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Resurrection’s approach

A poem for Holy Week

by Ken Sehested

In praise of the Blessed One who
refuses to be named and tamed,
Who emboldens those previously
bearing no name—no privilege,
no recognition, the illegitimi of
the world—to rise up with
astonishing courage and against
all odds to challenge the webs of
corruption, injustice, and mortal
threat fashioned by politicians,
peddlers, prosecutors, and priests
who honor no truth save that of
their own seething imagination,
who broach the ancient boundaries
of shared beneficence, who sell
Heaven’s manna to the highest
bidder, whose security demands
foreclose on all who lack tribute,
and whose blessing is confined to
those staid to the lies inflicting
every plundered field, deaf to the
cries of those prostrate in mourning
and affliction. Easter in us, Tree of
all life and Trestle of every hope’s
flight from ruin’s despair. Vouchsafe
the promise, to earth’s castaways,
of the resurrecting morning to
come, whose approach opens
wide the gates of hell swallowing
every crucifying power.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  1 March 2018 •  No. 154

Processional.Adiemus,” composed by Karl Jenkins and performed by the Angel City Chorale. (There are no lyrics as such, instead the vocalists sing syllables and "words" invented by Jenkins.)

Above: A small sea horse grabs onto garbage in Indonesia. California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain.
        “Hofman said he wishes the picture ‘didn’t exist’—but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible ‘to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.’” This photo was a finalist for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Lindsey Bever, Washington Post

Special issue on
PLASTIC

Introduction

        “I don't care if it / Rains or freezes / As long as I've got my / Plastic Jesus / Ridin' on the dashboard / Of my car.“ —Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue, “Plastic Jesus.”
        My wife’s eyebrows first raised, then furrowed, when I answered her question, “What’s your column focus for this week?
        “Plastic,” I said.
        I knew immediately from her response that I needed to do some explaining as to why, in the middle of Lent, plastic is a relevant topic. . . . —continue reading “Plastic Jesus: A Lenten meditation on plastic

Invocation. “After fleeing Pharaoh’s slavery through / the Red Sea’s baptism, the people of the / Most High assembled in covenant assembly / at the mountain of promise for instruction / in freedom’s demands.” —continue reading “Instruction on freedom’s demands,” a litany for worship, inspired by Exodus 20

Call to worship. “No guilt in life, no fear in death / This is the power of Christ in me / From life's first cry to final breath / Jesus commands my destiny / No power of hell, no scheme of man / Can ever pluck me from His hand / Till He returns or calls me home / Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.” —Page CXVI, “In Christ Alone

¶ “Can the ‘largest cleanup in history’ save the oceans?” Twenty-one-year-old Lourens Boot, and Ocean Cleanup, thinks it’s feasible. Terrence McCoy, Washington Post. Photo at right courtesy of the Ocean Cleanup.

New take on Lent. “The Church of England, which has about 25 million members worldwide, exhorted the faithful to participate in the Lent Plastic Challenge forgoing single-use plastic containers.” Tara Isabella Burton, Vox

Good news. “France has passed a new law to ensure all plastic cups, cutlery and plates can be composted and are made of biologically-sourced materials.” Shehab Khan, Independent (Thanks Linda.)

Fast facts about plastic.

        •160,000 plastic bags are used globally every second!

        •Only 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.

        •It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce the amount of plastic bags the US uses per year.

        •5 trillion plastic bags are produced yearly. Side by side, they can encircle the world 7 times.

        •The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a floating landfill of garbage in the Pacific twice the size of Texas, is mostly composed of plastic.

        •In 2008, a sperm whale was found beached in California. It died due to the more than 22 kilos [48.5 pounds] of plastic found in its stomach.

        •Plastic will only start degrading after 700 years and will only fully degrade in 1000 years. This means that all the plastic that has ever been produced has not degraded yet.

        •Plastic bags remain toxic even after it breaks down. It doesn’t biodegrade, it photo-degrades. It means that after it degrades, it breaks down into smaller and smaller toxic bits of itself—and bleeds and contaminates the environment.

Right: Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya catches a wave in a remote but garbage-covered bay on Java, Indonesia, the world’s most populated island. Photo by Zak Noyle

        •Nearly 90% of the debris in our oceans is plastic.

        •Scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. —for more information see “Interesting Facts About Plastic Bags

No one meant to do this: An example of structural sin. “One of the world’s most remote places, an uninhabited coral atoll, is also one of its most polluted. Henderson Island, a tiny uninhabited landmass in the eastern South Pacific, has been found to have the highest density of anthropogenic [human created] debris recorded anywhere in the world, with 99.8% of the pollution plastic.” Elle Hunt, The Guardian

Hymn of praise (in a Lenten minor key). “And I can't understand / And I can't pretend / That this will be all right in the end / So I'll try my best / And lift up my chest / To sing about this . . . joy, joy joy!” —Page CXVI, “Joy

Good news. “With such an abundance of plastic (literally) floating around, entrepreneur Gregor Gomory knew there had to be a way to put it to use. Gomory created RePlast, a material comprising plastic sourced from the oceans and machine-compressed into the dimensions of a typical concrete masonry unit.” Selin Ashaboglu, ecobuilding

More good news. After watching his childhood beach devastated by trash, Afroz Shah took matters into his own hands. What started off as a personal mission turned into the largest beach cleanup in the world. (3:13 video. Thanks Abigail.)

The city of Durham, North Carolina, has declared the month of March a “No Straws Month” in an attempt to call attention to the environmentally destructive presence of plastics. Numerous other cities have done so previously: do a web search for “no straw month.” —see Joe Johnson, Herald Sun

¶ “Some of the world's deepest living sea creatures have been found to have eaten microscopic pieces of plastic. Researchers at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban sampled starfish and snails from the Rockall Trough off the Western Isles. Tiny pieces of plastic were found in 48% of the sample animals that live more than 2,000m (6,561.8ft) down.” BBC

Confession. “The sea holds our sin. / As levels rise, / as ice melts, / as whales and birds wash up on shores / dead from the plastic and metal in their bellies, / as people wash up on shore / dead from desire for safety, / and our refusal to give shelter. / The sea holds our sin.” —continue reading Liza Neal’s “Holding and Looking” poem

¶ “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” video (2:57) produced by Lucie Barnett using Adele’s “Hometown Glory.” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the world’s largest trash dump, a mass of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean.

