Recent

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.

#  #  #

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

#  #  #

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.

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  15 February 2018  •  No. 152

by Ken Sehested

“A child of God is dead. Can not we acknowledge
in this country that we cannot accept this?”

—former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd, breaking into tears when talking about the 15 February 2018 school shooting in Broward County, Florida. Who could predict that a terror expert could be anointed as the Spirit’s agent in prophetic protest against the spirit of the age?

nothing says ash wednesday
or valentine’s day
like murdered children

thoughts and prayers
yachts and snares
crackpots and debonairs

mascots and nom de guerres
mug shots and glares
onslaughts and concierges

whatnots and au pairs
Croats and Khmers
tater tots and teddy bears

the next public figure
who offers thoughts and
prayers to grieving parents

and traumatized teachers
should be sentenced to
cradling stillborn babies

in their arms
for at least
half an eternity

and tie gun barrels
into knots
for the remainder

we have had
on average
one school schooling

per week in the
last five years
this year alone

138 children have
died or been wounded
by gunfire

the nra be damned
can you imagine the
sh*tstorm of missiles

that would fly
toward Syria
if US troops endured

such casualties
it requires no
grammatician

to read the
second amendment
where the dependent clause

“the right to bear arms”
is subordinate to
the independent clause

“a WELL REGULATED militia”
g-ddam the nra and their
every congressional lackey

“unfortunately, lessons are
never, never learn” was the
response of news anchor

Wolf Blitzer to Philip Mudd
who broke into sobs
when asked to make

sense of such abomination
there was no emotion in
Blitzer’s voice, only

resignation, as if so say
“that’s the way  the world is”
and will be, world without

end 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

©ken sehested@prayerandpolitiks.org

 

Vietnam, My Lai, and U.S. Involvement

Historical Notes

§ On March 16, 1968, Lt. William Calley led his platoon into the hamlet of My Lai in the Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam. They raped women and girls and shot indiscriminately at civilians as they ran from their huts. Survivors were rounded up and executed in a ditch. Over several hours, more than 500 civilians were massacred. Only Lt. Calley was found guilty of any crime. Convicted of premeditated murder, he was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor but was pardoned by President Richard Nixon after serving five months in prison and 35 months under house arrest.

§ “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.” Lt. William Calley

§ At Calley’s trial, one defense witness testified that he remembered Captain Ernest Medina ordering the soldiers to destroy everything in the village that was “walking, crawling or growing”.

§ “Hugh Thompson was the helicopter pilot who tried to halt the My Lai massacre…. [H]e rescued 15 defenseless civilians while training his machine guns on US infantrymen…threatening to shoot if they did not stop the slaughter.” — “Hugh Thompson: US pilot who tried to stop the My Lai massacre of civilians in the Vietnam war,” The Guardian

        See also “Helicopter Pilot Who Stopped My Lai Massacre Was Called A Traitor In America & Almost Court-Martialed,” Sharon Russell, War History Online.

§ Due to immense pressure to produce significant “body counts” as evidence of U.S. success in Vietnam, during the war the policy effectively became “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].” In the aftermath, an entry on the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration website for My Lai, which describes the massacre as an “incident,” initially underreported the casualties as 200, not 500, and now says simply “hundreds.” A whistle-blower contacted U.S. Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, pleading for an investigation of civilian casualties. The resulting study revealed that the body count was equivalent to “a My Lai each month.” —Nick Turse, “Was My Lai just one of many massacres in Vietnam war?” BBC News

§ It took 19 months for the truth of what happened at My Lai to be exposed, by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, on November 12, 1969, on the Associated Press wire service.

§ “We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division, which inevitably resulted in My Lai, were the policies of other Army and Marine divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lieutenant William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide.” 1st Lt. William Crandell, 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, at the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War

§ “Many in the United States were outraged by Calley’s sentence…. After the conviction, the White House received over 5,000 telegrams; the ratio was 100 to 1 in favor of leniency. In a telephone survey of the American public, 79 percent disagreed with the verdict, 81 percent believed that the life sentence Calley had received was too stern, and 69 percent believed Calley had been made a scapegoat.”

§ “On August 19, 2009, while speaking to the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Calley issued an apology for his role in the My Lai massacre: ‘There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry…. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.’”

§ “In war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again.” Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking in 2004 of the time that he, as an Army major in Vietnam, was assigned the task of investigating reports of the My Lai massacre. His report concluded “relations between [U.S. troops] and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

§ 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.

