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Hong Kong, Britain’s 19th century war to save its drug cartel in China, and escalating US-China relations

To understand the present, you have to know some history

by Ken Sehested

US-China relations have deteriorated dramatically in recent months. Once an outspoken admirer of Chinese President Xi, President Trump is now laying much of the blame for the COVID-19 pandemic at China’s door, further exacerbating the preexisting conflict over balance of trade.

Some of China’s blame, for delaying news of the pandemic’s spread, is merited. Then again, CNN has identified 37 instances where Trump praised China’s handling of the coronavirus between 22 January and 1 April. Then, as the pandemic began to spread widely in the US—and the US government’s inaction became apparent—the president began looking to deflect responsibility.

Until this past week, when China pushed through Hong Kong’s legislature an act severely penalizing criticism of Beijing, Trump has remained neutral on the ongoing civil unrest there. Now both he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are making very public threats against China.

It’s important to understand Hong Kong’s history to make sense of current events there.

Britain went to war with China in 1841 when China attempted to suppress the British East India Company’s opium production in Bengal (what is now Bangladesh). It was a British-protected drug cartel, which sold opium to Chinese smugglers for illicit distribution in China.

As one writer put it, Britain’s Queen Victoria “became the first drug dealing monarch in history.”

Also, Britain was enduring a significant trade imbalance with China. (Know anybody in the US government upset about a trade imbalance with China?)

Hong Kong then became a British colony  (under very undemocratic rule) until 1977 (except for Japanese occupation during World War II). Under Britain’s security umbrella, the province became a center of international trade. Though Britain did provide safe haven for Chinese political dissidents—insomuch as the dissidence was directed at Beijing.

By the middle of the 20th century, these two factors—a significant population of objectors to China’s ruling Communist Party, along with Hong Kong’s booming economy—created a distinctly Hongkonger cultural and political identity.

Right: Political cartoon by Chappatte, New York Times

After decades of diplomatic wrangling, Britain agreed in 1997 to return sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, with the provision of what is called the “One Country, Two Systems”  treaty provision, permitting Hong Kong’s powerful international banking and free market institutions to continue, but under a governing body sympathetic to Beijing’s interests.

The moral of this story?

1. Drug cartels didn’t originate in Latin America.

2. When you hear the “America first” demand to bring back American companies’ jobs from abroad (including from China), remember: China (and other countries) didn’t steal these jobs. US corporate managers sent them abroad in order to be more profitable. A bunch of consumer goods we consume will cost more if those jobs come back.

3. China is undoubtedly attempting to challenge US geopolitical and economic influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Yet China’s escalating military budget is still less than a quarter of the Pentagon’s budget, even though its population is 4.5 times ours.

Picture this: The US has some 800 military bases outside the US, and 400 of those are in the Pacific region. China has one foreign military base, and it’s in Africa. Who is provoking whom?

4. As you observe the current escalating hostilities between the US and China, take the brief historical sketch above into account.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

The death of George Floyd was a match that lit a bonfire

Four testifiers

by Ken Sehested

I encourage you to open a second tab and listen to the song “Stand Up
by DGLS, a young African American quartet, as you read this post.

As has been said, no one can create a movement. But you can be prepared for it. And the evidence suggests we are now witnessing—and, hopefully, participating in—one here in the US (with echoes sounding around the world).

§  §  §

The author Ta-Nehisi Coates is no sentimental optimist regarding the state of racial injustice. He writes as candidly about the state of our sin sick soul as anyone I know.

So when he says this—“I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now.” —“Why Ta-Nehisi Coates Is Hopeful,” conversation with Ezra Klein, Reader Supported News

§  §  §

Rebecca Stolnit is on my short list of essential interpreters for the living of these days. Below is a paragraph from her newest essay, “The Slow Road to Sudden Change” (Literary Hub).  I highly commend it to you (along with everything else she’s written).

“The death of George Floyd was a match that lit a bonfire, and how the fuel for the bonfire piled up is worth studying. That is, for a national and international uprising against anti-Black racism and police violence to achieve such scale and power, many must have been ready for it, whether they knew it or not. Not in the sense of planning it or expecting these events, but by having changed their minds and committed their hearts beforehand.”

§  §  §

Finally, Vincent Harding is in my opinion the best interpreter of the Civil Rights Movement. He also wrote the first draft of Martin Luther King’s most controversial speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.” Years ago I was in a retreat Harding led, and he began his first session playing a recording of the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway rendition of that old hymn, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” Then he asked those of us in the room, “What do you do with your disconsolation.”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. The group’s interactive lamenting went on for two days. It wasn’t depressing; it was empowering. It was as if we were able to put a bridle on our sorrow and anger and frustration to guide and hasten our journeys. Such is the goal of lament’s proper work.

