The Prophet’s Curse: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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The Curse of the Prophets: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Richard D. Ackerman (2010-2011, 2d.Ed.)
Riverside County Bar Magazine Article

When first asked to write this article, I didn’t quite know what to think or how to approach the issues.  Naturally, one would inquire as to why they had been chosen to write an article on the idea that ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’  Perhaps it’s just because I truly believe in a uniform justice system that cannot be destroyed or weakened by the whims of political correctness, unjustified entitlements to power, or discrimination.  Maybe it’s the fact that I have lost on so many unpalatable positions, that I am perceived as being the consistent bearer of the losing position.

Perhaps the characteristics of being hopeful, tenacious and committed are necessarily defined by commitment to suffering humiliation.  For all I know, it may just be my fearless stupidity.

A model justice system is ruled by reason, equity, and a sense that one is entitled to rely on equal application of uniform law.  With this in mind, it also must be remembered that today’s dissent may very well be basis for tomorrow’s justice.  We know this, yet so often fear being the voice of dissent or a counterbalance to excess power.

Fortunately, the otherwise controlling fear of change can be defeated. The recent decision by Judge Virginia Phillips on the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy aptly demonstrates the power of commitment to principle.  While I did not agree with the decision for reasons of the separation of constitutional powers, I bear the deepest respect for her courage to take on the entire military system in the pursuit of equality.  Indeed, the very essence of dissent is what makes for human progress and development of the unique democratic experience bestowed upon us.

One might want to say that this has nothing to do with being punished per se’ for good deeds.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For its power to be felt, prophecy nearly requires persecution. For the known history of humankind, we have seen one prophet after another being condemned for simply taking a stand and pronouncing the truth.

The essential form of what it means to be a prophet is historically seen in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, even the unimposing Dharma Bum, or just about any other perceived revolutionary.

By the way, don’t let your sensibilities about religion get in the way of a good thought about what it means to be human.  Don’t let my biases as to Biblical prophets interfere with the definition of yours (i.e., perhaps the Buddha or others).  Prophecy has never been a form of proselytization nor evangelism.  The latter require the ability to sell or enforce an idea or belief.  Prophecy is most defined by its initial lack of luster and desirability (i.e., because of its demand of human introspection).

I must also mention that I believe that prophets are neither nuts nor fortune-tellers.  To be a prophet means to be a representative of something higher than yourself.  It doesn’t mean you are a great person.  It certainly does not mean that you have any more power than anyone else.  You bear the calling of a messenger.  You get to bear complete responsibility for whatever you say and may even bear the risk of death itself.

Theoretically, each of us in the law ought to be a prophet on behalf of the Constitution and of the Judicial Branch in all of its noble purposes.

Of course, however, there must be a price for one’s desire to profess the law as it is, and the reason which provides the lifeblood of the law.  The price for your message may very well be disdain, frustration, mockery, lack of understanding, and intolerance.  As was recently pointed out by Jack Clarke, one of my most respected colleagues, if it was not for Dr. Martin Luther King, and so many others, we would not know the concept equality as we now know it to be.  What was the price Dr. King paid?  His very life.  Yet, his prophecy and vision lead to the conclusion that we all ought to be equally able to seek the highest that humanity has to offer.  This principle seemingly should never have been the barter for death.  His humiliation became a call for human dignity.

What is the sacrifice you would be willing to make in order to be a seeker of truth?  I don’t know if we would all deny representation of a well-paying client with a bad cause.  It doesn’t seem respectable that one should disagree with the mainstream.  Would you challenge a judge openly on a matter or law, or hide behind the veil of secrecy provided by ‘papering the judge’?  Will you and your house follow the law? Will you abide in the law and all of its travails?  Would you be willing to die to feed the life of another perceived to be of no value?

Often, respect for the law means that one will get to unpalatable conclusions.  Being truthful carries the risk of scorn.  This also means that one might as well plan on losing some arguments since reason, consistency, and justice require a stern heart and a desire to be magnanimous regardless of opposition.  Is strength and character found in accepting the status quo?  Or would it be better to define the status quo ante bellum, even if someone else may have to carry the torch after your embattled demise?

In the case of a being a lawyer, your representation of the law, as a higher cause, may simply mean that you have to be willing to respect the authority of the Court, but yet advocate for a position you know to be inconsistent with the realities of the times.  Humility in purpose has oft been the hallmark of a strong prophet.  Simply staying in the ring, without a complete knock-out, becomes the monument to one’s identity.