Watch this brief (1:39) video by underwater photographer Caroline Power about a “sea of plastic” floating in the Caribbean.

Words of assurance. “Be still my soul / The Lord is on your side / Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain / Leave to your God to order and provide / In every change he will remain / Be still my soul, your God will undertake / To guide the future as in ages past / You hope, your mind, your will let nothing shake / And now mysterious shall be bright.” —Page CXVI, “Be Still My Soul

Right: One of many hundreds of crabs that now make their homes out of plastic debris washed up on Henderson Island in the South Pacific. This particular item is an Avon cosmetics jar. Photograph: Jennifer Lavers

Professing our faith. “Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatreds held and nurtured over generations. Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect. Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows. Let the earth bring forth flowers to surround us with beauty. And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.” —Rabbi Harold Kushner

¶ "[L]ess well-known is what is fueling this plastics binge: fracking. In less than a decade, tens of billions of dollars have been invested in creating new manufacturing sites around the world to turn fossil fuels into resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products. The companies profiting off this surge in plastics are contributing to a growing climate crisis while generating mountains of plastic garbage.” Wenonah Hauter, Yes! Magazine

Hymn of resolution.Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (traditional chain gang song),” One Voice Mixed Chorus  in remembrance of Bayard Rustin, the least-known-most-important civil rights leader.

When photographer Ben Von Wong found out the average plastic bottle takes 450 years to decompose, he decided to put his artistic skill to work dramatizing this ecological crisis. (1:28 video. Thanks Tami.)

Microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world, leading to calls from scientists for urgent research on the implications for health. Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York.” Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Above: A piece of art made out of trash by Bonnie Monteleone to illustrate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch first described by Charles Moore.

Hymn of intercession.Oceans,” Hillsong United.

See the list of countries that have banned, severely restricted, or taxes single-use plastic bans. (There’s more than you would think.) bigfatbags

A number of South Carolina coastal towns have enacted bans on plastic bags and styrofoam cups. But the state legislature is fighting back and has approved a bill preventing such bans. —for more see Andy Shain, The Post and Courier

Preach it. “Christ says: Do according to what I say – then you shall know. Consequently, decisive action first of all. By acting, your life will come into collision with existence, and then you will know the reality of grace.” —Søren Kierkegaard

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt said his desire to use the Earth’s resources like oil and coal is grounded in the Bible.
        ‘The biblical world view with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to . . . harvest the natural resources that we've been blessed with.’” Timothy Cama, The Hill (Thanks Sarah.)

Right: This cross necklace was made by a prisoner using plastic bags.

Call to the table. “The universality of [God’s messianic] love does not consist in a refusal to take sides but rather in the way it takes sides, that is, without hatred or hostility toward people.” —Johann Baptist Metz

The state of our disunion. Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the Parkland high school shooting, has closed his Facebook account because of the “graphic death threats” he was receiving. Let that sink in for a minute. —for more see Luke Barnes, ThinkProgress (Thanks Dennis.)

Best one-liner. “The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.” —Ursula K. Le Guin

For the beauty of the earth. Meet the Halitrephes jellyfish, halfway between jellyfish and firework. (0:18 video. Thanks Connie.)

Altar call. “North Pacific suspended in a gyre / Vast trove of treasures / We once desired / All our secrets are on display now / By a leviathan / We can’t throw away now / I want to take it back / All the dirty things I’ve done to you / Please let me trace my tracks / And wake up in the sapphire blue.” —Laurel Brauns, “Doldrums,” a song about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the Pacific Ocean

Benediction. “For God so loved the world—not just the soul, but the whole. / Every mountain, every mole. / The world’s ablaze with the Only Begotten, if we only had eyes to behold. / Like the wind upon the waters, the voice upon the deep, / Let the Spirit soak and save you, whole and lasting life to keep.” —continue reading “Nicodemus,” a litany for worship inspired by John 3:1-17

Recessional.Shine.” —students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the 14 February mass shooting, give a moving performance of this original song written by survivors Sawyer Garrity and Andrea Peña, at the end of CNN's town hall (Thanks Michael.)

Lectionary for this Sunday. “After fleeing Pharaoh’s slavery through / the Red Sea’s baptism, the people of the / Most High assembled in covenant assembly / at the mountain of promise for instruction / in freedom’s demands.” —continue reading “Instruction on freedom’s demands,” a litany for worship, inspired by Exodus 20

Lectionary for Sunday next. “Behold, every princely posture, every royal / presumption will heave and smash against the / shoal of Heaven’s conspiracy with hope’s insurgence. / On that glad day every voice of distress will confess / that sorrow’s sway shall be displaced by joy’s arousal / and resurrection’s pledge.” —continue reading “Let gladness swell your heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 107

Just for fun. Adolescent tiger being teased by a gibbon ape. (2:04 video. Thanks David.)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Plastic Jesus: A Lenten meditation on plastic

• “Instruction on freedom’s demands,” a litany for worship, inspired by Exodus 20

• “Let gladness swell your heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 107

• “Nicodemus,” a litany for worship inspired by John 3:1-17

 
Other features

• “A Penitential Opportunity,” a 30-page resource for worship and education, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre”

• Several dozen new annotated book reviews have been posted in “What are you reading and why?

©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.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&politiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  21 February 2018 •  No. 153

Processional. Thousands of students and faculty from the Catholic-run St. Scholastica’s College dance en masse to protest violence against women and children on 14 February 2018, in Manila, Philippines. The annual dance, dubbed One Billion Rising, is held every Valentine’s Day. (1:15 video.)

Above: Son Doong cave is world's largest cave, located in Quang Binh province, Vietnam. It was first found by a local man named Ho Khanh in 1991 but not publicly know until 2009 when Khanh led Howard Limbert and a group of British cavers to the site. Scientists estimate the cave was created 2-5 million years ago by river water eroding away the limestone underneath the mountain. Where the limestone was weak, the ceiling collapsed creating huge skylights. For more photos and background see “Son Doong Cave.”