Here is a short excerpt from Harding’s There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America:

“Somewhere near the heart of this work is a search for meaning, an attempt to apprehend and share with others my own tentative grasp of the harrowing and terrifying beauty of my people’s pilgrimage in this strangely promised land. Why did it happen?

“…this collective venture toward wholeness. A sense of meaning – which we surely create out of our particular responses to the ‘facts’ of experience – is crucial if we are to join ourselves to the past and the future, to commune with the ancestors as well as the coming children.

“Without it we lose touch with ourselves, our fellow humans, and other creatures, with the earth our mother, and with the cosmos itself. Without the search for meaning, the quest for vision, there can be no authentic movements toward liberation, no true identity or radical integration for an individual or a people.

“Above all, where there is no vision we lose the sense of our great power to transcend history and create a new future for ourselves with others, and we perish utterly in hopelessness, mutual terror, and despair. Therefore the quest is not a luxury; life itself demands it of us.”

§  §  §

Finally: “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” —listen to this short (2:07) video of Valarie Kaur, civil rights activist rooted in the Sikh religious tradition, filmmaker, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project.

§  §  §

The times are hard and harrowing; but there is also an unforeseen fallowness in our social landscape—an apparently fertile moment—that holds out hope for meaningful change.

So we continue scheming (see the art at top) together, anticipating the day when hope and history align. And we “Stand Up,”  no matter how small and circumspect your circumstances allow, or how large and bodacious the path you take.

Participate in this work of personal and social repentance and transformation whenever you can, however you can, in what particular way you can, given whatever light the Spirit shines on your way.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Tom Walsh remembrance

by Ken Sehested
Composed on 23 September 2020

My friend Tom Walsh died last night. He was among the kindest, most gentle, intelligent person I have ever known. When I read the Beatitudes and get to “Blessed are the pure of heart,” Tom’s face appears in my mind’s eye.

He was also passionate about the Gospel, and was clear about the fact that the goodness of its news was for the dispossessed and all who took steps to be present to their voices.

He was a lawyer by trade; and he collected lawyer jokes as a hobby, knowing too well the sketchy reputation of lawyers in our litigious society.

I remember one Sunday, decades ago, when we were members of the same congregation in Memphis, the pastor asked several members of the congregation to offer a faith story during worship, talking about how their faith influenced their workaday decisions. Tom was among those.

“Billable hours” was the theme of his story, which at the time was a new phrase to my ears.

He talked about how his law firm—most every law firm—honored those lawyers who, at the end of each year, reported the most billable hours. Which is to say, how much money they raked in for the firm.

Tom admitted that he was always at the bottom of that list. Not because he was lazy or didn’t have a sufficient work ethic. It was because he took on so many pro bono cases.

I did know that phrase, pro bono. It’s when you work for free, for clients who have little or no ability to pay for legal counsel.

Tom wasn’t only lawyerish. He was also the unofficial photographer of Memphis’ minor league baseball team. He and his beloved Jean, who previously died of cancer, were season ticket holders for many years. Tom provided free pictorial mementos and publicity photos for scratch ball players, chasing their dream to make it to The Show, the big league, not yet able to afford agents to promote their careers.

Tom did the right thing without any consideration of being recognized. He did the right thing because it was the right thing.

Our remembered saints provide historical markers for the Spirit’s breakthrough moments for people of faith. But in between, the world is sustained by people like Tom who, without motive or forethought, are virtuous without prompt, like "the yonder myrtle breathes its fragrance into space” (Kahlil Gibran).

His name will forever be extolled by his daughters and their families and a host of others blessed to have crossed his path.

Friend, may the river be good to you in the crossing.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Malcolm, Martin, and the American racial impasse

Dream or nightmare?

by Ken Sehested

I’ve consciously adapted the title of one of my intellectual and spiritual mentors, Dr. James Cone (of blessed memory) for this reflection, in light of the 21 February anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965; and in reaction to the recent announcement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that it will reopen the case against those convicted of that murder.

Already in 2020 the New York City district attorney announced that it had launched an investigation into the murder, for which three members of the Nation of Islam had been convicted. Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) had broken with the organization’s policy of Black separatism, though not from his convictions regarding systemic racism.

In recent days a former New York policeman’s deathbed written confession—claiming that the police and the FBI collaborated in arranging Shabazz’s murder—is raising the investigative stakes. (For more on this see Julia Jacobo, ABC News.)

Right: Painting by Derek Russell.

Why is this noteworthy? Well, for starters, the truth is always worth the trouble. More importantly, though, we need to assess the culpability of law enforcement. It has already been established beyond all reasonable doubt that the FBI (and the US Army intelligence service) engaged in illegal monitoring of Dr. King and  other civil rights leaders. William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division, wrote in a report after the 1963 March on Washington that King was “ ‘the most dangerous Negro in the country.”