§ Because of the Vietnam War, “The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech, April 4, 1967

§ For more about U.S. involvement and deception regarding Vietnam, see the PBS documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The Post, a 2018 commercial film, is a riveting portrayal of The Washington Post’s conflicted decision to print a portion of “The Pentagon Papers.”

#  #  #

Compiled by ©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

Introduction to the Penitential Opportunity Resources

The meaning of penitence in the face of the My Lai massacre's 50th anniversary

by Ken Sehested

Those of us who worked on the My Lai Massacre 50th Anniversary resources share a belief that truth is found in many faith traditions. A list of relevant quotes from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is included. What we believe we all share in common is the longing and struggle for a world characterized by mercy, in turn mediating the demands of justice and the prerequisites of peace.

Those who planned the sample liturgy are Christians, and we write from our own experience; we do not presume the ability to leap from our context to construct a service incorporating the insights from other spiritual traditions. We recognize that honest interfaith engagement does not include abandoning our own confessional expressions, though it does mean holding such convictions with humility. Among other things, humility requires listening, the most penitential posture when approaching God, who always—always—calls to us from beyond borders and boundaries.

We trust that those who gather with us from other traditions, or of no particular religious affiliation, will participate as fully as vision and conscience allow. Even more, we hope that you may find some useful material in these resources (from which you are free to borrow and edit or adapt as seems appropriate) to develop a “Penitential Opportunity” service appropriate to your own tradition.

Included in addition to the liturgy are several supplemental resources: suggestions for additional music, litanies, and other readings; a meditation on the meaning of penitence, a theme integral to many religious traditions; a brief collection of historical facts to help in understanding the context of the My Lai massacre; a collection of quotes to guide deeper reflection and seasoned conviction; and a testimony from a volunteer in My Lai.

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.

The writing and compiling of these liturgical resources was done in anticipation of the Christian season of Lent, when penitence is a key theme, culminating in Easter’s hopeful promise of a redemptive future. This year the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is April 4, only three days after the church’s buoyant proclamation of death’s coming annulment. We seek prayers from every quarter to assist us in knowing how to seek the Beloved Community he proclaimed, and to live animated by Resurrection’s promise, in the face of the world’s seemingly endless confidence in what theologian Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.”

#  #  #

Ken Sehested, author and editor of prayerandpolitiks.org, wrote, compiled, and edited the material in this resource on behalf of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee. Unless otherwise attributed, the writing is his. Angela Sudermann, a retired denominational missions coordinator now caring for her parents full-time, produced the illustration (“Resting in God’s Hand”) on the cover. Art design is by Kaki Roberts and Ken Sehested. All material is ©copyrighted, though reprint permission is granted for all non-commercial uses.

Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

To commemorate US President Barack Obama’s stunning announcement on 17 December 2014 of executive action reestablishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, here are a few facts that might surprise.

by Ken Sehested

1. The worlds’ smallest hummingbird and smallest frog are found in Cuba.

2. Christmas did not become an official holiday in Cuba until 1997.

3. Cuba sent more medical professionals to combat the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa than any other country.

4. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States" and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States "ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba."

5. There are no animals or plants in Cuba that are poisonous or lethal to humans.

6. In May 2001 Texas state legislators were the first to officially petition for an end to the US embargo of Cuba. One possible reason: Cuba imports more than two-thirds of its rice, mostly from Asia.

7. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea while he lived in Cuba.

8. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War. The US took control of several Spanish colonies, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, parts of the Spanish West Indies, the Island of Guam in the Marianas Islands, and the Philippines. Cuba was later granted its independence after agreeing to assert the 1901 Platt Amendment into its 1902 constitution. That Amendment guaranteed the US the right to unilaterally intervene in Cuban affairs. In arguing for US Senate approval of the Platt Amendment, Senator Knute Nelson said, “Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.” On the other (losing) side of the debate, Senator George Frisbie Hoar argued, “This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey.” Immediately after the signing of the treaty, the US-owned "Island of Cuba Real Estate Company" opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.

9. From the air, the island of Cuba resembles a crocodile or alligator and so Cuba is often referred to in Spanish as "El Cocodrilo" or "El Caimá".

Left: Political cartoon satirizing the Platt Amendment granting the US authorization to interfere in Cuba's internal affairs.

10. Cuba has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world. More than two-thirds of Cuban physicians are women.

11. For 27 years in a row the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US embargo of Cuba. With the exception of the 2016 vote, when the US abstained (reflecting President Obama’s pursuit of normalized relations with Cuba), the US and Israel have been the only opposing votes, a few times joined by Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Uzbekistan. There are 193 nations represented at the UN.

