The Colgate Scene
November 2002

Touched by lightning
A student recalls a teacher's gifts

Coleman Brown, professor of philosophy and religion, emeritus [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

We only change the world one person at a time. This, for those of us who have stumbled into the maw of war and seen the worst of human barbarity, is sobering and humbling. Cities, in modern industrial warfare, can vanish, leaving in the ruins the small heartaches and struggles of human existence, the megawatts of energy parents put into children, the unseen and intimate love that couples poured into each other, the kindness of neighbors, the stilled beating of thousands of human hearts. And in such destruction love looks as if it is no match for the deadly indifference of nature and cruelty of humankind. To be compassionate, to be gentle, to lead the moral life, seems, perhaps, absurd and useless.

And yet, having watched some of the worst human carnage unleashed over the past two decades around the globe, I can tell you there is in love more power than we suspect. It rises above the death instinct; if not always to defeat it, then to affirm life. In moments of death love sends out shock waves that ripple through apartment blocks and down city streets. I saw this after a shell fell in Sarajevo. The explosion left the maimed and dismembered in pools of blood and entrails on the cobblestone streets. Amid the horror parents, couples, friends sought each other frantically, throwing out concentric circles of love that defied death even after it had done its worst.

There are always those who do not fall victim to the disease that is blind patriotism, the narrow and myopic world view that nationalist triumphalism uses to poison us all. They rise above this to honor the divinity of the other. Bosnian Muslims would, at times, care for Serb children, even as they were spat upon and ridiculed for their compassion. Such acts, which often earn the enmity of many, are the most heroic acts we can carry out. And these acts, while they may not guarantee our survival, indeed may even doom us, are the physical manifestation of eternity, of the divine. And when the conflict is over, when the dark elixir of war is exposed for what it is, the waters of the Lethe, these rescuers redeem whole nations, making it impossible to condemn entire peoples as racist or inhuman. They are the ironic points of light that shine in the darkness.

I learned this before I experienced it. I learned it from one man. I learned it as a young college student, full of too much brine and energy and self-confidence. I learned it not only in the classroom but in a small corner office in Colgate's philosophy and religion department where Coleman Brown (professor of philosophy and religion, emeritus, university chaplain, emeritus) would sit, the afternoon light slanting in through the narrow window. There I was gently instructed, chastened and humbled by an intellect that soared as high as his integrity. His wisdom, his commitment to a life with meaning, ultimately gave me the intellectual and spiritual armor I needed. Everything I have ever done in my life has been measured against the standards he set. I have no career goals, for he taught me the only goal worth having was the struggle to live the moral life. I have no need to be anything, to achieve anything, to win anything, to be acclaimed as anything, for he taught me to make peace with my own heart, to accept that at times I will be reviled, perhaps even ostracized, if I have the courage to affirm those the rest of the world tells me I should not affirm.

"Are we created to suffer?" I asked.

"Is there any love that isn't?" he replied."

There were times when this meant that I felt profoundly alone, frightened, unsure of myself. Coleman taught me, finally, to have faith, to trust in the unknowable, to accept mystery, to understand that it is not my place to discern or grasp the will of God. I could, at best, only act and then ask for forgiveness. "We are finally saved," he would often say, "by faith."

And because of Coleman I survived. I walked into the worst of human suffering. I saw innocents, including children, die violent, needless deaths in Central America, the Middle East and the Balkans. I tasted the capacity we all have for
[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
evil and came to know the disturbingly thin line between the oppressors and the oppressed. And when it was done I did not despair. I had been given that which every young person needs from those who teach -- knowledge.

There were afternoons in Coleman's office when he read to me. We had finished our discussion. He rose and pulled from the stacks W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Reinhold Niebuhr or Paul Tillich and gave me a passage in his preacher's cadence. I would search out the book after I had left. I read what he had read to me over and over and often I memorized it.

As a reporter, I was held prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard in southern Iraq during the Shiite rebellion following the Persian Gulf War. I meticulously pieced these poems together, line by line, stanza by stanza. These words saved me, especially from myself. And if I closed my eyes, even amid the sporadic gunfire and the concussion of mortar shells, I could hear Coleman's voice, calm, reassuring, not telling me how the world should be but how it was, and always, just with its resonance, reminding me not to give up on the power of life.

Six days after graduating from Colgate I moved to a public housing project in the Roxbury section of Boston. In the fall I began to take the subway to Cambridge every morning to attend Harvard Divinity School. But the projects, not the dorms at Harvard, were where I lived, where I came home. I saw in Roxbury the callous and heartless indifference we have towards our poor and mentally ill. It was an indictment of us as a people and a civilization. Later, I would see our indifference to the impoverished masses in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. But this was enough to jar me then. These kids had no chance, not in the schools, not at home, not on the streets, not in life. And I saw that anything I did would make little difference. I made my way back to his office several months later, my grades skirting the line that could see my scholarship revoked, and told him of my gloom. "Are we created to suffer?" I asked Coleman. "Is there any love that isn't?" he replied.

I recently wrote a book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, an essay on the disease, and often addiction, that is war. When I first received a copy of the book from my publisher I drove five hours from New York City to Hamilton in the rain. It is dedicated to Coleman and my father, who was, like Coleman, a Presbyterian minister. I sat with Irene and Coleman and read the last few pages of the book, pages he had worked on, indeed rewritten. And then, as best I could, I read the dedication. "For my father, the Rev. Thomas Hedges, who taught me that compassion was the highest virtue, and for the Rev. Coleman Brown, who has never let me forget it."

Then I got in my car and drove back.

But the book is not only for Coleman. It is by Coleman. For I am by Coleman. And there are dozens of his students, who are marked as deeply and profoundly as I, who are by Coleman Brown. When I finished a chapter during the writing of the book, I sent it to him. And a week later it came back, marked up and accompanied by pages of notes in his familiar scrawl in black felt pen. He took my writing, my thoughts, and raised them to his level, including one section where he drew four large Xs over each page and wrote tersely at the bottom: "Frankly, you are over your head."


Chris Hedges '79 [Photo courtesy of Chris Hedges]
Coleman retired in 1996. At least this is what they tell you. But he will not retire until I retire, until Judge Doug Lavine '72 retires, until the Rev. Michael Granzen '80 retires, and so many others retire. And even then, perhaps, he does not retire. For what he gave to us will outlive even us. It is eternal. It is as powerful in its mystery as it is unknowable in its essence. It is faith. It is love.

I heard about his retirement when I was in the Balkans. The news came in one of those plastic Federal Express packages that somehow made its way to me in the midst of war along with long overdue credit card bills and out-of-date magazines. The writer of the article about Coleman mentioned that he had "touched" many lives.

I strapped on my body armor as my photographer pulled our armored jeep out of the basement of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, its front a tangled mass of twisted iron reinforcing rods and broken shards of cement from the relentless shelling.

"Touched," I thought, "by a bolt of lightning."


Chris Hedges is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and has covered armed conflicts in the Balkans, Middle East and Central America.
Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Meet President Chopp Next: One year later >>