If King—consistently and emphatically committed to nonviolence—was considered a threat, one can only imagine their assessment of Malcolm X.

Writing in his 1991 book, “Malcolm, Martin, and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?” Cone said:

“Martin and Malcolm are important because they symbolize two necessary ingredients in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. We should never pit them against each other. Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together [italics in original]. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black man.”

It’s important to recognize that both men experienced a widening and deepening of their respective visions during their lifetime—amazing short lifetimes, since both were killed at age 39. Following his 1964 hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia—fulfilling the ritual mandate for all Muslims, where he experienced a transforming global, multiracial immersion—Malcolm controversially broke with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and its message of Black separatism.

After the civil rights movement’s initial goals of integrated buses, water fountains, and lunch counters, King began to see the complex web of racial, social, and economic factors that must be confronted before meaningful change could occur.

He spoke of the triple threats of racism, materialism, and militarism; and he provoked much contention, a year before his assassination, when he very publicly and forthrightly condemned the war in Vietnam, linking domestic oppression with international aggression. And paid a huge price. The last public opinion poll assessing his popularly found that only a third of the country supported his activism. The “dream” which four years earlier captivated the imagination of many lost its luster; and King’s memory, domesticated.

§  §  §

This past week I pulled up a reflection (“On Reading Malcolm X’s Autobiography: Marking the 50th anniversary of its publication”) written six years ago to commemorate the golden anniversary of that book. I was grateful that that essay has held up reasonably well, given recent history, particularly with the mobilizing work of Black Lives Matter and the renewed controversy over US history in light of repeated incidents of the killings of unarmed Black folk.

Our nation is grappling with the question of whether race is incidental to our history. Or is it baked in? Just how deep is this archeological dig into racism’s roots, this de-romanticizing of US history? And what are we going to do with the mounting pile of embarrassing artifacts?

Going forward, there are many things to be learned, particularly by those of us in the “white” community. (As has been said, “nobody was white until we got to America.”) Two things are certain for those willing to make the long journey toward the Beloved Community.

First, we must center the voices of those who have felt the lash, endured the chains, all who have been pushed to the margins. The consistent testimony of Scripture is that God’s attention and ire are aroused by the blood of Abel, “crying to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10); by the enslaved Hebrews toiling Pharaoh’s brick yards (Exodus 2:23); when the landless poor are not given rights to the harvest (Leviticus 23:22); when the moans of the destitute reach the ears of Heaven (Psalm 146:7).

Furthermore, the Most High announces that provision for the poor is a form of holiness (Proverbs 14:31) and “knowledge of God” is confirmed in heeding the pleas of the destitute (Jeremiah 22:16); when the very presence of Jesus is acknowledged in the presence of the imperiled (Matthew 25: 31-46); when Jesus’ own Christology (in response to John the Baptist’s disciples asked him “are you the one?”) ignored metaphysical abstraction and instead offered this messianic confirmation: “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:2-6).

Indeed, the cries of Creation itself, groaning as a women in labor (Romans 8:8:19), is commended as the proper posture for people of faith, signifying the Spirit’s rebellion against the rule of enmity in the world now known.

Second, coming to terms with racism will be unpleasant and will not happen quickly. Having scales pulled off our eyes will sting and disorient. But the pain is not for humiliation but the proffer of healing and right-relatedness. It is in our own interests to make this journey, ever drawn by the beatific vision of Creation’s promise, purpose, and provision.

§  §  §

Lent’s traditional emphases are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Its siren call is to turn—to turn back from wanton, gluttonous, and calloused ways to the journey toward shared dignity, to justice and righteousness, to relinquishing privilege, looted assets, and addictive habits.

This turning necessarily involves a kind of purging; and the Spirit’s voice resounds as shrill and demanding—not unlike the voice of Malcolm X, among the most prophetic voices in our nation’s history. His breath of fire is not for our incineration but for our refinement. We submit to it not because we long for punishment but because we have been captivated by a dream as big as God.

Speaking personally, there was a period of years, moons ago, when I experienced a crippling sense of personal shame and social despair when realizing my own complicity in systemic racism. The shame wasn’t because I had enslaved anyone; or had committed blatant acts of discrimination.

It was because I realized how clueless I was. And if I was this clueless in this regard, chances were I was equally clueless about a whole range of other forms of unconscious bias.

Simultaneously I feared that the same applied to larger society, that we as a people were also structurally complicit, trapped in a naiveté that prevented us seeing the truth about our wounded history that continues to color current behavior.