As of late, it seems that just about everybody needs to somehow be politically, religiously, or spiritually neutral.  This sickly complacency starves the human condition of its vitality.  Only an honorable judge needs to bear the responsibility of being completely neutral until the time of ultimate judgment under the law of our time.

Indeed, at the time of judgment under the law, not even a judge must remain wholly neutral.  Judgment ultimately entails the adoption of a steadfast position.  Our judges bear the message of a reliable system of law.  While rendering judgment does not necessitate the moral judgment of another, it certainly does require a willingness to rely on a foundation of truth.  Where the truth becomes elusive, fear of change causes manifest injustice.  If one cannot move from neutrality to judgment, one should not bear the position of being the arbiter of any dispute.  If one wants to find power in being wholly neutral from beginning to end, take up mediation or marital counseling.

Neither the parties nor their attorneys should be expected to maintain complete neutrality in their positions.  Not only is this psychologically impossible, it is unreasonable and a disservice to the calling of the profession.  Neutrality can be downright dishonorable.  The omission to act can amount to complicity in evil.  While it is true that one must be objective, it does not follow that one must simply concede to the most politically acceptable position.  The acceptability of particular political positions changes over time.  The failure to act in the face of intellectual tyranny has proven itself, time and again, to be consistently destructive.

Some would say that this is an over-dramatization of what it means to be a lawyer.  I think not. Indeed, I think it is a categorical imperative that we not be governed by reference to what our fellow attorneys might think.  Worse yet is the situation where we run from the law for fear of those who have not been blessed with the same gifts of knowledge we bear.  We don’t define our conduct by the conduct of others.  Neither hope nor faith would have a home in a static moral environment.

It is not sufficient that we simply do what is necessary to get by and achieve a result that just makes everybody happy.  Were it left to the happiness or perceived satisfaction of a given society in time, slavery would be but just one more accepted condition of being part of a human power structure.  Or, perhaps, the perceived right to be free of the crime of seditious libel against the government would be just a fleeting glimpse of true human freedom.  Perhaps the call of secularism would be the death of a hope in ultimate justice, regardless of what happens by mistake, evil, or just happenchance in this life.

The job requirements of being an advocate may very well mean that one is required to represent the higher principle of maintaining a system that can be relied upon by all regardless of the one’s perceived sins committed against society and its powers.

For, as has been said in other contexts, we wrestle not against the flesh but principalities.  Indeed, we become free by our very adherence to the strictures of the Constitution.  Paradoxically, we can find complete solace in a result we neither wanted nor one that could not have been foretold.

The fear of humiliation shouldn’t be confused with the humility which may be exactly what is required in a given situation. The unintended indignity of being told to sit at the back of a bus becomes the clarion call for the desire to stand up for the sacred privilege of defining the essence of human dignity for future generations.  Perhaps being called to the stench and squalor of a foreign place might lead to the conclusion that we justly be called blessed.  Don’t be afraid to accept punishment for your good deeds.

Be not afraid.  For the Good Judge shall bring down his judgment on all of us in the end.


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A Personal Testimony

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Philosophy begins with the experience of human existence. Seemingly, the best impetus for philosophy comes from the horror of human existence and the victories that come from defeating the horror. The ‘good life’ comes from learning how to avoid the horrors and just accepting that life is for living.

I was born on May 15, 1969. From what I can tell, life didn’t start off all that well for me. According to my parents’ divorce papers, I was left to lie in my own human waste often enough to cause any social worker at least some real concern. Of course, my mother cannot be much to blame in this matter since she suffered from retinitis pigmentosa, and has suffered from a host of mental problems all of her life.

Her own mother apparently committed suicide on a Christmas Eve, and her father died in an alcoholic stupor some years later. In fact, I suspect that it was an uprising of my mother’s mental disabilities that crushed the marriage of my parents. For better or worse, I was only a few months old when all of this occurred. As an aside, my father was a disabled World War II veteran and suffered from various emotional and physical disabilities as well. At his core, though, he was a very decent human being.

From speaking with my mother, I know I was born into the Catholic Faith and was baptized as such. Much of my childhood memory up to the age of six or seven is clouded at best and probably not relevant to any conversion that I may now tell you of.

What I know for sure is that I did attend Catholic school for first grade and went through the sacramental process offered through one’s First Communion. Although I do remember having severe pneumonia at the time, I was aware of the importance of my First Communion and the idea that Christ could be offered to man and child — so long as they stood willing to confess of their sins and at least make a good faith attempt to come before God in as pure a state as humanity could ever offer. Religion, for many, is a passive experience brought about by adherence to culture and tradition. Rarely is thought given to the idea that Man is capable of a direct and intimate connection with his Maker.

