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A bold testimony to interfaith conciliation

Peace Cathedral, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Psalm 51,” Choir of St. Simon the Leper, Republic of Georgia (sung in Aramaic)

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Among the most important practices in the life of faith is lifting up and celebrating hopeful stories—however small or localized—where flourishing life pushes back the boundaries of grief’s shadow. This work is particularly important in the context of erupting racial-ethnic-religious hostilities.

As Richard Rohr has said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Among the least known amazing stories of this past week was a milestone accomplishment of the Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, a country located on the eastern edge of the Black Sea in the Caucasus region where Eastern Europe meets Western Asia, on Russia’s southern border where, as in Ukraine, Russia has since 2008 occupied two Georgian provinces.

Some years ago Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, recipient of numerous human rights awards, had a vision of expanding the cathedral’s parameters to make space for a synagogue and a mosque, after riots against various minorities in Georgia in 2013 spurred him to show how the different faiths can unite against prejudice.

Part of that expansion was celebrated this past week when the Beit Knesset HaShalom synagogue was formally dedicated. Included in the occasion was the inaugural Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture, which is expected to occur annually at the synagogue. The initial address was delivered by Dr. Roland Stolte of the House of One in Berlin, Germany, which espouses a similar vision for Interreligious community.

Above: Holy Ark housing the Torah scroll in the Beit Knesset Ha Shalom synagogue, one of three sanctuaries in the Peace Cathedral interfaith compound.

A delegation of US and Canadian citizens led by Rev. Paul Hayes was present for the celebration. Hayes offered this comment:

“Against the backdrop of current wars and hostility, the Peace Project is a small, yet prophetic, claim that building relationships of trust and mutual care are possible and, indeed, preferable and necessary if peace is ever to be realized. To witness firsthand the depth of feeling and concern expressed between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists at a time like this provides the hope and assurance I need to counter the cynicism that too often leaves me in despair.”

The Peace Cathedral’s space also houses a chapel for use by other faith groups, including, most recently, by Buddhists, Yazidis, and Hindus.

Songulashvili, along with Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, the only female bishop in Georgia, have been highly public in their support of a variety of human rights concerns, opposing religious discrimination against minority peoples in the region, supporting interfaith dialogue, gender equality, and the LGBTQ community. In 2014 Gotsiridze was recipient of the International Women of Courage Award by the US Department of State.

What will be surprising to many is that the Peace Cathedral is a Baptist congregation, the “mother church” of the Evangelical-Baptist Church of Georgia, though the congregation’s liturgical style and architecture is deeply influenced by Georgian culture and its Orthodox history.

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Hymn of petition. “The Lord’s Prayer” sung in the Georgian language

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For further reading:

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Benediction. “O, Lord, Our God,” Georgian Orthodox chant in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

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Art below: A litany for worship, written by Ken Sehested, in honor of the Tbilisi Peace Cathedral bold vision of interfaith cooperation.

‘Long term capital decisions’ are the root cause of the US epidemic of gun violence

by Ken Sehested

Now that the search for the mass shooter in Maine is completed (though the trauma of Lewiston’s citizens will carry on for who-knows-how-long), this is a timely moment to turn public attention to the culprits that escalate the capacity for such carnage.

Two weeks ago the New York Times ran a review of a new book by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson, “American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15.”

Here are two key paragraphs:

“After the [assault rife ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1995] ended, in 2004, the door burst open [for its expanded manufacture and sale]. A gun enthusiast of a private equity firm entered the market, and, with a company called Freedom Group, flooded the country with AR-15-style guns. McWhirter and Elinson obtained internal documents from Freedom Group, including a ‘confidential’ memo by the marketing team arguing for allowing the company’s guns to be featured in violent video games as a way to help ‘create brand preference among the next generation who experience these games.’ In an email, a company executive marveled at how well this strategy seemed to work. . . .

“The day that Sandy Hook [Elementary School mass shooting that killed 20 children and six adults on 14 December 2012] funerals began, Freedom Group’s board of directors held an emergency meeting, voting to acquire a gun barrel manufacturer that would make the company’s AR-15-style rifles even more profitable. Sandy Hook ‘was an awful horrific huge tragedy,’ Freedom Group’s chief executive later remarked in a disposition, ‘but its impact on the long-term capital decisions of the business were not a factor.’” —review by Mike Spies, New York Times Book Review, 15 October 2023, pp. 14-15

 Two takeaways:

  • Notice how the language of “freedom” is associated with a weapon whose sole purpose is to kill humans with great efficiency.
  • Notice how “awful horrific huge tragedy” cannot override the priority of “capital decisions.”

Three references documenting the fact that just economic relations are a consistent thread throughout Scripture and indicator of spiritual health:

  • For a long essay on this topic, see Ched Myers’ “The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.”
  • For a book length study, see Walter Brueggemann’s “Money and Possessions.”
  • For additional other resources, see the Faith and Money Network site.