I recalled the word of Msimangu in Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” set in apartheid-era South Africa. “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day,” Msimangu said, “when they [white people] are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” And I wondered, heartbroken and despondently, with the Apostle Paul’s feverish, fated plea, “Who can deliver me from this body of death?”—only without the subsequent affirmation.

There came a time, though, when quotes from three of my heroes bore me up from the sloughs of shame and despair. Not to make me innocent, but to allow me to be responsible, able-to-respond, freed from humiliation’s disabling power to move forward with courage and perseverance for the work of repair. (This process did not occur all at once, mind you, but over a period of years—it took time to soak in, and still threatens from time to time.)

These are those quotes.

The first is from James Baldwin, writing in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously.  You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

Second, two statements from Maya Angelou.

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it,” and “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Finally, one from Malcolm X himself.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

§  §  §

Each of these are grace notes, hopeful disclosures, stemming from the pivotal word embraced by people of faith: Repentance is not for punishment but for the power of beginning again. Not with a clean slate—we will ever bear our scars. But the goodness of the Good News is that we can begin again, we can orient ourselves and our society toward the holiness which radiates neighborliness, restoring right relations and just kinship and social policies, knitting together the warp of Heaven with the woof of Earth.

Only by such grace-impelled, hope-provoked work—and it is laborious, sometimes sweaty, difficult, persevering, frustrating work—can we be saved.

Thanks be to God.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

On reading Malcolm X’s “Autobiography”

Marking the 50th anniversary of its publication

by Ken Sehested

        Malcolm X’s Autobiography was the first book that scared me. Here I was, in the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, secretly abandoning my pietist-revivalist rearing in favor of the more verdant fields of liberalism (which helped for a time), and here’s this guy, who I now am ready to befriend, sharply critical of liberal integrationists!

        Turns out he was right, unnervingly prescient, not exactly predicting the cases of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray—ad nauseum and likely to be continued—but sensing that “civil rights” could be doled out in limited doses without affecting the underlying patterns of structural disparity. Something deeper is at work sustaining the patterns of discrimination, something more than simple bigotry and prejudice.

        However sincere the righteous intent, integration has mostly been a one-way street. Despite curtailed bounds, the African American community had—before the advent of the “war on poverty” urban renewal initiatives—vibrant commercial districts, schools, neighborhoods and other cultural institutions. While the grip on access to bus seats and lunch counters and drinking fountains and even voter registration rights were loosening, the noose of widespread economic disparity was tightening.

        So what are we to do? How are we to live? What are the new habits needing to be formed? Here are seven modest suggestions.

        The first is to get over the assumption that we can do one big march, back one ambitious legislative agenda, read all the right books, and be done with it. We have generations of amnesia and warped legislative, economic, and social patterns to overcome. We are, as James Baldwin put it, “trapped in a history which [we] do not understand” and cannot be released until we do. New social and economic policies are needed but cannot be achieved without a new social consensus.

        The second habit is to admit that we are “trapped in a history” we do not understand, as James Baldwin wrote to his nephew; that it has to do with our nation’s mythology of manifest destiny (and its warped ideology of “freedom”), both domestically and internationally; and that we must bare our faces to the blistered history that mythology has left in its wake. It’s not a pretty sight: The truth will indeed set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

        Third, understanding this venal history will require a look at our awash-in-cash, pay-to-play political process, our imperial military policies, our cannibalizing form of capitalism, a judicial system transforming corporations into persons—and a church for which “freedom” means “don’t expect commitment.”

        The fourth habit is to get over the need for personal purity, admitting that we are all enmeshed in structurally tangled relations—racial, economic, national, gender, sexual orientation, relative dis/ability, etc. (we have trouble even naming them all)—that will not dissolve with well-meaning, even heroic personal effort.

        The fifth habit, for those in positions of relative power (and it’s a complex equation—all of us are haves and have-nots in relative degrees in various contexts), is to acknowledge that the journey to justice, and its promise of genuine peace mediated by the agency of mercy, will come at a cost. We need to cultivate a beatific vision powerful enough to sustain against the fear-mongering threats that the option of right-relatedness will entail.

        Sixth, we must devote ourselves to initiating and sustaining partnerships—starting close at hand, extending to far away—with those whose destiny is un-manifest, consciously taking incremental steps toward margins of every sort (and you can’t do them all—get over it!), and not only personal partnerships but community partnerships.

        Theologian Kelly S. Johnson, in The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics, unveils a universe of meaning in one single sentence: “The opposite of poverty is not plenty, but friendship.”

        Friendship takes time, a willingness to both listen and speak, and the exposure of philanthropic disguises to maintain control via the dole. Partnership for effective problem solving comes later, when mutuality is established, when donor-recipient relations are disbanded, when power is shared.