Invocation. “Though death e’re be prowling, sorrow confounding / Enter the halls of praise—weep, shout and sing. / Here lay your fears aside, here hope’s amending / Rejoice! all you creatures, O Death, where art thy sting?—new lyrics to “Come Ye Disconsolate,” used in “A Penitential Opportunity: A liturgy of grief and resolve over the May Lai massacre in Vietnam

Call to worship. “We gather to resolve not to leave this place unchanged or unwilling to transform this haunting memory into something good. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Yitzak Kook, ‘We don’t speak because we have the power to speak; we speak because we don’t have the power to remain silent.’” —for more see, “A Penitential Opportunity: A liturgy of grief and resolve over the May Lai massacre in Vietnam”                       

Recovering history. “Marjory Stoneman Douglas. You’ve heard her name repeatedly in the past couple of days [because of the mass shooting at the high school for which she is named], maybe for the first time and without pausing to wonder who she was.” Reading this amazing profile of the woman who “battled governments, developers, engineers, sugar cane industrialists and the apathy of normal people” to help save the Florida Everglades (among many other things). Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribute

Hymn of praise. “Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live.” HaZamir Chiamber Choir, "Rossi's Psalm 146" 

A snippet of black history. Listen to this brief (2:48) excerpt of a James Baldwin speech from 1965. (Thanks Sally.)

Confession. “This people have done evil in my sight, says the Lord. They commit abominations in their liturgy. Their invocations call upon the reign of ruin. Their incantations foster mayhem in the courts of justice. Their eucharistic practice devours the poor. Their anthems celebrate infamy; their praise songs, villainy. Their prophets accentuate the positive; their priests treat harm lightly.” —continue reading “When Scripture gets testy: A rant and riff on Jeremiah 7–8:3"

Hymn of supplication. Students in Parkland, Florida, calling for an assault rifle ban. (0:22 video. Thanks Virginia.)

Inspired by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, site of the 14 February mass shooting, several actions calling for stricter gun control legislation have happened or are planned for the coming weeks. —for more see Craig Treadway, “Florida mass shooting: Marches, walkouts and sit-ins to demand gun control

Words of assurance. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow thou art with me / though my heart's been torn on fields of battle thou art with me / though my trust is gone and my faith not near / in love's sanctuary thou art with me / Through desolation's fire and fear's dark thunder thou art with me / through the sea of desires that drag me under thou art with me. . . .” Eliza Gilkyson, “Sanctuary”

Hymn of intercession. “All my life I've been waiting for / I've been praying for / For the people to say / That we don't wanna fight no more / There will be no more wars / And our children will play / One day.” Matisyahu, “One Day”

By the numbers. US citizens make up 4.4% of the world’s population but possess 48% of the world’s civilian-owned guns.

Worship resources for “A Penitential Opportunity”
in commemorating the 16 March 1968 massacre at My Lai, Vietnam

The Occasion

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

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

        In the end, only Lt. Calley was found guilty of any crime. Convicted of premeditated murder, he was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. That sentence was eventually reduced to 10 years, though President Richard Nixon pardoned Calley after he served only three-and-a-half years under house arrest. —for more see “A Penitential Opportunity: A liturgy of grief and resolve over the May Lai massacre in Vietnam

¶ “We recognize the pastoral challenge of getting local communities of faith to devote focused attention on an episode of brutality, 50 years past, in a place thousands of miles away, where few U.S. citizens have ventured to visit. This is particularly true in a culture in which communicating God’s promise, purpose, and provision is often confused with a desire to accentuate the positive.” —continue reading the “Introduction” to the “Penitential Opportunity” worship resources

¶ “Except in a few traditional religious settings, penitence is a seldom-used word. While its more common synonyms—confession, apology, contrition, and repentance—are standard parts of many church liturgies, the images they convey have generally fallen out of favor. There are good reasons why this is so. The primary definition of penance is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.” A web search for penance reveals more than a few pictures of people whipping themselves.

        But we privilege confession and absolution in our liturgy not because God enjoys our humiliation. Just the opposite. By the grace of God, confession frees us from the power of our failures. Confession provides the possibility to begin again. It means we are not defined by our past. It means a different future is possible. The wreckage wrought by human behavior is real, but the future is not thereby fated.” —continue reading “The Ties that Bind: The Integrity of Penitence, on the 50th Anniversary of the Massacre at My Lai

The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of the history of U.S. involvement in Indochina commissioned in 1967 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and leaked in 1971 by Marine veteran and Pentagon defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, contains a Defense Department memo under the Johnson Administration listing three pro-rated reasons for continuing prosecution of the war in Vietnam:

        •70% – To avoid a humiliating defeat.

        •20% – To keep South Vietnam and the adjacent territory from Chinese hands.

        •10% – To permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life—continue reading “Vietnam, My Lai, and US Involvement: Historical notes"

Can’t makes this sh*t up. In his seven-minute speech from the White House last Thursday, President Trump spoke to the nation about the mass shooting at a Florida high school. But he didn’t once use the word “gun.” Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in calling for a moment of silence to commemorate the killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, never used the word “gun.”

Preach it. “We call BS!” Listen to this stirring speech (3:11) by Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez, calling out political leaders, and their NRA enablers, for refusing to enact restraints on gun malignancy.

The state of our disunion. “United States border patrol agents routinely vandalise containers of water and other supplies left in the Arizona desert for migrants, condemning people to die of thirst in baking temperatures. Volunteers found water gallons vandalised 415 times, on average twice a week, in an 800 square mile patch of Sonoran desert south-west of Tucson, from March 2012 to December 2015. . . . During this period the remains of 593 border crossers have been found in the desert.” Rory Carroll, The Guardian

Best one-liner #1. “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Call to the table.Độc tấu Đàn Tranh Lý tiểu khúc” (“Song of Dragonfly”), Vietnamese Zither Harp Dan Tranh.

Best one-liner #2. “One Undeniable Factor In Gun Violence: Men,” Jill Filipovic, Time.