One conclusion:

Gun manufacturers in the US, significantly aided and abetted by their public relations firm, the National Rifle Association, are indirectly responsible for more fatalities and injuries than all the illicit drug manufacturers (everywhere in the world) combined.

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Postscript

After posting my recent “Trenched by sorrow” prose poem, I found myself compiling a collection of my favorite musical requiems and laments. That list is now posted here.

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A collection of musical requiem and lament

After posting my “Trenched by sorrow” prose poem, I found myself recalling favorite musical requiems and laments. And minutes turned to hours as I compiled an expansive list of those available for online listening. (I found short excerpts from some of the longer classical requiems.) The list below is limited by my own subjectivity, of course; but it does include wide variety of musical genres.

What are yours? I encourage you to make your own list. Pull one or more up to guide your prayers when hope gets hard to come by.

Our capacity to grieve is directly related to our capacity for hope, much like the circumference of a tree’s canopy is proportionate to its root system. The work of lament contains in its very performance the generative power of assurance that siphons away the rule of fear. (For more on this see “The labor of lament“) —Ken Sehested

§ “Come Holy Spirit / And stay with me always / Within You I’ll remain / For in You I’m sustained.” —Isaac Cates and the Ordained gospel rendition of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa: Requiem D Minor

§ “Pie Jesu” (“Merciful Jesus”) by Sarah Brightman, Paul Miles-Kingston. The music accompanies actual film footage from World War I’s “Battle of The Somme,” 1 July-18 November 1916, where more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history.

§ “Waters of Babylon (where we sat down and wept).” —Sweet Honey in the Rock, lyrics drawn from Psalm 137

§ “Requiem,” Orthodox Christian Chant by the Choir of the Great Kiev Lavra

§ “Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark! / And may there be no sadness of farewell / When I embark; / For, though from out our bourne of time and place / The flood may bear me far, / I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crossed the bar.” —“Crossing the Bar,” Alfred Tennyson, performed by Laudate Mennonite Ensemble

§ “David, the king, was grieved and moved, / He went to his chamber, his chamber, and wept; / And as he went he wept, and said, / “O my son! O my son! / Would to God I had died, / Would to God I had died, / For thee, O Absalom, my son, my son.” —“268 David’s Lamentation,” Second Ireland Sacred Harp Convention 2012

§ “Strong wind, strong wind / Many dead, tonight it could be you / And we are homeless, homeless / Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.” —English translation, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Homeless

§ “Requiem for 3 Cellos and Piano” by David Popper performed by “Three Sisters Trio”

§ “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” —“How long, Lord?” translated lyrics from “Eela Mata Ya Rabbou,” hymn adapted from Psalm 13 of lament over the Israeli massacres of Palestinian protestors in the Gaza Strip, performed by Fairouz

§ “When I am laid, am laid in earth, / May my wrongs create / No trouble, no trouble in thy breast. / Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate. / Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” —Alison Moyet, Dido’s Lament from “Dido and Aeneas” by Henry Purcell

§ “Kaddish” from “Deux Melodies Hebraiques,” Maurice Ravel, featuring Olivia Da Costa

§ “Let me weep for my cruel fate / And sigh after freedom! / And let me sigh / Sigh after freedom! / May sorrow, out of pity, break the ropes of my sufferings, / of my sufferings, out of pity. / And let me sigh after freedom!” —English translation of lyrics to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”), performed by Aksel Rykkvin

§ “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Odetta.

§ “Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend,” Thomas Weelkes, a eulogy on the death of Thomas Morley in 1602, performed by Vox Luminis

§ “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the / world, have mercy on us, who takes away the / sins of the world, grant us peace.” —translated lyrics to “Lament for the Valley,” one song in Karl Jenkins’ “For the Children” cantata, written to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Aberfan disaster in Wales, where a mountainside coal slurry damn broke sending the sludge down the mountain into Aberfan, crushing a school and nearby houses. One hundred sixteen children were killed, along with 26 adults.

§ “Holy Mother, where are you? / Tonight I feel broken in two. / I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. / Holy mother, can’t keep from crying. / Oh I need your help this time, / Get me through this lonely night. / Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.” —“Holy Mother” by Eric Claption, Luciano Pavarotti, and the East London Gospel Choir

§ “Mournful that day. / When from the ashes shall rise / a guilty man to be judged. / Lord, have mercy on him. / Gentle Lord Jesus, / grant them eternal rest. / Amen.” —English translation of lyrics to “Lacrimosa,” part of the Dies Irae sequence in the Requiem mass, performed by Elżbieta Towarnicka

§ “Precious Lord,” Fannie Lou Hamer. This was the last hymn Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. requested—for that evening’s mass meeting in Memphis—shortly before he was assassinated.