        And finally: While the promised Commonweal of God will profoundly rearrange every provision of privilege, our walk to freedom will recognize that colonized neighborhoods and nations are generated by an underlying colonizing of the mind, of the heart, of the will. Thus we must be invested in communities whose labor includes decolonizing of the mind, disarming of the heart, re-abling of the will.

        “I do not call you servants any longer . . . but I call you friends” (John 15:15). This sort of befriending, of which Jesus spoke, is both manifesto and mandate, a penetration of reality accompanied by the wherewithal to reshape it, a knowing of the truth divulged only in its doing.

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19 May 2015, commemorating the birthday of Malcolm X.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

“Nerve us up”

Two texts for Lenten resolve

by Ken Sehested
Shrove Tuesday 2021

This past Sunday one of our members, Stan Wilson, offered the “call to the table” in our congregation’s zoom worship screen-gathering. He led with a suggestion that was equivalent, in my hearing, to a thunderclap.

“How about for Lent this year we give up Donald Trump?”

It was a table invitation (we celebrate the Eucharist every week) and an altar call rolled into one. And it certainly had my name on it.

The last four years in the US have been a national demolition derby, a Three-Stooge-esque comedy of incompetence and disrepute, a racketeer’s paradise and grifter’s playpen—only with real-world torment, particularly for those here and abroad with little shelter from the abuse.

At the conclusion of the Senate’s farcical impeachment verdict, I felt like breaking big things and throwing little ones.

I need a decompression. Stan’s suggestion came at the right moment.

This does not mean (and what follows are my commentary) retreating into a shell of blissful ignorance and private cheeriness. Nor will I become a devotee of the Biden administration’s governing posture, though nonetheless it is a great relief.

What I will do, though, is follow Frederick Douglass’ admonition: “Let us look at the other side [of the rule of injustice] and see if there are not some things to cheer our heart and nerve us up anew in the good work of emancipation.”

In his long, parting soliloquy recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (16:33). The predicate to this encouragement, though, was the warning that “in the world you will face persecution.” That reality has not changed.

Even now we must “see if there are not some things to cheer our hearts and nerve us up anew.” This year these texts will frame my Lenten prayers.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  16 February 2021 •  No. 211

Processional. “Forked-tongued pharaoh, behold he comes to speak / Weeping in the Promised Land / Hissing and spewing, it's power that he seeks / Weeping in the Promised Land / With dread in their eyes, all the nurses are crying / So much sorrow, so much dying / Pharaoh keep a-preaching but he never had a plan / Weeping in the Promised Land.” —John Fogerty, “Weeping in the Promised Land”

Above: Baobab trees in Botswana, photo by Beth Moore

Invocation. “Have mercy upon us, O Lord. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.” (Psalm 123:3-4)

        In the end, if we are left to our own devices—to our own amalgam of brains and brawn, of ingenuity and charisma, sleight of hand and strength of arm, in mobilizing sufficient force to bend the will of others to our own, in accordance to self-ordained vision masquerading as fate’s foreordained history—then nothing is forbidden. All authority is subsumed in the will to power. —continue reading “Another Word is in the wind: A psalm of complaint and avowal

§  §  §

Hymn of praise. “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein. / Rejoice on earth, ye saints below. / For Christ is coming, Is coming soon. / For Christ is coming soon.” —“E’evn So, Come Quickly Lord Jesus,” Paul Manz, performed by the Cambridge Singers

§  §  §

“Nerve us up”: Two texts for Lenten resolve
Shrove Tuesday 2021

This past Sunday one of our members, Stan Wilson, offered the “call to the table” in our congregation’s zoom worship screen-gathering. He led with a suggestion that was equivalent, in my hearing, to a thunderclap.

“How about for Ash Wednesday this year we give up Donald Trump?”

It was a table invitation (we celebrate the Eucharist every week) and an altar call rolled into one. And it certainly had my name on it.

The last four years in the US have been a national demolition derby, a Three-Stooge-esque comedy of incompetence and disrepute, a racketeer’s paradise and grifter’s playpen—only with real-world torment, particularly for those here and abroad with little shelter from the abuse.

At the conclusion of the Senate’s farcical impeachment verdict, I felt like breaking big things and throwing little ones.

I need a decompression. Stan’s suggestion came at the right moment.

This does not mean—and what follows are my words—retreating into a shell of blissful ignorance and private cheeriness. Nor will I become a devotee of the Biden administration’s governing posture, though nonetheless it is a great relief.

What I will do, though, is follow Frederick Douglass’ admonition: “Let us look at the other side [of the rule of injustice] and see if there are not some things to cheer our heart and nerve us up anew in the good work of emancipation.”