This said, about the same year as my First Communion, I distinctly recall having had a profound conversion experience. Specifically, I remember dreaming, in the grossest of detail, that I had been condemned to hell. The intense flames arose all around me and I could feel the heat as strongly and clearly as I can hear my own voice. The self awareness of my dire and decrepit human state was overwhelming. I woke up in a profuse sweat and immediately was compelled to bring myself to my knees and pray harder than I had ever prayed even to date.

As I prepare this testimony, I still wish that I could find the desire to pray with as much intensity as the child that I once was. Sincere prayer is hard to come by even though answers and blessings from God abound in our existence. As the great revivalist, Charles Finney, suggested, many people don’t remember what they prayedfor five minutes later. This may be, in part, why there is such a lack of gratitude amongst humanity’s members. If we actually remembered our prayers, we would be all too aware of the answers that come pouring out of the Divine Grace and Providence of our Maker.

In any event, I remained faithful to my commitment to the Church and was happy to be an altar boy and regularly served at the early morning mass on weekdays before school. Oddly enough, I was even ready and willing to serve at Mass during vacations and other off-times. As I recall, during my years in elementary school, I had formulated the belief that I would become a priest when I grew up. I sincerely had hoped that I would be groomed for St. Michael’s Seminary in Trabuco Canyon, California. However, this never came to fruition because of the many problems that would surface later.

As a pre-adolescent child and aside from a few incidents of extreme violence against me by my mother, I remained fairly free of her mental problems and related iniquities. We survived on welfare income of about $700-800 a month as I recall. My mother, much to her credit, was able to somehow purchase a 900-square-foot or so three-bedroom house in Santa Ana and managed to provide for my brother and me until I was about 13 years old. She had no family here in California. I was lucky enough to have my father. My brother was not so fortunate as to have a father figure in his life.

In any event, I am often taken aback by many of my past students’ and clients’ complaints about how they can’t do certain things. Call it a chip on my shoulder, but it does seem odd that a delusional and blind woman could manage to purchase a house by herself, raise two children and somehow manage a household. All the while, we see so many able-bodied humans complaining about what they supposedly can’t do. ‘Can’ and ‘cannot’ are matters of attitude toward life. If Man has free will, it exists only at this level of being able to change our attitude toward what we cannot change. As indicated in the Prologue, it seems to me that our purpose in life is to fulfill a God-given destiny and the only thing that matters is our attitude toward meeting the charge of Divine Predestination.

In any event, my brother is three years younger than me. Once I turned about 12 or 13, things became extremely bad. As for myself, I had begun a pattern of drinking during the summer between eighth and ninth grades. I even managed to overdose from alcohol before I reached the ninth grade. Other than a two-week restriction, the overdose incident didn’t get a whole lot of mention and I doubt that my parents ever talked to each other about the event.

My parents maintained a hostile relationship for so long as I can remember. It’s odd that they should have spent so much time berating each other when I was busy boozing it up and enjoying my entry into the world of drugs. I supposed that what happened a decade before between them was much more important than the reality that their 12-year-old son was becoming a drug addict and alcoholic.

The whole drug thing began shortly after becoming a high school freshman. One of the guys in the neighborhood introduced me to “Al,” who worked at the local Jack-in-the-Box. Al introduced me to pot for my first time and I can’t remember it being all that great in and of itself. I think that the violation of my parents’ ostensible trust and my moral upbringing was much more of a high than the drug itself. That said, I ended up dropping out of high school by the time I reached the halfway point in my first year. My attendance, even up to that point, was sporadic at best. I did join in the Academic Decathlon Team, water polo team and swim team, though. That was about the only appearance of normalcy at that time.

By the time spring semester of my freshman year rolled around, I was already tattooed. I paid my girlfriend’s brother a joint for a tattoo of a skull over a cross. By this time, I had already had sex with his 12 or 13-year-old sister and I had managed to get myself well into a strong pattern of drug and alcohol abuse. I would later have a tattoo artist add flames to the skull and cross to further demonstrate my hatred for all that represented my Christian upbringing.

I can only imagine that my youthful hatred for Christianity arose from the fact that many of my mother’s acute episodes with mental illness revolved around religious themes. She would regularly engage in violence, swear, and commit crimes in the name of God and justify her own abuse of my brother and me by claiming that God told her to ‘beat’ us as an act of love. As her mental illness took on even darker tones, she would literally attempt to cast out evil spirits from various household items including the washing machine and my father’s car. Her claimed stigmata was no less disturbing.