§ “Eies irae” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem”

§ “Wayfaring Stranger,” Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra

§ “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” Brahms Requiem, Taylor Festival Choir

§ “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord Have Mercy”), from Mozart’s Requiem Mass, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic

§ “Mother Mary, full of grace, awaken. / All our homes are gone, our loved ones taken. / Taken by the sea – / Mother Mary, calm our fears, have mercy. / Drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy. / Hear our mournful plea. / Our world has been shaken, / we wander our homelands, forsaken.” —Eliza Gilykson, “Requiem,” performed by Age to Age. The piece was written after the 26 December 2004 earthquake in the Indian ocean, creating a tsunami which struck Indonesia, killing over 260,000.

§ “May the angels lead you into paradise / May the martyrs receive you / In your coming / And may they guide you / Into the holy city, Jerusalem / May the chorus of angels receive you / And with Lazarus once poor / May you have eternal rest.” —Gabriel Fauré, “Requiem: In Paradisum

§ “Largo in D Flat” (“Going Home”), Antonin Dvorak, New World Symphony

§ “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger: / nor chasten me in thy displeasure. / Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak: / O Lord, heal me, / for my bones are troubled. / My soul also is troubled: / but, Lord, how long?” —English translation of Domine ne in furore tuo” (“O Lord, Rebuke Me Not”) by Claudio Monteverdi, performed by The Sixteen

§ “I raised my head and set myself / In the eye of the storm, in the belly of a whale / My spirit stood on solid ground / I’ll be at peace when they lay me down.” —Loretta Lynn & Willie Nelson, “Lay Me Down

§ Officium Defunctorum: Missa pro defunctis: I. Introitus,” Collegum Vocale Gent

§ “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” Henryk Górecki (1st movement, second part).

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Trenched by sorrow, tracked by joy

Is assurance believable in the face of trauma?

by Ken Sehested

How is it that the heart, trenched by sorrow, can be, at the same
time, enlarged in its capacity for empathy and compassion: the
qualities that trigger the work benevolence and the labor
of advocacy?

Grief can be lethal, of course. Survival typically requires the
tender stroke of many comforters: hands in hands, around
shoulders, full embrace, skin on skin; whispered
encouragement in the face of grief’s wake; assurance of the
sun’s resolve to arise despite the fright of darkest night.

Grief does not always transmit to grace, and grace to
generosity. But it can, if proper care is taken. Such care, of
course, is the assurance that misery is not the last word, is
not terminal, is not irreducible fate, is not beyond proper
requiem, proper remembrance, proper reverence. The
hallowing of grief can, like composted organic matter,
create the kind of fertile humus essential for life’s
regeneration.

Even beyond death, there is a Lamb’s Book of Life, with
names inscribed by One whose benevolence o’erpowers
all wrath, whose remembrance scoops up the abandoned,
the forsaken, the forgotten. There is a cherishing more
resolute than death’s grip. On this side of the sepulcher,
it can even be true that the ability to open one’s heart to
a neighbor’s pain is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is this assurance, this trustworthy covenant, that, in
the last appraisal, joy will transcend and amend grief’s
injury. The heart will be enlarged, enough to faithfully
abide in the midst of tragedy, sufficient to provide solace,
fierce advocacy, lavish assistance, resolute companionship
in the face of mortal threat.

Certainly, none of us can take it all in. It is not our job to ensure
history turns out right. We each sing in a chorused cloud of
witnesses—whether living, dead, or yet-to-be-born
accompanied by an orchestra of angels, directed by a Maestro
whose might is manifest in mercy, whose strength is
sufficient to defeat and dispel death’s dominion.

Such are the terms of our calling. Lean into this insurrectionary
summons. Fear not. Be of good cheer, despite the travail.
Compose requiems that mock the powers of vengeance. Linger
in the soul’s stilled point in the midst of howling storm. Nothing’s to
be lost save our shackling dismay, fear’s unbinding, sorrow’s
confounding. Though trenched by sorrow, know that you are
tracked by joy. Another world is not only possible; it is, even
now, hastening on its way. Offer prayers as flares to mark
the rendezvous.

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26 October 2023

Gaza, Israel, history

Commentary on yet another savage war in a war weary land

Ken Sehested
10 October 2023

Invocation
Psalm 135: Arabic Orthodox Chant,”
from St. George Church, Aleppo, Syria.

Above: “Mother’s Embrace,” painting by Palestinian artist Nabil Anoni

Only the most ruthless will applaud, or even rationalize, Hama’s attack on Israel. It is heinous. Saturday’s attack began with an massacre of concertgoers at a venue near the Gaza border. It’s estimated that at least 260 Israelis were killed and an unknown number taken hostage.

Before you begin culling the goats from the sheep, however, you need to take into account some important history—which most US citizens do not know—of the decades of humiliation dished out on the Palestinian population.

What follows is a very partial summary for use as a starting point in understanding this history. It is a complicated history, to be sure. But saying that does not mean no conclusions can be drawn.