For the beauty of the earth. “Nature: Songbirds in the snow,” where birds are “trying to jump start spring.” CBS Sunday Morning (2:03 video)

Altar call. “I want to live in a country that loves its children more than its guns.” —author unknown

Benediction. “this is lent’s reproach / to easter’s promised rise / for whose approach we / will never intercede / short of facing these / facts, drinking these / dregs, eating this / sorrow, with (literal) / death-defying resolve / that another WORD / is yet to be heard.” —continue reading “Another Word is yet to be heard: A rant following the 14 February 2018 mass shooting at Douglas High

Recessional. “O saving Victim [Sacrifice], opening wide / The gate of Heaven to us below; / Our foes press hard on every side; / Thine aid supply; thy strength bestow.” —translated lyrics to “O Salutaris Hostia,” a section of one of the Eucharistic hymns written by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century for the Feast of Corpus Christi, performed by the Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, UK

Lectionary for this Sunday. “El Shaddai” (“God Almighty,” Genesis 17:1) is one of several “names” given to God in Scripture. El Shaddai is a feminine noun, which can be translated “God of the breast,” conveying the quality of nourishing, satisfying and supplying needs. The English translation of “El Shaddai” as “God Almighty” is misleading, because “almighty” suggests omnipotence, the capacity to overpower or destroy. Whereas “Shaddai” infers sufficiency and nourishment (i.e., “blessings of the breasts and of the womb”) and implies a certain fecudity.

Lectionary for Sunday next. “After fleeing Pharaoh’s slavery through / the Red Sea’s baptism, the people of the / Most High assembled in covenant assembly / at the mountain of promise for instruction / in freedom’s demands.” —continue reading “Instruction on freedom’s demands,” a litany for worship, inspired by Exodus 20

Just for fun. “Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories,” [awesome!] photos by Christopher Payne, New York Times Magazine. (Thanks Jennifer.)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Another Word is yet to be heard: A rant following the 14 February 2018 mass shooting at Douglas High

• “The Ties that Bind: The Integrity of Penitence, on the 50th Anniversary of the Massacre at My Lai

• “When Scripture gets testy: A rant and riff on Jeremiah 7–8:3"
 

Special resource

“A Penitential Opportunity” resource for worship to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre.
        After the Pentagon announced plans for a 10 year public program to retell the story of the Vietnam War and commemorate the war’s 50th anniversary, a group of anti-war activists formed the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee  “to monitor the commemoration activities, challenge them when necessary, and publicly elevate the role of the anti-war movement in ending the war. Our efforts to confront the Pentagon’s self-serving war timeline resulted in a New York Times article in November 2016 entitled Activists Call for Realistic Portrayal of Vietnam War on Pentagon Website, and led to the Pentagon’s partial rewrite of its Vietnam timeline. One example: the timeline initially glossed over the tragic My Lai Massacre, calling it the ‘My Lai Incident.’”
        Special Note: There will be a vigil in Lafayette Park (across from the White House) from 12 noon – 1 pm on Friday 16 March. For more info contact Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, 202.686.7483.
        The committee invited Ken Sehested to develop resources to assist congregations to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. The 30-page document, titled “A Penitential Opportunity,” is now available.

      You can download the entire packet of resources (pdf format) from the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee’s website

        You can also download most of the individuals pieces (for copying and editing, as you think appropriate) on the prayer&politks site:

        • “Introduction” to the “Penitential Opportunity” worship resources

        •  “Penitential Opportunity: A Liturgy of Grief and Resolve over the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam

        • “Vietnam, My Lai, and US Involvement: Historical notes"

        • “A Litany of Reflection and Resolve: In Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the My Lai Massacre,” by Paul Hayes

        • “A Village Named My Lai: A Post-war Reflection” by Earl Martin, one of a handful of US citizens who remained in Vietnam after the war’s end

        •”Poems” included in the "Penitential Opportunity" worship resource

        • “Quotes from Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture and tradition"
 

©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.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&politiks.org” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at kensehested@prayerandpolitiks.org.

 

A Village Named My Lai

A Post-war Reflection

by Earl Martin

         I sit by the ditch.

         The slight breeze murmurs through the tropical pines at the ditch’s edge. Sugar cane sparrows and swallows fill the air with their own chirps and warbles. Roosters crow at distant farmsteads, and conical-hatted farmers scratch the sandy ground with broad-bladed hoes. A sleek iridescent lizard makes her way down the ditch’s side toward a few inches of water at the bottom. She looks casually for some insects to make her a mid-morning snack.

         Despite the rustles, all is quiet at My Lai this morning.

         Still, the ditch must remember. On March 16, 1968, this ditch became the scene of pleas and cries, rifle shots and grenade explosions. This ditch became the killing field for 170 women, men, elders and children of this village. Here, the logic of war went totally berserk.

         The angry, frightened American unit sent into My Lai under the command of Lt. William Calley on that morning of March 16, 1968, suspected wrongly—based on confusion of a village name on the military maps—that the village was heavily defended by Viet Cong. Their fear apparently led to the senseless slaughter, as they herded the farmers into the ditch and shot them down.

         Today, a young boy with eager eyes under a purple baseball cap suddenly appears and slides down the ditch opposite me. His smaller sidekick in goldenrod shirt climbs in bare feet up one of the pines. When the smaller tyke shakes a branch, a huge, black beetle drops loose and buzzes down into the ditch. An older lanky girl nearby—is she a sister?—in conical hat swoops down and with one swat captures the big bug in her hand. A new pet for the day.

         The innocent play of children surrounds My Lai today.

         I walk past the memorial wall tiles reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica” with all creation crying to the heavens for life and justice. I move among the low graves stones marking the memories of some of the reported 504 persons who were slain in different sites around the village that morning. I encounter a woman sitting quietly under a coconut tree with her two children. When I greet her in Vietnamese, her reticence softens. I introduce myself, and she tells me her name is Nguyen thi Nhung, a native of My Lai.

         I ask Mrs. Nhung where she, as a young girl, had been on that fated morning. “Our house used to be over there,” she points. They rounded us all up, drove us into the ditch.”

         The shy mother stops for a moment, swallows, and continues. “The rest were killed, but I was underneath the others in the ditch. They didn’t see me. If they had seen me, I’d be dead, too.”