As a child, one can well imagine that the surfacing of a mother’s severe mental problems is not an easy burden to carry. My brother was too young to understand what was going on and probably too innocent to understand the harm that was being caused to the family. It therefore became my responsibility to call 911 and to have my mother committed to a mental facility on occasion.

I can assure you that it is no easy task to call the police and emergency services knowing that they will come out with a gurney and forcefully strap your mother down before your own eyes. You cannot even imagine the fear that was struck in myself and in my brother’s eyes as this all went down time and again.
While the police and others left my brother and me to the care of neighbors or others on occasion, we both eventually ended up being placed in what was known as the Orangewood home for abused children. Can’t say I lasted long. I chose to escape and ended up at a friend’s house. My brother, abandoned by me and the system, ended up in a foster home and eventually was returned to my mother somehow.

It is probably noteworthy to this story that I was arrested some three or four times between the ages of 14 and 16. The charges ranged from possession of narcotics, grand theft, burglary, trespass and other various violations of law. I ended up serving only about two or three months in juvenile hall. In terms of the burglary, I should probably mention that it was my own father that I robbed. Indeed, I encouraged my friends to rob him as well. Needless to say, moral aptitude was not an adolescent specialty of mine.

In terms of my drug use, I regularly used cocaine, marijuana, LSD, and crystal methedrine. I also partook of PCP, mescaline, belladonna, and other drugs as they would be offered through the course of my youth. I even shot up once. I didn’t particularly like the experience of shooting up only because the high came much too quickly. Otherwise, I suppose I could have easily ended up strung out on heroin.

During this time, I enjoyed going to punk shows, hanging out with friends and their drugged out parents, I sported a bleached white mohawk haircut, lived with bikers, got into many fights and just generally looked for trouble wherever we might find each other. I even managed to get shot at during this time and had narrowly escaped a severe jail sentence after being involved in a rather large drug bust in Santa Ana.

On other battle fronts, a friend’s mom died of a heroin overdose and a good friend of mine died of the same cause at age 16 or 17. Fortunately, all of the survivors are doing okay now and are Brothers and Sisters in Faith.

In terms of spiritual events, I attempted to attend church two or three times during this intense period of strife. Once, I thought I was saved at a church in Costa Mesa. Didn’t last long. At another time, I attempted to attend a Catholic service in Garden Grove, but some person passed out in the entryway and the church members were concerned about getting her out of the way so services could begin on time. I suppose praying for one’s soul and health is secondary to punctuality in certain minds of the time. For me, this was but one more turn-off to the whole of Christianity. In fact, this little event managed to keep me away from any church until I was in my mid-twenties.

Once I turned almost 16, I was placed at the Wallace Community Day School in Santa Ana. This was a school designed for children like myself who simply couldn’t handle the normalcy of a regular high school. Here we were allowed to work at our own pace. I excelled in this setting and decided that I would take the California High School Proficiency Exam. I took the test at about age 16 and began attending Santa Ana College later. I received decent grades in most of my classes. Even so, I continued in my self-created courses in drug addiction and alcoholism.

I did well as a philosophy major and had plenty of opportunity to think about theology, ethics and philosophy in general. I was particularly caught up in the debate about determinism. If God knew everything, then it had to be that I had, so to speak, a sticker on my back that says “heaven” or “hell” and I just can’t see it — but, God can see the label and wills it so.

More important to my concerns, if all is predetermined, I can’t be responsible for all of the horrible things I’ve done in life since it was, in theory, already known that I would do them. Under this analysis, accountability and mercy make absolutely no sense. Nevertheless, its 15 years later and I still haven’t got all the answers to the ‘question of determinism.’ Glimpses of what appears to be truth are but a nanosecond flash in the darkest caverns of my intellect.

Before completing my studies at the college, I finally stopped smoking pot. It made me feel stupid and out of control so I gave it up ‘cold-turkey’ one day. I may have revisited pot once or twice thereafter. However, I still enjoyed speed and cocaine for a short while thereafter. I quit these substances cold-turkey one day as well. I can see no self-caused reason for my sudden inclinations to quit drugs. Divine Mercy and Intervention are the only possible explanations for my decision to turn away from drugs.

I now know that my futile attempts at human mercy and compassion pale before God’s ultimate understanding and mercy in my own life. Such are the beginnings of a philosophy on life. I am happily married with four children and just trying to take life one day and one person at a time. Life is for living.