1. The rise of British imperialism directly shapes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Near the end of World War I, British authorities literally drew lines in the sand to create what are now considered nation states of the Middle East. This was in anticipation of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to these new “nations,” the regions were ruled by an assortment of potentates of various tribes, clans, and families. Britain’s map-making (initially with French support) artificially divided large people groups. The fractious legacy of those fabricated boundaries linger still.

2. The nation of Israel was created as a refuge for Jews escaping Europe’s holocaust ovens (on top of millennia of persecution), an episode unparalleled in the history of human savagery—in its systematic intention and implementation if not in sheer magnitude. Indeed, the brutal legacy of anti-Semitism (in which the Christian community shares significant responsibility) in many parts of the world is well-documented, including in the US.

3. Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948 was preceded by a decade of underground Jewish terrorist organizations operating in Palestine in resistance to British rule (and sometimes with each other). Those attacks, including bombings and targeted assassinations, escalated considerably near the end of World War II.

4. The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal which recommended a partition at the end of the British Mandate. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the Plan as Resolution 181, calling for two separate states, one Arab, one Jewish, with Jerusalem to be governed by a special international regime.

Hymn of petition
“There are people who want to live in peace / Don’t give up,
keep dreaming / Of peace and prosperity / When will the
walls of fear melt / When will I return from exile / And my
gates will open / To what is truly good.”
—English translation of Yael Deckelbaum &
Prayer of the Mothers, ensemble of Jewish, Arab
and Christian women “Prayer of the Mothers

5. Nevertheless, the Jewish safe-haven that is Israel was built on the backs of an indigenous population, one that is also Semitic, 726,000 of whom were displaced from their homes and ancestral lands when Israel declared its independence. Palestinians refer to it as al-Nakba (“The Catastrophe”). Those refugees, most living in camps—cauldrons of discontent—in Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, now total more than five million.

6. It’s true that Hamas, the political party governing Gaza, does not recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a nation state. It’s also true that the Likud Party now governing Israel is opposed in principle to the formation of a Palestinian state.

7. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Hamas “will pay a price it has never known,” likely including a ground invasion of Gaza. To get a sense of what he means, consider the last time Israel’s army entered that enclave, from 8 July until 26 August 2014. During that period, 2,251 Palestinians were killed; 1,462 of them are believed to be civilians, including 551 children and 299 women. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five civilians, including one child, were also killed. A half million Gazans were left homeless.

8. This past January the Times of Israel reported that “Since 2015, the [United Nations] General Assembly has adopted 140 resolutions criticizing Israel, mainly over its treatment of the Palestinians, its relationships with neighboring countries and other alleged wrongdoings. Over the same period, it has passed 68 resolutions against all other countries.”

9. Israel’s policy of settling its civilians in occupied Palestinian territory and displacing the local population, which has escalated in recent years, violates fundamental rules of international law.

10. On the West Bank, Palestinians can be arrested and indefinitely detained based on undisclosed “secret evidence.” Two in every five Palestinian men have been arrested. Since 2000, more than 12,000 children have been detained. For the last 15 years Gaza has been in virtual lock down, an open air prison.

11. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two of the world’s most respected human rights organized, consider Israel an apartheid state in their dealings with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In his best-selling 2006 book, “Palestine: Not Apartheid,” former President Jimmy Carter said the same.

Hymn of intercession
“Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Lilies [or Roses])” by
Yuval Ron Ensemble. This song, a love song well known
throughout the Middle East, is dedicated to the children of
Jerusalem, the vision of peace between Jews and Arabs,
and peace around the world.

12. Is Israel a democracy? Well, yeah, in the same way the US was a democracy when we nearly exterminated the indigenous population, endured a civil war whose body count was greater than all our other wars combined, lived with a century of Jim Crow laws and social norms, and are now threatened with massive racial and class divides along with the threat of Trumphoolery. Elections do not a democracy make. According to the Israeli 2018 “Nation-State” law, all citizens have human rights, but only Jews have “national rights.”

13. The so-called “Oslo Accords” (1993, 1995), which affirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” is utterly inadequate in its projected division of land. The proposed map of the Palestinian nation is more like a patchwork of reservations, each encircled by, and thus controlled by, Israel. Jewish human rights activist Jeff Halper has noted that 95% of the Occupied West Bank would be part of the new Palestinian nation is a grossly misleading statement. Inmates occupy some 95% of a prison. It’s what happens with the other 5% that matters

14. The violence of Palestinian terrorists doesn’t occur in a vacuum. “The first and worst violence,” according to Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli Knesset, “is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” Virtually every major human rights organization (including B’tselem, the leading Israeli human rights body) insist that Israeli demands for Palestinians to “stop the violence” actually turns reality on its head. If both sides were to immediately cease all hostilities, the resulting “peace” would leave Israel in an overwhelmingly dominant position. Any peace agreement that refuses to acknowledge the imbalance of power is destined to harden the realities of injustice and thereby sow the seeds for the next war.

15. It is certainly true that Arab “terror networks” exist and must be opposed—just as there have been Ku Klux Klan and other terror networks in the US for much of our history. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the greatest terrorist threat to US national security is currently the homegrown variety.