         Nhung says she lost her mother, her father, and three younger siblings that morning. Her tone of voice surprises me. Clearly this woman carries deep sadness from the memories. But I can discern not a trace of bitterness toward me or toward any Americans.

         As I sit there with Mrs. Nhung, I think of Lt. Calley himself and wonder whether even he could ever return to visit My Lai. Here, as on other occasions in Vietnam, I marvel at the apparent lack of bitterness. Do Asians love life less that we in the West, as stereotypes sometimes suggest? I sense not.

         Rather, it seems there is an acceptance of destiny. Số mệnh. Fate. I want to live. I want my children to live. But if I die, if my child dies, I must come to terms with reality. To deny that reality, to hold prolonged bitterness about that reality, would only mean your spirit would begin to devour your body. Better to accept the past as past.

         Later, March 16, 1993, I return to My Lai. Perhaps a thousand local farmers and students have gathered for the 25-year commemoration of that tragic morning. When I arrive, the organizers of the memorial service ask if I, apparently the only American present, would like to speak as part of the ceremony. I hesitate. I certainly have prepared nothing. But as I ponder the invitation, I recall the healing I had witnessed in previous years when Japanese church persons, during visits to the Philippines and Indonesia, expressed sorrow for the actions of their countrymen during World War II. So when I am asked a second time, I agree to speak.

         In the ceremony, community representatives present large floral wreaths in front of a great My Lai memorial statue. Then a local official gives a speech recounting the brutal events of that morning 25 years ago. While he is vivid in his description of the massacre, his is not a vengeful or angry speech. He does not pronounce blanket condemnations on Americans. Nor, I note without surprise, does he speak about any of the Viet Cong terrors that had also been part of the war’s reality. Instead, as most officials in this era, he goes to great pains to say that the war was a thing of the past . . . that Vietnam now seeks friendly ties with all countries, including the United States. A second official then rises to give a boilerplate speech about the economic development plans of the district.

         Then I am beckoned to the rostrum. Placed last in the short ceremony, I speak in simple Vietnamese. The crowd hushes. Probably because they have never heard their language spoken in a such a strange, foreign accent! But they remain attentive, sometimes craning necks to get a better view. Occasionally they look at each other and nod in assent. As the end, they applaud their appreciation for the simple expressions of sadness, of longing for forgiveness and peace.

         After the talks, young students distribute joss sticks. We walk silently from grave to grave, passing in reverence for the villagers who lost their lives. I pray in silence by the irrigation ditch where Mrs. Nhung’s parents and siblings had been shot exactly 25 years earlier. Curious children gather around and press close on every side. Their presence reassures me deeply. Through blurred eyes I see in their gentle, smiling faces hope for the future of My Lai and the future of this scarred land.

         As I leave the hamlet, Mrs. Nhung appears again from the coconut trees. She is wearing for the occasion what may be her only silky, embroidered dress, or ao dai, holding her conical hat. As we pass, we pause and bow slightly toward each other in simple respect.

#  #  #

Earl Martin was among a handful of U.S. citizens in Vietnam that stayed on after the North Vietnamese rout of the South Vietnamese army and the departure of U.S. troops. He and his wife, Pat Hostetter Martin, who were married the day before the My Lai massacre, spent five years in war-torn Vietnam as Mennonite Central Committee workers. As of this writing, they are back in Vietnam with their children, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Earl is the author of Reaching the Other Side, published in 1978.

When Scripture gets testy

A rant and riff on Jeremiah 7–8:3

by Ken Sehested

Remember that time when Jeremiah failed to accentuate the positive?

“The word from On High came to crotchety Jeremiah: Stand in the gate of the YHWH’s house and announce: Thus says the Lord. Assess your days and amend your ways. Do not rely on deceptive marketing campaigns, or say ‘God bless America,’ ‘God bless America,’ ‘God bless America.’

“For if you do well, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood, then I will dwell with you. But see how my sanctuary has become an altar for violent design—Torah’s and Psalmist’s, Prophet’s and Gospel’s place usurped by gunmetal steel.

“My house has become a den of pistol packing pietists, certain that their firepower serves to protect the integrity of the Most High who, GREAT as he is and all, is just a little naïve about the possibility of active shooters and thus the need for safety training, practicing lock-down procedures, video surveillance, car tag monitoring services in the parking lot, and off-duty deputies guarding the till.”

Maybe, we say, we could dual-purpose the choir rehearsal room to serve as a shooting practice range for church staff and deacons, and hand-to-hand combat techniques using ink pens as knives, with training in how to aim at intruders’ carotid arteries at the first shout of “Allahu Akbar!”

(Ooops. Those church house shooters tend to be the white-male-Christian variety.)

What’s that, pastor, about aliens? Don’t worry, we’ll get ICE down here pronto to get them into one of the private prison deportee camps where no writ of habeas corpus can reach them. We’ll get the lighter skinned orphans and widows to the social service office and get the rest bused back to their neighborhoods beyond the tracks. The Salvation Army and rescue shelters have experience handling this kind. We always take our Wednesday night church supper leftovers there. (I’ve heard some say those shelters spoil their guests, particularly whoever gets Mrs. McKlesson’s chicken and dumplings.) I don’t mean we take it, you know. That would violate our church security protocol. Willie, our custodian drops it off on his way home. He knows the neighborhood.

“The Lord God of Heaven speaks to the shut-out, warning against the rationers of Heaven’s manna, saying, ‘As for you, do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you. Their confidence is vested in what they strap on their hip, in their legislative graft, in the market’s bullish tilt and their brokerage firm’s guilt.’

“This people have done evil in my sight, says the Lord. They commit abominations in their liturgy. Their invocations call upon the reign of ruin. Their incantations foster mayhem in the courts of justice. Their eucharistic practice devours the poor. Their anthems celebrate infamy; their praise songs, villainy. Their prophets accentuate the positive; their priests treat harm lightly.

“Their benedictions are boisterous claims to more of the same.