In his long, parting soliloquy recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus urges his disciples to “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (16:33). The predicate to this encouragement, though, was the warning that “in the world you will face persecution.” That reality has not changed.

Even now we must “see if there are not some things to cheer our hearts and nerve us up anew.” This year these texts will frame my Lenten prayers. —KLS

§  §  §

Hymn of intercession. “My Help Is In the Name of the Lord,” The Hillbilly Thomists.

§  §  §

Lenten woe, leaning toward Easter’s weal
A fantastical dream

Introduction. I composed the following note to a friend after he was defrauded and defamed by someone who should know better—and as I began to write, an eschatological vision emerged. (Apologies in advance for the colloquial references.)

Oh, I hatehatehate this. You already know (but
sometimes it’s hard for the heart to hear from
the head) that there are dumb-*ss people in the
world, even that part of the world that’s supposed
to be cordial and well-mannered, that there’s

really nothing you can do but endure them, and
count on Jesus to take them to the woodshed
for a good whuppin’ when the time comes, even
though that won’t make you feel better, or Jesus
for that matter, and maybe the Holy Spirit

intervenes in all this craziness and reminds
Jesus, and this dumb-*ss, about what’s what,
and the Great Jehovah God shows up, laughing
and laughing and laughing (you’d swear it was
just like Mac Bryan’ cackle) and everyone gets

the giggles and start a food fight, only it’s ice
cream, ice cream is flying everywhere, all your
favorite flavors, with pauses for a little Havana
Club rum, and everyone gets tipsy, and the ice
cream is just good-good, and then someone

brings in a platter of tostonies [fried plantains]….
—continue reading “Lent's woe yielding to Easter’s weal

§  §  §

Hymn of resolution. “If I had the wings of a snow white dove / I'd preach the gospel, the gospel of love / A love so real, a love so true / I've made up my mind to give myself to you.” —Bob Dylan, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You"

§  §  §

A march in Baghdad

Eighteen years ago today [15 February] I remember huddling near a shortwave radio trying to catch the news of the day’s extraordinary set of marches around the world in opposition to the threatened US invasion of Iraq. There was a room full of us, members of the Iraq Peace Team, who had carried on a constant presence in Baghdad for more than seven years. I had led in the last group of short-term volunteers, arriving in the second week of February.

Right: March in Baghdad. Ken Sehested is at far right.

That morning more than 200 of us—40 member of the Iraq Peace team, more from other solidarity organizations—marched through Baghdad carrying banners of all sorts, in opposition to the war. The BBC broadcast was reviewing the astounding accounts from around the world of the February 15 marches protesting the war on Iraq—between 6-10 million people, in more than sixty countries. It is still considered the largest protest event in human history.

I cannot recall ever having such a viscerally jubilant response to a journalistic report. Truth is, I was scared. In an earlier group discussion many of us were beginning to feel the invasion was close. We knew full-well the implications of “shock and awe.” I've been in war zones; but there's no duck-and-cover in the fact us Cruise missiles.

These reports, combined with the previous day’s account of Chief U.N. Weapons Inspector Hans Blic’s report—to the Security Council, casting further doubt on the U.S. Administration’s claims regarding weapons of mass destruction—brought a measure of confidence that the invasion would be further delayed. The anti-war movement was mobilizing like never before.

But the war came anyway. Not long after I left.

But US troops are still there. In fact, the children of those who took part in “Shock and Awe” are now in the pool of those available for a tour of duty in Iraq.

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Benediction. “You know I got a made up mind / And I don't mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation / And I'll fight with the strength that I got until I die. . . . / I go to prepare a place for you.” —Cynthia Erivo, “Stand Up

Can’t make this sh*t up. “We did not send him there to do the right thing.” —Bill Bretz, chair of the Republican Party in Washington County, Pa., strongly criticized one of the state’s senators, Pat Toomey (R) for voting to convict former President Donald Trump, MSN

Just for fun. “Know The Signs: How to tell if your grandparent has become an antifa agent,” Alexandria Petri, Washington Post

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©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

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Lenten woe yielding toward Easter’s weal

A fantastical dream

by Ken Sehested

Introduction. I composed the following note
to a friend after he was defrauded and defamed
by someone who should know better—and as
I began to write, an eschatological vision emerged.
Apologies in advance for the colloquial references.