Hymn of consolation
Nami, Nami” (Arabic Lullaby), by Azam Ali

16. Theological claims that the land of ancient Palestine was promised to the Jews by God may be emotionally satisfying but cannot be privileged in a world where gods of every stripe and contour are around every corner, each claiming birthright for the few and scorn for every other. Palestinians (Christian, Muslim, and Druze) and Jews each have legitimate claims to the land, which if not shared could become a perpetual killing field. We need reminding that God’s call on Abram to forsake his home and travel to an unknown destination included this promise: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, emphasis added).

Israeli commentator Orly Noy, editor of the Hebrew-language news magazine “Local Call,” writes:

“It is important not to minimise or condone the heinous crimes committed by Hamas. But it is also important to remind ourselves that everything it is inflicting on us now, we have been inflicting on the Palestinians for years. . . .[V]iolence devoid of any context leads to only one possible response: revenge. And I don’t want revenge from anyone. Because revenge is the opposite of security. . . . [W]e have not only brought Gaza to the brink of starvation, we have brought it to a state of collapse. Always in the name of security. How much security did we get?”

Benediction
Create In Me a Clean Heart (Psalm 51),”
Thingamakid children’s choir, Jacobs Jewish Summer Camp

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For more see “al-Nakba: Meditation on Israel, Palestine and the calculus of power” and “House to house, field to field: Reflections on a peace mission to the West Bank

 

 

 

 

Olive Tiller remembrance

Ken Sehested

Olive Tiller’s name will not be recognized outside a relatively small circle. But she is legendary in my universe. She died recently, at the fulsome age of 102.

Below is a short meditation on her luminous presence—written not simply in her honor but as tribute to the countless, faith-full people who will never have a Wikipedia page tribute. Theirs are the arms that uphold the universe day after day.

Let it be said of her as the Sufi mystic Rabia testified: Neither threat of hell or desire of heaven, but love’s longing alone animated by delight in the Beloved’s promise and presence and provision. Or, as Augustine wrote, “We imitate whom we adore.”

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She didn’t look the part—if, by “part,” you mean a peacemaking, justice seeking, human rights advocating activist. No growl in her voice, rarely a furrowed brow (as the stereotype suggests).

This was a woman who attended the first public meeting of the newly-formed Baptist Pacifist Fellowship meeting in May 1940—when she was 19 years old! Decades later, she was elected the organization’s first female president.

This was a woman for whom a school dorm was named in rural Tanzania. A woman who, along with her son Bob, participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March (the second, aborted attempt, when a federal judge’s temporary restraining order was issued).

She participated in a World Council of Churches visit to Cambodia seeking an end to the Vietnam War. Who still had the scorecard she filled out for the 1962 Major League All-Star baseball game. Who was arrested at the South African embassy protesting apartheid.

This was a woman who, in her 70s, went to clown school and created a new persona, Bubbles the Clown, to entertain at children’s parties. Who, jointly with her husband, Carl, received the American Baptist Churches Dahlberg Peace Award. Who toured Africa with a Church Women United delegation and later worked with Bosnian refugees.

I’m speaking of Olive Tiller, a co-laborer within the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a friend, and source of much encouragement.

Her smile, which deserved its own copyright, was like a warm blanket on a frosty night. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as being modestly regal, but if anyone could be, it was Olive. Gently spirited, I’m not sure if she was ever tempted to turn over money-changers’ tables, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

(In a delightful-but-totally-exaggerated comment she once called me the “Oral Hershiser of peace activists.” But you would have to be of a certain age and inclination to appreciate that baseball reference.)

In a recent note, her son Bob said, “She was willing to be a leader when needed and a follower when needed.” Such virtue is among the greatest needs—but least celebrated—of our movements. Would that all our movements were teeming with such multi-abled advocates.

Among her last wishes was that friends and acquaintances contribute to the Southern Poverty Law Center in her memory.

Olive Marie Tiller died on 23 July at age 102. I still have her last Christmas card from December. In it she mentioned some of the ways age was limiting her activities, but was quick to add, “I hope you enjoy every lovely thing that this world offers.” It reminded me of that brief proverb from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

I have no doubt that she would say to us: Instill in your young ones the confidence that beauty will outlast terror.

Olive Tiller: ¡Presente!

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August 2023. A memorial service for Olive Tiller has been scheduled for 11 November at Sherwood Oaks senior living center in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.

 

Things Christians need to know, for our own sake, about Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement

by Ken Sehested

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight,
and the earth was filled with violence.”
—Genesis 6:11

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Invocation. “Forgive the entire congregation / of the children of Yisrael / and the stranger amongst them / for the entire people sin unintentionally / Please pardon the sins of this nation / in accordance with the greatness / of Your lovingkindness. . . . / And Adonai said / ‘I have pardoned [them] as you have asked.’” —translated portion of “Kol Nidrei,” Cantor Mo Glazman, prayer sung on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish liturgical calendar

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Introduction: Both of the following two things are true.

