A Litany of Reflection and Resolve

In Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre

by Paul C. Hayes

Moral shame and injustice bear long legacies. Fifty years after the horrific massacre of Vietnamese villagers by U.S. soldiers this egregious crime of war has not faded from the memories of the living or the dead. The blood of the innocent still cries out from their graves, and the surviving generations of victims and offenders alike carry the burden of this loss. In the words of Kim Phuc, whose anguished escape as a child from a napalm attack was captured in a photograph and seen around the world, “I will always remember that day when we ran from life to death.”

Thus says YHWH: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and bitter weeping.  Rachel, weeping for her children, refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

To name the pain is the beginning of accountability, and to sense remorse for the harm done is the genesis of forgiveness. Remembering the sorrow awakens the heart to re-engage in the search for justice.

You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to Allah, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives…Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly—if you distort or neglect justice, Allah is fully aware of what you do. (Qur’an 4:135)

The distance of time and circumstance mitigate the call for retribution.  But the hope of justice can yet be fulfilled restoratively through forgiveness and peacebuilding. “Forgiving is not forgetting,” as Desmond Tutu has said. “It’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important, especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”

God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts…to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve…to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

As Howard Zehr has written, “Justice will not be served if we maintain our exclusive focus on the questions that drive our current justice systems: What laws have been broken?  Who did it?  What do they deserve? True justice requires, instead, that we ask questions such as these: Who has been hurt? What do they need? Whose obligations and responsibilities are these? Who has a stake in this situation? What is the process that can involve the stakeholders in finding a solution?”

Don’t refuse a kindness to those who deserve it when it is in your power to do it.  Don’t say to your neighbor, “Go away, I will give to you tomorrow,” if you can give today. (Proverbs 3:27-28)

 “Retributive theory believes that pain will vindicate,” as Zehr explains, “but in practice that is often counterproductive for both victim and offender.  Restorative justice theory, on the other hand, argues that what truly vindicates is acknowledgement of victims’ harms and needs, combined with an active effort to encourage offenders to take responsibility, make right the wrongs, and address the causes of their behavior.  By addressing this need for vindication in a positive way, restorative justice has the potential to affirm both victim and offender and to help them transform their own lives.”  (Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice)

It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse. (The Buddha)

The time has come to examine ways to heal the wounds of this terrible act of evil. It is time to hear the accounts of the living and the stories of the dead. It is time to speak truth to the generations who rise up from these shallow graves to address the harm that has been done and prevent it from being forgotten. It is time to embrace the call for justice to allow the hope for reconciliation to be realized.

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.
Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.
Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.
Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice:
The kindom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3-10)

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Rev. Dr. Paul Hayes is pastor, Noank Baptist Church, Noank, Connecticut