And ten other tiny worlds of hope.
Gilbert Berg is a parishioner at st. benedict’s table.