First, the attempted co-opting of one cultural or religious tradition by those of another tradition is risky, often arrogant, and a form of colonialism. Some, especially among the relatively privileged, wish to collect “experiences” like others collect stock portfolios. “Culture vultures” is an accurate naming of this usurpation.

Second, people of the Way (the adjective “Christian” would come later, from Roman persecutors), those of us who seek to orient own lives through the “pioneer and perfector” of our faith, Jesus, cannot understand our own core convictions short of knowing our tradition’s deep and abiding rootage in Judaism. And the touchstone of that revelation is Yom Kippur, the climax of the Jewish High Holy Days.

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Hymn of intercession. “Our father our king / Bring an end to pestilence, war, and famine around us / Our father our king, / Bring an end to all trouble and oppression around us.” —English translation of lyrics to “Avinu Malkeinu,” performed by the Shira Choir featuring Shulem Lemmer. Avinu Malkeinu is a Jewish prayer recited during Jewish services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as on the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

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Yom Kippur: the day of repentance and atonement.

Yom Kippur: the high holy day of confession and cleansing, with the ensuing ritual sealing of names in the Book of Life.

Not confession and repentance in the way many of us Christians have come to believe. Yom Kippur does not mean self-abasement. It is not a day for self-reviling and personal shame; it is not a day for groveling in the presence of the divine, as if God takes pleasure in punishing and condemning us—much less watching us punish and condemn ourselves or each other.

God is not a sadist. And the call to confession and repentance is not a form of masochism.

In Judaism, the focus of Yom Kippur’s call to repentance is not resignation and despair over our weakness and sin (great as they may be), but renewal and hope, the chance to start again.

The Beloved (who cannot be named and tamed) does not assault. The portal to such Love only opens by way of penitential tears—with the honest recognition of fearful, faithless, frail ways.

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Hymn of petition. “And as For Me, My Prayer is for You (V’Ani S’flilosi),” from “The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur,” David Chevan with Frank London and the Afro-Semitic Experience.

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Conflict mediation specialist Byron Bland writes that two truths make healthy community difficult: that the past cannot be undone, and that the future cannot be controlled.

However, two counterforces are available to address these seeming inevitabilities: the practice of forgiveness, which has the power to change the logic of the past; and covenant-making, which creates islands of stability and reliability in a faithless, fickle, sometimes ruthless world.

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The purpose of repentance is not retaliation but restoration; the focus is not on exacting revenge but on enacting repair.

There is joyful coherence between the work of penitence and the struggle for the Beloved Community: The former’s resolve is not to wallow in the prospect of loss, but to bask in the prospect of gain—not to dwell in the land of accusation, but to move forward to the land of shared bounty.

In the end, we are saved by beauty, not duty.

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Word. The context of Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, when one’s name is properly sealed in the Book of Life, is the story of Hagar’s weeping, having been expelled from the security of Abraham and Sarah’s abode, the life of her own son Ishmael threatened by the desert’s desolation. Hers is the first weeping recorded in the Torah, and thus the first in recorded human history. Ever since, the work of Atonement is inseparable from the capacity to hear the cries of the afflicted.” (KLS, exegetical insights from biblical scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis)

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Above: Painting by Diana Bryer, titled “Rabbi Lynn” (blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur), in honor of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, my co-author, with Muslim chaplain and Sufi scholar Rabia Terri Harris, of “Peace Primer II: Quotes from Jewish, Christian, & Islamic Scripture and Tradition”

Speaking here as a Christian, the purpose of repentance is clarified in this Hebrew phrase from the Talmud: “Tikkun olam,” translated as “repair of the world.”

Tikkun olam was the purpose of God in Creation.

Tikkun olam incited giving of the law, the prayers of the poets, and the clarion call of the prophets.

Tikkun olam was the mission of Jesus.

Tikkun olam is the continuing impulse of the Holy Spirit.

The practice of tikkun olam, in New Testament terms, is conveyed in Jesus’ command to love enemies.

Tikkun olam: In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As the ancient writer observed, the root of spiritual corruption blossoms into the fruit of fleshly violence. All the Spirited testifiers of the past, and all their kin in the present, witness to the transforming power of sounding of the call to penitence as the portal to that beatific vision which bespeaks the day when, as the prophet recorded God vowed, “I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25); of the time, as the Revelator foretold, God’s own residence will be among mortals. . . . And God “will wipe away every tear” and “death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:3-4).

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Hymn of longing. “Ribbons, pearls, golden flags / The Messiah, son of David, is above us / He holds a goblet in his right hand / And gives his blessing to the whole earth / Amen and amen, this is the truth / The Messiah will come this year.” —English translation of “Shnirele perele,” performed by Pharaoh’s Daughter

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Madrone’s eyes were far away. Slowly she drew her attention back to the room, and shook her head.