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Oh, I hatehatehate this. You already know (but
sometimes it’s hard for the heart to hear from
the head) that there are dumb-*ss people in the
world, even that part of the world that’s supposed
to be cordial and well-mannered, that there’s

really nothing you can do but endure them, and
count on Jesus to take them to the woodshed
for a good whuppin’ when the time comes, even
though that won’t make you feel better, or Jesus
for that matter, and maybe the Holy Spirit

intervenes in all this craziness and reminds
Jesus, and this dumb-*ss, about what’s what,
and the Great Jehovah God shows up, laughing
and laughing and laughing (you’d swear it was
just like Mac Bryan’ cackle) and everyone gets

the giggles and start a food fight, only it’s ice
cream, ice cream is flying everywhere, all your
favorite flavors, with pauses for a little Havana
Club rum, and everyone gets tipsy, and the ice
cream is just good-good, and then someone

brings in a platter of tostonies [fried plantains],
and everyone’s stomach is cast iron so no one
gets sick from all the ice cream and rum an
tostonies, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit start
dancing to “Hava Nagila” (“Let Us Rejoice”) and

the Great Jehovah God is still laughing, and
Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover show
up with their hands around each other’s throats,
along with Denise McNair and Bull Connor, and
they start eating some of the ice cream and

sipping rum, and Hulk Hogan and his wrestling
buddies show up, and Andy drove over from
Mayberry, along with Barney and Opie and
Aunt Bee, who’s brought apple pie and leftover
county fair funnel cakes and week-old Krispy

Kremes (which are fine if you put them in the
microwave for a few seconds) and everybody
starts whistling the show’s theme song (and,
oh, I didn’t mention Floyd, too, only he has
pink hair!), and then the Bailey Mountain

Cloggers are announced, and, Lo and Behold,
everyone—even James Brown—joins the
clogging, including your whole extended family
(the breathing and the breathless together) and
every person—I mean everyone—is just as

good at clogging as the Bailey Mountainers,
and suddenly you spot Billy and Ruth Graham
in the audience (Franklin refused to come) and
someone invites them to join in the dance, and
then, Lo and Behold, Jose Martí arrives with

Fidel riding on his shoulders, and then, in the
distance, you hear over the noise “She loves
you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” as the skiff carrying
Paul and John and Ringo and George,
Beethoven in tow, docks on Havana’s north

shore, then they climb up on the Malecón sea
wall, and the Great Jehovah God is still laughing
and suddenly has a cramp in Her rib cage from
all the laughing, and Barney knows a home
remedy, but Aunt Bee tells Barney to get out

of the way, she know what to do, and, Lo and
Behold, Chief Hatuey [the great 15th century
leader of the Taíno, indigenous people of the
Caribbean] enters from the side door, leading
a group of Spanish Conquistadors, and they’re,

like, can’t keep their hands off each other, queer
as lace and lilac, and Hatuey takes J. Edgar
over in the corner for a heart-to-heart, and Anita
Bryan joins them, and both J. Edgar and Anita
come out of the closet, and the Great Jehovah

God laughs and laughs, and—goodnesssakesalive
—Donald Trump arrives and tells everyone he’s
going to crawl on his knees from Seoul to
Pyongyang as a ritual petition for Korean
reconciliation and, after he finishes, all 7+

billion of us are gonna squeeze into Oz’s
Sydney Opera House where Barack Obama’s
gonna sing “Amazing Grace,” and Mahalia
Jackson’s gonna sing “How Great Thou Art”
with Bishop Tutu singing harmony along with

Patsy Cline, Sinéad O'Connor, and The Supremes.
Elvis, of course, is taking all this in, trying to
decide what he can add to the mix (he’s chatting
with Muddy Waters—they’ll likely do something
together with Pavarotti and the Beach Boys, lyrics

by John Prine, accompanied by Duke Ellington,
Jerry Lee Lewis, and Yo-Yo Ma, punctuated
with Zydeco riffs). Hope there’s enough ice
cream for everyone. Even dumb-*sses deserve
ice cream. I’d hate to have to clean all this up

in the morning. But, you-know, ashes are coming,
not just for the dumb-*sses but for all (!) of us
worthier, well-mannered folk as well—I’d end
with a more congenial, less-ashy conclusion
but as Tony Campolo would say,

        “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”
Lent's woe will one day yield to Easter's weal.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

 

St. Valentine

Remembering prisoners on his feast day

by Ken Sehested

        In ancient Rome lived a man named Valentine. He was a priest and a physician but was not free to express his Christian faith without the threat of persecution. He tended to his patients by day and prayed for them by night. Eventually however, he was arrested for his faith and executed on Feb 14, 270 during one of the persecutions ordered by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. In 496, Pope Gelasius I established February 14 as St. Valentines Day.

        It is said that a jailer in a Roman prison had a daughter who was one of St. Valentine’s patients before he was arrested. He tended her for her blindness, but when he was arrested she still had not regained her sight. Before his execution, Valentine asked the jailer for some parchment and ink. He wrote the girl a note and signed it “From your Valentine.” When she opened the note, a yellow crocus flower fell out of the parchment and it was the first thing she had ever seen. She had received her sight. The crocus is the traditional flower of St. Valentine.