“At the appointed time, says the Sovereign, all the bones of their presidents and congressional leaders, chief justices and CEOs, shall be disinterred and spread before the sun, and what they previously worshiped will be turned against them. And they shall be scattered to sh*thole regions, to be heard from no more.”

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Penitential Opportunity

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

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

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

*Opening Song – “Come, Ye Disconsolate”

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

All: Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call to Worship

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

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

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

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

All: Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words of Assurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Options for special music]

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

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

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

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

*Please rise in body or spirit.

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

A Litany of Reflection and Resolve

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

by Paul C. Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#  #  #

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

The Ties That Bind

The Integrity of Penitence, on the 50th Anniversary of the Massacre at My Lai

Ken Sehested

The following essay appears in a worship resource packet, "A Penitential Opportunity," created for (and soon to be available from) the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee to call attention to the 50th anniversary of the 16 March 1968 massacre by US troops of more than 500 civilians in My Lai, Vietnam.

 

"Concealment makes the soul a swamp. Confession is how you drain it."
—Charles M. Blow, New York Times columnist

        Except in a few traditional religious settings, penitence is a seldom used word. While its more common synonyms—confession, apology, contrition, and repentance—are standard parts of many church liturgies, the images they convey have generally fallen out of favor. There are good reasons why this is so. The primary definition of penance is “voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.” A web search for penance reveals more than a few pictures of people whipping themselves.

        But we privilege confession and absolution in our liturgy not because God enjoys our humiliation. Just the opposite. By the grace of God, confession frees us from the power of our failures. Confession provides the possibility to begin again. It means we are not defined by our past. It means a different future is possible. The wreckage wrought by human behavior is real; but the future is not thereby fated.

        What does attention to penitential life have to do with the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre? Everything—if we’re looking for root causes and not merely explanations.

           On March 16, 1968, a platoon of U.S. soldiers led by Lt. William Calley committed war crimes in the small village of My Lai, Vietnam. They were expecting a military encounter that didn’t occur. Then, for reasons beyond human capacity to comprehend, they began systematically killing women, children, and elderly men—500 or so. Of the 26 officers and soldiers initially charged with crimes at My Lai, only Lt. Calley was convicted—of premeditated murder, for which he could have received the death penalty. Instead he was remanded to life in prison at hard labor. Eventually his sentence was reduced to 10 years, but he served only five months in prison and 35 months under house arrest. Though he finally made a public admission of remorse for My Lai in 2009, Calley never wavered from his trial testimony that he was simply following orders.

           Fiftieth anniversaries are occasions to recognize personal transitions and public events, to reconsider their meaning and highlight their function in shaping current commitments and future outcomes. Yet it’s reasonable to ask, Why focus attention on such a horrific memory? Does that not simply embed its lasting, traumatizing impact? For those of us who weren’t there—maybe even weren’t alive—on what basis can we repent for something we didn’t do?

§  §  §

"They have treated the wound of my people carelessly. They acted shamefully,
they committed abomination, yet they did not know how to blush."

—Jeremiah 6:14-15

§  §  §

           Our recent national history is replete with apologies of the “mistakes were made” variety that deny responsibility and vague, scattershot “I apologize if I offended anyone” excuses for unconscionable behavior. It’s easy to understand public disdain for any sort of penitential language. If absolution comes with no resolution—to live differently, in whatever small and incremental way—confession has been emptied of all meaning, and worse: it is become religious armor for infamy. Mercy opens a portal to repentance, characterized not so much by apologetic expression as by the hard work of repairing the damage, of reestablishing trustworthy relations.

           If we are to envision anything other than a dystopian future—rule of the brutal, by the brutal, for the brutal—we must recover language for what the Greek New Testament calls metanoia, meaning “to turn around, to change one’s life,” usually translated as “repentance.” To get there involves several precepts.

           The first is distinguishing between shame and guilt. Insidiously, in our culture guilt is confused with shame, a form of self-preoccupation that engenders paralysis and passivity, an escape—knowingly or not—from response-ability. Shame removes agency, whereas the proper function of guilt is to authorize and mobilize the work of restoration.

        The second precept in the recovery of penitential language is recognition of such work as a public process, not just a private solitary event.

        The third precept is comprehending the purpose of judgment as restoration, not retaliation; the reclamation of virtue, not the authorization of vengeance. This framework has ancient antecedents in the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam (repair of the world) from the Jewish Mishnah, the Talmud, and the mystic Kabbalah literature in speaking of the matrix of spiritual transformation.

        The fourth precept is acknowledging that the process of restoration is almost always discomforting, frightening, and strenuous. Powerful interests are invested in keeping things the way things are. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who sat next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 as he delivered his controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City’s Riverside Church, wrote “God is not nice. God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.”

        The resolve to no longer be silent in the face of abuse is the fifth precept in a recovery of penitential living. Among the many memorable lines from Dr. King’s bold and dangerous speech critiquing the Vietnam War is “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

        Ending silence in the face of abuse begins with the ritual work of lament, itself a form of penitence. This sixth precept is among many things to be learned from African-American communities of faith. The articulation of grief—whether in speech or music or dance or moaning—contains in its very performance the generative power of assurance that siphons away the power of fear. Our capacity to grieve and lament are directly related to our capacity for hope, much like the circumference of a tree’s canopy is proportionate to its root system.

        The last of these seven precepts, drawn from Rebecca Solnit’s amazing book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, brings us back to where we began. Solnit writes, “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. Hope is an ax you break down doors with in the case of emergency. . . The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”

        The penitential life, which begins in disillusionment and grief, pushes toward clarity, which leads toward a kind of hope that is more than daydreaming. To hope for something is not a wouldn’t-it-be-nice sentiment. Hope binds us to a process designed to overcome injustice by forging equitable relations.       

        Conflict mediation specialist Byron Bland has written 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: 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, sometimes ruthless world.

        As Dr. King wrote in his anguished essay “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” These cords neither smother nor strangle. Such covenants are essential both for human and ecological flourishing. And this is what it means to be righteous in the eyes of God.

§  §  §

“You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free; but first it will make you miserable.”
—author unknown

§  §  §

           In what way does a commemoration of the My Lai massacre represent a penitential opportunity? The short answer: Because as a nation we have never allowed ourselves to fully acknowledge the carnage—not just in My Lai or in Vietnam more generally. Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 revealed a long pattern of lies, cover-ups, and prevarication by the U.S. government and military commanders over the course of four presidencies and different political affiliations.