“I know my destiny,” she said. “I had a dream.”

She turned to meet Bird’s eyes, and gave him a little, hesitant smile, almost like an apology.

“What kind of dream?” he asked, knowing before she spoke what she was going to say.

“That kind of a dream,” she said lightly. “The kind that messes up your life. It said, ‘Build a refuge in the heart of the enemy.'” —excerpt from “City of Refuge” by Starhawk

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“While we were yet corrupt and violent,
Christ built a refuge in our enemy hearts.”
—KLS paraphrase of Romans 8:5

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Benediction. “Comfort ye, Every Valley,” Handel’s Messiah, text from Isaiah 40, Gramophone Ghana Chorus feat. Ebenezer Antwi

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In the valley of the shadow

Reflections on the trauma of 11 September 2001
(reprinted on the anniversary of that horrid day)

by Ken Sehested, with Kyle Childress

“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she that was great
among the nations! . . . She weeps bitterly in the night. . . .” (Lamentations 1:1)

Late yesterday morning—midway through a long car trip to visit my Mom and several mentors—I awoke in the home of a good friend, in the Nacogdoches, Texas, to the news repeatedly described in media accounts as the “horrific” events in New York City and Washington, D.C. Parties yet unnamed and unknown (though suspected) hijacked our own agents of affluence to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, twin symbols of global economic and military dominance.

As the details and graphic visual images flood our ears and eyes, “horrific” seems an understated refrain, and we are left repeating it, over and again, to underscore that which is too terrible for words. Knowing that my first-born and my beloved sister-in-law lived less than a mile from Manhattan’s southern shore made the shock all the more poignant.

Here I sit, in the oldest city in Texas, reflecting via ancient Scripture on the archetypal drama of human savagery. The shedding of blood begun by Cain—against his brother Abel, early in Genesis 4—was geometrically escalated, by chapter’s end, in Lamech’s threat to avenge his personal honor seventy-times-seven. God’s refusal of revenge—indeed, the Divine prohibition against human vengeance—was ignored with impunity then no less than now. It is an old story. But there is another story, indeed a counter-story, which can and must be told by the believing community.

What may we say, dare we say, in the face of such horror? Is there any hope, any healing, any harvest of mercy to be had?

There are, of course, reminders both of pastoral insight and prophetic challenge demanding our attention.

—continue reading “In the Valley of the Shadow

Olive Tiller remembrance

Olive Tiller’s name will not be recognized outside a relatively small circle. But she is legendary in my universe. She died recently, at the fulsome age of 102.

Below is a short meditation on her luminous presence—written not simply in her honor but as tribute to the countless, faith-full people who will never have a Wikipedia page tribute. Theirs are the arms that uphold the universe day after day.

Let it be said of her as the Sufi mystic Rabia testified: Neither threat of hell or desire of heaven, but love’s longing alone animated by delight in the Beloved’s promise and presence and provision. Or, as Augustine wrote, “We imitate whom we adore.” —Ken Sehested, August 2023

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Invocation. “Going home, going home / I’m jus’ going home / Quiet like, some still day / I’m jus’ going home / It’s not far, yes close by / Through an open door / Work all done, care laid by / Going to fear no more.” —”Going Home,” performed by Sissel Kyrkjebø, music by Antonin Dvorak from Symphony No. 9, Op. 95, lyrics by William Arms Fisher

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She didn’t look the part—if, by “part,” you mean a peacemaking, justice seeking, human rights advocating activist. No growl in her voice, rarely a furrowed brow (as the stereotype suggests).

This was a woman who attended the first public meeting of the newly-formed Baptist Pacifist Fellowship meeting in May 1940—when she was 19 years old! Decades later, she was elected the organization’s first female president.

This was a woman for whom a school dorm was named in rural Tanzania. A woman who, along with her son Bob, participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March (the second, aborted attempt, when a federal judge’s temporary restraining order was issued).

She participated in a World Council of Churches visit to Cambodia seeking an end to the Vietnam War. Who still had the scorecard she filled out for the 1962 Major League All-Star baseball game. Who was arrested at the South African embassy protesting apartheid.

This was a woman who, in her 70s, went to clown school and created a new persona, Bubbles the Clown, to entertain at children’s parties. Who, jointly with her husband, Carl, received the American Baptist Churches Dahlberg Peace Award. Who toured Africa with a Church Women United delegation and later worked with Bosnian refugees.

I’m speaking of Olive Tiller, a co-laborer within the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, a friend, and source of much encouragement.

Her smile, which deserved its own copyright, was like a warm blanket on a frosty night. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as being modestly regal, but if anyone could be, it was Olive. Gently spirited, I’m not sure if she was ever tempted to turn over money-changers’ tables, but I wouldn’t put it past her.

(In a delightful-but-totally-exaggerated comment she once called me the “Oral Hershiser of peace activists.” But you would have to be of a certain age and inclination to appreciate that reference.)

