Penitential Opportunity

A Liturgy of Grief and Resolve over the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam

Prelude – “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” (Henryk Gorecki, Symphony No. 3, first movement, part two; Zofia Kilanowicz, soprano, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, directed by Antoni Wit)

{10 minutes. Begin playing 5 minutes before the service’s starting time.}    

*Opening Song – “Come, Ye Disconsolate”

Cantor: Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
              Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
              Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;

All: Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Cantor: Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
             Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
             Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,

All: “Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”
{Lyrics: Thomas Moore; music: “Consoator,” Samuel Webbe, Sr., arranged by Thomas Hastings} 

The Occasion
[introduction to the service, read aloud by one person]

        On March 16th, 1968, US Army Lt. William Calley, platoon leader in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Brigade, 23rd Division, led his men into the hamlet of My Lai in the Quang Ngai Province of the coastal lowlands of Vietnam. Expecting a military encounter, they found only women, children, and old men.

        Frustrated by earlier casualties in their ranks due to snipers and land mines, the soldiers took out their anger on the villagers, indiscriminately shooting people as they ran from their huts, rounding up the survivors and leading them to a nearby ditch where they were executed. Some women and girls were raped before they were killed. The killing went on for several hours. Thus was carried out a systematic massacre of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians. No U.S. soldiers were threatened, fired upon, injured, or killed.

        In the end, only Lt. Calley was found guilty of any crime. Convicted of premeditated murder, he was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. That sentence was eventually reduced to 10 years, though President Richard Nixon pardoned Calley after he served only three-and-a-half years under house arrest.

        Although this episode is unparalleled in scope, it was not unique. A whistle-blower in the division wrote to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland, pleading for an investigation of murders of Vietnamese civilians. He reported that there was the equivalent of “a My Lai each month.”

        The purpose of this service is not to renew judgment on any of the soldiers at My Lai, or their commanding officers, or even the US presidents (from both parties) who engaged in a decades-long pattern of withholding truth or outright lying. Our purpose in this service is to acknowledge and face these crimes done in our name, to grieve and make penitential commitments, and to ask how this pattern of behavior continues to afflict our longing for what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the Beloved Community.

Call to Worship

One: We gather to remember a story of war that haunts us to this day, to remember a wrong that must be made right.
All: We gather to reckon with the sorrow that still pains the souls of many—to reckon with the brokenness that remains within the living who cannot forget the dead.
One: We gather to reflect upon the prospects for meaningful justice and the compelling call for healing and reconciliation.
All: We gather to resolve not to leave this place unchanged or unwilling to transform this haunting memory into something good. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Yitzak Kook, “We don’t speak because we have the power to speak; we speak because we don’t have the power to remain silent.”
{Paul C. Hayes}

Observing Silence
“To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Opening Prayer
        Holy Light, we stand somewhere in the shadows, in between the battlefield of our struggles and the sanctuary of our souls. Shed a little light on our way. Keep your lighted sanctuary within us portable, able to see clearly, to walk courageously, to withstand the forces that corrupt the truth of our belonging to your one worldwide family.
        Keep our madmen world leaders away from buttons of annihilation. Keep them clearly out of range from pushing our buttons toward hopelessness and helplessness. Don’t give them security clearness to our spirits. Keep us ever secure in You. Shed a little light on our way.
        Shed your light of healing on all who struggle with illness of body, mind and spirit. Shed your light of grace on all who stumble with regrets and shame too tender to touch. Shed your light of mercy on all who fear for their lives, who are caught in the crucible of suffering. Here, now, once again…shed a little light on us all. Amen.
{Nancy Hastings Sehested}

*Singing – “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
Cantor: Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
              Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
              Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing

All: Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

Cantor: Shame’s power remanding, war’s brutal rending,
             Who can unbind us from memory’s remorse?
             Come now, O Gentle One, with fierce love contending

All: For earth’s days of splendor, in mercy endorse.
{Lyrics: Thomas Moore v. 1; Ken Sehested  v. 2}

Observing Silence
“There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.”
—Roman Catholic Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa, martyred in 2001 in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Words of Praise and Adoration
One: Jump for joy, oh people! For amid the screaming commercials and blithering campaign ads, the Redeemer has heard our aching voice.
All: God hears! God knows! Therefore we will praise that Unspeakable Name forever.
One: When misery and madness encompassed me, when anguish threatened to undo me, when heartache split my soul, I uttered my cry to any who would hear.
All: God hears! God knows! Therefore we will praise that Unspeakable Name forever.