        Given this background story, a number of churches now prepare for Valentine’s Day by having children and youth send Valentine’s day cards and notes to prisoners.

More Valentine’s Day history

        As with many modern holiday traditions, Valentine’s Day draws from a jumble of historical memories. In the 15th century, English and French traditions recognized mid-February as the time when birds chose their mates. Surviving literature indicate that it became an occasion for sending romantic cards and letters. In ancient Rome, 14 February was the occasion to honor Juno, Goddess of women and marriage.

        On this eve of the festival of Lupercalia, a lottery was taken, with young boys randomly selecting the names of young girls, taking them as companions for the remainder of the festival.

        The Roman Catholic Church’s official list of saints actually have three entries for “St. Valentine,” all three of them martyred, at least two of which were executed for civil disobedience: One for simply practicing his faith when it was outlawed. A second for performing secret weddings when the Emperor, wanting his army stocked with single men, forbade such weddings.

        While the existence of a St. Valentine is not in doubt—archaelogists have unearthed a chapel built in his honor—reliable accounts of his (their?) life is scarce. Which is why, in 1969, the Vatican removed St. Valentine from its official list of feasts. However, St. Valentine’s Day is an official feast day in for Anglicans and Lutherans. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the day in July.

        Numerous cultures and countries around the world observe some form of annual recognition of a romantically-themed day.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Feast days and history’s affliction

On the character of our spiritually forming work

by Ken Sehested

Today, 1 February, is the feast day of St. Brigit of Kildare. It brought to mind one of my favorite prayers, which I designed as a piece of art (below).

As it happens, today is also the sixty-first anniversary of the Greensboro, NC “sit-in” movement, when students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University demanded to be served at a segregated Woolsworth lunch counter.

The extraordinary decision by those students to commit nonviolent resistance against injustice was not done on impulse. Much preparation went beforehand. This tactic had been tried before but did not spark of movement.

This one did, triggering similar protests in 55 cities and 13 states. (For more, see “How the Greensboro Four Sit-In Sparked a Movement” in History.)  One of my dear friends, then a student at Wake Forest University in nearby Winston-Salem, was among the first white students to join that action.

Right: On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Photo: Greensboro News and Record

The coincidence of St. Brigit’s feast day and the Greensboro confrontation is a fitting framework to think of the kind of formation people of faith must undertake.

Clearly we need a beatific vision in the manner of Brigit’s prayer. I would say “mystical” vision, but the word in English mostly draws up images of hermits or vaporous apparitions. But, yes, a mystical vision, illimitable, a “thin space” experience where Heaven’s ecstasy and Earth’s agony overlay.

A mountaintop experience, not unlike that of the story of Jesus’ “transfiguration,” when Jesus takes three of his disciples to a peak, where a glorious vision unfolds, with appearance by the Prophets Moses and Elijah.

Blustery Peter suggests tabernacles be built there. But no sooner had the rapturous moment ended, Jesus—ignoring Peter’s impetuous request—says something to the effect of fugetaboutit and leads the three back down the mountain where he is immediately confronted by a man whose son had a “spirit” causing the boy to convulse, grind his teeth, and foam at the mouth, which some commentators think may have been epilepsy.

Jesus heals the boy. And thereby establishes the link between the ecstasy and epilepsy—between mountaintop spiritual experience and the healing of Earth’s destitute, diseased condition.

You may recall that this story in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 9) comes immediately after Jesus’ conversation with his disciples, asking, “who do the people say I am?” Peter gets it right—but not quite right. Then Jesus speaks to them of the trouble to come, of his suffering and eventual crucifixion by Rome’s anti-terrorism task force. Whereupon Peter, in his insolence, adamantly rejects the notion that a sovereign should even suffer, much less die.

We should also be thinking here about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “mountaintop” speech in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers. Some consider that speech to be his most electric elocution.

“I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.”

He continued, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The “glory of the Lord” is linked with the demand of sanitation workers for better pay and working conditions.

If you’re going to confront history’s ruinous condition, you got to be infected with some sense of glory to sustain you through the hard times your advocacy will surely provoke.

To sustain the struggle at hand we need Brigit’s visionary prayer, King’s “Dream,” Jesus’ Beatitudes. But make no mistake, the lexicons of these visions—their field of vision, their fleshly context—is infirmity, is animosity, is in every circumstance of the Beloved Community’s rupture.

Heaven’s promise is heard in the midst of Earth’s affliction. Peter’s hesitation over Jerusalem’s confrontation is also our own. Such is the training and testing ground of our spiritually forming work.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org