In a recent note, her son Bob said, “She was willing to be a leader when needed and a follower when needed.” Such virtue is among the greatest needs—but least celebrated—of our movements. Would that all our movements were teeming with such multi-abled advocates.

Among her last wishes was that friends and acquaintances contribute to the Southern Poverty Law Center in her memory.

Olive Marie Tiller died on 23 July at age 102. I still have her last Christmas card from December. In it she mentioned some of the ways age was limiting her activities, but was quick to add, “I hope you enjoy every lovely thing that this world offers.” It reminded me of that brief proverb from Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

I have no doubt that she would say to us: Instill in your young ones the confidence that beauty will outlast terror.

Olive Tiller: ¡Presente!

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Benediction. “Who will watch the home place / Who will tend my heart’s dear space / Who will fill my empty place / When I am gone from here.” — “Who Will Watch The Home Place,” Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals

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A memorial service for Olive Tiller has been scheduled for 11 November at Sherwood Oaks senior living center in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.

On the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, featuring Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “How I Got Over,” Mahalia Jackson, the last musical performer during the August 1963 March on Washington. A shout from her (she was standing a few feet from King), “tell them about the dream, Martin,” prompted King to abandon his written script and extemporaneously launch into that part of his speech we most remember.

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On this day, 28 August 2023, we mark the 60th anniversary of a speech many consider the most significant of the 20th century. Most citizens here, and many abroad, can replay from memory the mesmerizing “I have a dream” incantation Dr. King delivered.

What we don’t recall is that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom scared the bejeezus out of federal and District of Columbia officials, and even Major League Baseball officials, leading up to that deluge of over 200,000 people coming to DC for the occasion.

As is wont to happen, though, with the passage of time, the “dream” has gotten a bit dreamy. The “dream” rhetoric has been appropriated by all manner of marketers. And sometimes with the explicit permission of the corporation controlling King’s intellectual property, Intellectual Properties Management, which in 2018 authorized King’s image for use in a Ram Truck television ad. (That ad became such an embarrassment that it was removed from social media.)

Decades ago, when I lived in Atlanta, one of my friends in the African American activist community told me of discussions he and others were having about committing civil disobedience to disrupt the upcoming King Birthday March in the city because Gen. Colin Power, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff (the first Black to serve in that role) had been invited to be the marshal in the parade. Military bands have frequently been featured in that annual parade.

Given the times we are in, this much is clear: The “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of another of King’s speeches, the “Beyond Vietnam” speech he gave four years later at the Riverside Church in New York City.

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Hymn of remembrance. “The Ballad of Martin Luther King,” by Brother Kirk, Pete Seeger and Sesame Street kids.

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Below is a portion of my 2017 article, “When the dream gets a bit dreamy: On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’”

With Dr. King’s birthday now a national holiday, and his iconic profile ever present around the anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s no longer possible to be sheltered from that historic moment.

The problem with icons, of course, is that they become fixed in stone and have little capacity to get under our skin. Feral history can be tamed. Some forms of remembering work like vaccination: we become immune to prophetic fever. Putting our saints on pedestals allows us to revere their memory while reneging on their mission.

Which is why the meaning of the “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of Dr. King’s last major address, delivered in 1967 from the dais of The Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech that rocked not only the enforcers of Jim Crow but the Civil Rights Movement itself.

In delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” Dr. King enlarged his challenge far beyond segregated buses and integrated lunch counters. Instead, he explicitly linked domestic oppression with international aggression, naming what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

We forget the scandal he provoked that day, 4 April 1967—precisely to the day one year before his assassination in Memphis. On that day, King referred to the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Afterward, King was savaged in the media. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”

The Washington Post said “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

Reader’s Digest warned it might provoke an “insurrection.”

The New York Times ran an editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” chiding him for linking foreign policy (the US war in Vietnam) with domestic policy.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation privately called King the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country.” They had already, for years, been illegally wire-tapping his phone.

In the days leading up to the March on Washington, apprehension in our nation’s capital was so intense that, in the words of historian Taylor Branch, “the federal government furloughed its workers for the day. The Pentagon deployed 20,000 paratroopers. Hospitals stockpiled plasma. Washington banned sales of alcohol, and Major League Baseball canceled not just one but two days of [Washington’s baseball games], just to be sure.”

According to Roger Mudd, who covered the March on Washington for CBS News, the Kennedy Administration drew up in advance a statement declaring martial law, in case it became necessary.

I encourage you in the coming days to set aside 54 minutes to listen to an unabridged recording of the speech. (You can hear it, and read along with the text, at this site.)

“I Have a Dream” has become a bit dreamy, the sentiment injected with high fructose corn syrup, deep fried with a heavy batter, and rolled in sprinkles. Less than three weeks after the soaring prose at the Lincoln Memorial, King had to do the funerals of slaughtered Sunday school children in Birmingham. The Riverside oration puts the “dream” back into perspective in terms of the challenges still before us.

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Benediction. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power” [lyrics below video]

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