           The purpose for marking March 16 on our calendars this year is not to re-litigate those charged in the massacre, or their commanding officers, or the top elected officials who created and sustained the conditions for, and covered up the results of, those killing fields. The purpose for remembering My Lai begins with the fundamental notion of citizen responsibility within democratic political systems. We are responsible for demanding truthfulness from our leaders, along with insisting on the implementation of the ideals of justice embedded in our governing documents. Remembering that we have been lied to before, on a massive scale, requires continuing vigilance.

           For people of faith—and the theme of penitence is common to a great many religious traditions—remembering My Lai reminds us of the human capacity for brutality and for its rationalization of political corruption, military domination, and economic expansion. Public confession over My Lai has been minimal at best. Initially chastened after the war following revelations of its corrupt pursuit, the public has long since forgotten the impact of treachery when commercial pursuit, political deceit, and military aggression collude.

           Considering this legacy alongside the rise in the U.S. of national chauvinism and white supremacy, in the hands of an increasingly authoritarian political culture in which truthfulness is a consumer choice, the result an environment mobilizing against anything remotely resembling the tikkun olam of Judaism, of Jesus’ announcement of the reign of God, or of Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community.

           The fact that this year on April 4, less than three weeks after the My Lai anniversary, we also mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King is especially instructive. King was not murdered because he was a dreamer; nor even for insisting on integrated water fountains, bus seating arrangements, and voting rights. He was murdered because he dared to identify a more persistent and deep-seated flaw in our national character which gave (and continues to give) rise both to domestic oppression and international aggression.

           This flaw is stuck in our craw. The penitential opportunity, with this year’s coincidence of golden anniversaries, remains open to us all.

Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered.
We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
—adrienne maree brown

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Poems

Included in the "Penitential Opportunity" worship resource

An Outline for a Service Acknowledging War Crimes
Has the United States ever apologized? Or are we too big to apologize?”
—Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, helicopter pilot, U.S. Army

The Chaplains Handbook has no prayer or rite,
Nor Book of Common Prayer nor missalette,
For scrutinies that beg forgiveness from

The mutilated dead. We come contrite
For reports of helicopter gunships.
The Chaplains Handbook has no prayer or rite

For bodies observed in a ditch; the undress
Of a girl who covered only her eyes—
A scrutiny that begs her forgiveness—

Noncombatant gang rape, with bayonette.
Old age we robbed from them, our years condemn.
The Chaplains Handbook has no prayer or rite.

We confess to you, brothers and sisters,
Our Agnus Dei mocked your mutilation,
Lacked sufficient scrutiny to beg you.

“Kill anything that moves,” bloodlust, U.S.
Five hundred and four in My Lai, Son My.
The Chaplains Handbook has no prayer or rite
For scrutinies of war crimes. We beg. Forgive.

Old age we robbed from them, our own years condemn.
We confess to you, brothers and sisters,
We will remember them.

—Rose Marie Berger, poetry editor and senior associate editor, Sojourners magazine, written for the 50th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre. Hugh Thompson was the helicopter pilot who tried to halt the massacre, rescuing civilians while training his machine gun on U.S. soldiers, threatening to shoot if they did not stop the slaughter.

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Sorry, sorry, sorry: The political meaning of “collateral damage” repentance

We kill and bomb
Murder and maim
Target and terrorize mostly
      (for high-tech armies)
from great distance
the better not to see actual faces
or severed limbs, or intestines oozing through
holes where belly buttons used to testify
to being a mother-born child

But then we apologize
      Sorry
            So sorry
                  Deeply regret
                        Such a tragedy!
                              Sorry, sorry, sorry

We do everything we can to limit civilian casualties
“This isn’t Sunday school”
      (one politician’s actual words)
Didn’t have those children in our sights
Impossible to see, at 10,000 feet,
      whether Kalashnakovs are present
Smart bombs aren’t flawless
Flawed intelligence
      (as if a test score were at stake)
Military necessity
Rules of engagement need refining
S**t happens
We gave them advance warning
War is hell

The unintended consequences and inevitable
eventualities in hostile force-reduction and
counter-insurgency strategic operations
      (See s**t happens)
Freedom isn’t free
Do unto others before they do unto you
Asymmetrical warfare
      (“Why don’t they come out and fight like men!”)
No independent verification of claims of civilian massacre
      (aka, no one left standing)
“This is no My Lai” (Vietnam, where as many as 504—
      the Pentagon says only 347—unarmed women,
      children and old men were killed by U.S. troops, no
      weapons recovered, for which one soldier was
      convicted, spending 4 months in prison.)

We fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here
      (which is why the U.S. needs 1,000 or so military
      bases outside its borders, dozens with golf courses)

Won’t happen again, unless it does, then
                                    Sorry, Sorry, Sorry
Video, and sentiments, at the top of the hour
      They left us no option
            Forced into this corner
                  Them or us
                        Hearings to be convened
                              We’ll get to the bottom of this
We need to wait ’til all the facts are in

But only eyes, no heads, will roll:
      foreign-born blood being cheap as it is
If war is the answer
      the question must be really stupid

—Ken Sehested, editor/author of prayerandpolitiks.org, written after hearing one too many public officials rationalize “collateral damage” against innocent victims of military strikes

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The Bullet

I tried to domesticate the bullet,
To take her with me to school,
To teach her the alphabet
And have her speak.
But she is made of black clay
And stuffed with canned blood.

I tried to domesticate the bullet,
To take her to the water spring,
To the fields of dew.
But she has consumptive lips
That love to kiss the lips of death,
To rummage our wreck
And blow ashes in our eyes.

I tried to domesticate the bullet,
To lead her to the truth,
To wash her copper with perfumes
And replace her gun powder with sweets.
But she refused to be unlocked,
And remained dripping pus,
With poison in her breath.