*Singing – “Abide With Me”
      Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
      The darkness deepens; God, with me abide.
      When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
      Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

      I need Thy presence every passing hour.
      What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
      Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
      Through cloud and sunshine, God, abide with me.
      {Lyrics: Henry Francis Lyte; “Eventide” tune by William Henry Monk}

Observing Silence
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made nd forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
—Book of Common Prayer, prayer for Ash Wednesday

Confession and Absolution
One: The One who extends Presence into the most desolate region—even to the place of utter abandonment—is mighty in mercy, strong in tenderness, powerful in pardoning.
All: God hears! God knows! Therefore we will praise that Unspeakable Name forever.
One: Relax, oh my soul, in the arms of the One who dries tears, who swaddles our fretful limbs, whose light in the night scatters dragons, and whose promise is bounty and abundance.
All: God hears! God knows! This is our assurance against the ravages of fear. Therefore we will praise that Unspeakable Name forever.

*Singing – “Abide With Me”
      Open thy hand to every living thing
      Hill, meadow, forest, raise your voice and sing!
      And in due season grant thy Jubilee
      ’Til then stir confidence, abide with me. 

      As empires rage, unbounded truth disdained
      My soul grows weary, hope’s approach restrained
      When fears encroach and eyes no longer see
      Blessed and Gracious One, abide with me.
      {Lyrics by Ken Sehested}

Observing Silence
“If all we feel is shame after reviewing of the carnage of racism, materialism and militarism, we miss the point—
and, in fact, yet again we’ve made the conversation about ourselves. The awareness is indeed painful, but the pain’s purpose is not punishment but a penitence that generates the resolve to engage the difficult work of reconciliation.”
—Ken Sehested

Words of Assurance

One: Be assured that the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb us and heal us, blesses us with the power of the Spirit to redeem and to restore with justice and in love.
{Adapted from Janet Morley’s All Desires Known}

Professing Our Faith
One: For what do we hope?
i We hope for the Beloved’s promise to overtake the world’s broken-hearted threat.
One: For what do we long?
All: We long for the moist goodness of God to outlast the parched climate of despair.
One: For what do we lack?
All: We lack for nothing—save the need for hearts enlarged by the assurance that every hostage will be freed.
One: For what do we strive?
All: We strive for lives marked by goodness, purified of deceit and malice, and hands made gentle by the tender caress of Wisdom’s approach.
One: For what do we struggle?
All: We struggle for the fate of every child whose sighs and cries are muffled by the market’s disdain.
One: In what do we rejoice?
All: We rejoice in rebellious acts of abundance in the face of every stingy arrangement.
One: For what prize do our eyes arise?
All: Our eyes arise for the Beloved Community’s embrace of earth’s abode and Heaven’s favor.
One: Peace be with you!
All: And also with you!

*Singing – “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
Cantor: Hark, to the mending work, penitence demands it,
              Kneel in confessional, sprint to repair
              All sorely wounded, each debt acquitted

All: Heaven’s sure deliv’rance and earth’s pain forbear.

Cantor: Though death e’re be prowling, sorrow confounding
              Enter the halls of praise—weep, shout and sing.
              Here lay your fears aside, here hope’s amending

All: Rejoice! all you creatures, O Death, where art thy sting?
{Lyrics by Ken Sehested}

Observing Silence
“Repentance for silence is better than repentance for speaking.”
—Moorish proverb

[Options for special music]

• Have a choral group learn and perform “For All the Sufferings of the World,” by Rodolfo Gaede Neto. {Here is the sheet music.}
•Play a recording of “Study War,” by Moby.
•Play a recording of “Why do we build the wall,” written by Anaïs Mitchell, sung by Greg Brown.
• Congregation singing “This Is My Song, O God of All the Nations”
[More musical options are in the “Additional Worship Resources” section of this resource.]

One: Among the memory prods in every tragedy’s aftermath is this reminder of the Spirit’s directives—
All: About whose presence we must foster,
One: About which whereabouts we must locate,
All: Whether the season calls for laughter or lament,
One: Whether patience or militance is called for, caressing hand or shaking fist.
All: Only after this interrogation can our speaking and silence, our moving and stillness, put us in the position to see and know what is to be done,
One: With whom it is to be done, in what place and time it is to be done,
All: And by what authority we proceed.
One: In and through our penitence, grant the bounty of grace and the risk of resolve.
All: Resolve to break the silence; to remember afresh; to hope that is stronger than fear; to persevere beyond fatigue.
One: You shall know the truth, beloveds, and the truth will make you odd!
All: So may it be, from henceforth and evermore.

[Congregation recesses, starting with the front row, then row after row until all are exited. Cantor leads in continued singing of this refrain throughout, exiting with the final row.]

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,
turn me around, turn me around,
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,
Keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Headed up to freedom land.
{African-American Civil Rights song}

*Please rise in body or spirit.

©ken sehested @ This liturgy was created by Ken Sehested, a founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy in Asheville, North Carolina, and the creator of prayer&politiks. Unless otherwise noted, the writing is his.