—written by an unidentified Iraqi soldier following the 1991 Gulf War

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We

In a museum of the city
once called Saigon, are snapshots. One’s
been blown up so we can all see
it clearly. An American,

a young foot soldier, stands on battle
pocked land, his helmet at a jaunty
tilt, posed for buddies as the Model
Grunt. In his left hand he is dangling,

like Perseus, a head by its hair.
Though not Medusa’s, it’s his charm
for turning fear to stone. Its stare
will quiet, awhile, his throbbing chest.

The tattered flesh that once dressed collar
bones hangs rags from this Vietnamese
neck, captured with the soldier’s scar
of grin by a friend’s camera.

Is it enough to see it clearly?
We all know what to think. The whitewashed
walls of a second room show nearly
as many black-and-white shots of

Cambodian atrocities
against Vietnamese. No room’s hung
with what was done to enemies
of Vietnam, just as there’s no

American museum built
to show off snapshots of My Lai.
One pronoun keeps at bay our guilt –
they they they they they they

—Karen Swenson, an award-winning poet and journalist who has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia

Quotes from Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture and tradition

Supplement to the "Penitential Opportunity" worship resource

§ The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. . . . [God] raises up the poor from the dust [and] lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with the rulers and inherit a seat of honor. —1 Samuel 2:4-5, 8a

§ You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say unto you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. —Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: Whoever is untrustworthy in his dealings has no faith, and whoever is not committed to his promises has no religion. —Bayhaqi

§By three things the world is preserved, by [restorative] justice, by truth, and by peace, and these three are one: if [restorative] justice has been accomplished, so has truth, and so has peace. —JT Ta'anit 4:2

§ True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it shelters the destitute; it serves those that harm it; it binds up that which is wounded. It has become all things to all. —Menno Simons (c. 1496-1561)

§ Do then those who devise evil feel secure that ALLAH will not cause the earth to swallow them up or that the wrath will not seize them from directions they little perceive? Or that He may not call them to account in the midst of their goings to and fro without a chance of their frustrating Him? Or that He may not call them to account by a process of slow wastage? For your Lord is indeed full of kindness and mercy. —Qur’an, Surah Nahl, 45-47

§ A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. —Psalms 33:16-17

§ Repay no one evil for evil. . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. . . . If your enemies are hungry, feed them. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. —Romans 12:17a, 19a, 20a, 21

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: It does not befit a faithful person to have a full belly while his neighbor goes without. —Bukhari and Muslim

§ Not by military might, and not by force of arms. By spirit [nonviolence] alone, says Adonai.  —Zechariah 4:6

§ Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . And I heard a loud voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” —Revelation 21:1, 3a, 4

§ To each among you We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If ALLAH had so willed He would have made you all one community but [He wishes] to test you in that which He has given you, so compete with each other in good works. The goal of you all is ALLAH; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute. —Qur’an, Surah Ma’idah, 48

§ Seek peace and pursue it. —Psalm 34:15

§ I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight. —St. Martin of Tours (c.335-397)

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: When God created the creation, he inscribed upon the Throne, “My Mercy overpowers My wrath.” —Bukhari and Muslim

§ Because you have trusted in your power, and in the multitude of your warriors; therefore the tumult of war shall rise among your people. —Hosea 10:13b-14

§ When Christ disarmed Peter in the garden, he disarmed all Christians. —Tertullian (c.160-c.225)

§ The recompense of an ill deed is the like thereof. But whosoever pardons and amends, his reward is due from God, who does not love tyrants. —Qur’an, Surah Shura, 40

§ Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you. That is the entire Torah. Now go study. —Hillel

§ Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved. —St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833)

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) sent Mu’adh [as a governor] to Yemen and said, “Be afraid of the curse of the oppressed, for there is no screen between their prayer and God.” —Bukhari

§ The accomplishments of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggest that Isaiah's dictum is not so much sentimentalism as it is realpolitik of the spirit: "For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In turning and stillness shall you be saved.  In tranquility and trust shall be your strength. . . ." —Everett E. Gendler, "The Roots of Jewish Nonviolence," quoting Isaiah 30:15

§ What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. —James 4:1-2

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: That man whose neighbor is not safe from harassment has no faith. —Bukhari and Muslim

§ Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace. —Isaiah 32:16-17

§ May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses and our garments and [judge] whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. —John Woolman (1720-1772)

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: The best jihad is to speak a word of truth to an unjust ruler. —Abu Dawud

§ He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? Says the Lord. —Jeremiah 22:16

§ Contrary to the rest of men enlist yourself in an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without wrath, without stain. . . . If the loud trumpet summons soldiers to war, shall not Christ with a strain of peace to the ends of the earth gather up his soldiers of peace? A bloodless army he has assembled by blood and by the word, to give them the Kingdom of Heaven. —Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215)

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Help your fellow Muslim whether oppressor or oppressed.” “We know how to help the oppressed, but how are we to help the oppressor?” “Your help to him is to prevent him from oppressing.” —Bukhari

§ But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword, nor by war, nor by horses, nor by horsemen. —Hosea 1:7

§ Imagine the vanity of thinking that your enemy can do you more damage than your enmity.  —St. Augustine (354-430)

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: God has mercy upon those who are merciful to others. —Bukari

§ If a person of learning sits in his or her home and says to herself, “What have the affairs of society to do with me?  Why should I trouble myself with the people's voices of protest?  Let my soul dwell in Peace!” If he does this, he overthrows [destroys] the world. —Tanhuma Mishpatim

§ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. —Luke 4:18-19

§ The Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) said: There are people among the servants of God who are neither prophets nor martyrs; the prophets and martyrs will envy them on the Day of Resurrection for their rank before God, the Most High.” People asked: “Tell us, Messenger of God, who are they?” He replied: “They are people who love one another for the spirit of God, without any mutual kinship or exchange of property. I swear by God, their faces will glow and they will stand in light. They will have no fear when the people will fear, and they will not grieve when the people will grieve.” He then recited the Qur’anic verse: “Behold! Verily for the friends of God there is no fear, nor shall they grieve.” —Abu Dawud

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The above quotes are selected from longer lists in “Peace Primer II: Quotes from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Scripture & Tradition,” Lynn Gottlieb, Rabia Terri Harris, and Ken Sehested, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017.