12.  Fidel Castro stopped smoking cigars in 1985.

13. Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in the Americas was on 28 October 1492, in Barlay, a bay on the northeast coast in what is now the Holguin Province. He thought he was in India—thus Indians as the term for indigenous peoples.

14. Hatuey, legendary chief of the Taino people of Ayiti (now Hispaniola, shared by the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), is celebrated in Cuba as its “First National Hero.” Leading the first indigenous resistance to the invading Spanish, Hatuey fled to Caobana (Cuba) to warn the inhabitants. Eventually captured by the Spaniards, he was burned at the stake. Beforehand, a Roman Catholic priest asked Hatuey if he wished to be baptized before dying so he could escape hell and go to heaven. The chief asked the priest if Spaniards went to heaven. Yes, if baptized, came the reply. “Then I don’t want to go there, but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.” Monuments to Hatuey are located in the Baracoa and in Yara.

15. Havana, Cuba, and Mobile, Alabama, are sister cities.

16. Among the businesses itching to get into Cuba is Major League Baseball, where the sport is a passion and has been since the 1870s.

17. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US.

18. In spite of the embargo, the US sends a monthly $4,085 check to Cuba as rent for Guantanamo Bay. Cuba has never cashed them.

19. There are at least 3 nightclubs/love music venues paying tribute to the Beatles: The Yellow Submarine in Havana, The Beatles Bar-Restaurant in Varadero, and The Cavern in Holguin. And there is an official statue of John Lennon in Havana, where Lennon is named a “true revolutionary.” However, the Cuban government initially banned music by the Beatles, considering it “decadent” and declared a nationwide ban of Beatles music in 1964.

20. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2007, Cuba is the only country with sustainable development, based on its ecological footprint.

21. In 1975 the US Senate’s Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities substantiated eight attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Cuba’s President Fidel Castro. Fabian Escalante, a retired chief of Cuba's counterintelligence, was tasked with protecting Fidel Castro, estimated the number of assassination schemes or actual attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to be 638.

22. In 1906, the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. . . . We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”

23. A recent ecumenical retreat for young pastors (35 and younger) hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches had over 40 participants representing 19 different denominations including Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Quaker, and several branches of Pentecostalism.

Right: Satellite photo of the island of Cuba.

24. US President John F. Kennedy purchased 1,200 Cuban cigars hours before signing the executive order to embargo Cuba.

25. Cuban rum is, hands down, the best around.

26. Cuba’s inclusion on the US State Department’s “state-sponsored terrorism” list has been called into question by numerous sources. The independent Council on Foreign Relations 2010 report says “intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups. The State Department’s most recent “Country Report on Terrorism” report says "There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups."

27. The literacy rate in Cuba is higher than in US.

28. In 1992 Cuba’s constitution was revised to remove the word “atheistic” as a descriptive term. In that same year Rev. Raúl Suarez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, was the first Christian elected to the Cuban National Assembly. Rev. Suarez, a pacifist and founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, was wounded while driving an ambulance for the Cuban army as it repelled the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the US.

29. Fidel Castro was rumored to be the only Cuban who doesn’t dance well.

30. At any given time some 25,000 Cuban medical professionals are performing national service in underdeveloped countries. Currently there are approximately 500 US citizens studying to be doctors at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. Cuba is often referred to a medical research superpower, though the simplest of medications are often scarce.

31. All Cuban government vehicles are legally required to pick up hitchhikers.

32. Over the years the US Congress has approved a handful of exemptions to the embargo of Cuba, which currently buys (cash only) a half billion dollars worth of agricultural products from US growers.

33. While churches were never closed by the government following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Castro and other leaders’ opinions of the church was colored by its close association with the former military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the time of the Revolution, US companies owned about 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar cane plantations, almost all the cattle ranches, 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions, 80 percent of the utilities, practically all the oil industry, and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports. Oh . . . and the American crime syndicates had found Batista a welcoming host for their casino and brothel businesses.

34. According to polling, since 1999 the majority of US citizens support normalizing relations with Cuba. A June 2014 opinion poll of Cuban-Americans in South Florida revealed that 68 percent favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and 52 percent said the US should end the embargo. In March 2016 a CBS/New York Times poll found that 55 percent of all US citizens support ending the embargo of Cuba.

35. The official flower of Cuba is the Butterfly Jasmine (pictured at right).

#  #  #

For further reading:

Special Issue: Historic Cuban election

• “Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean,” a United Church of Christ resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba

• “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba,” a Cuban pastor's story of King's influence

• “Background to the touch down,” President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba

• “A Cuban pastor responds to President Obama's visit,” Rev. Eduardo Gonzalez, pastor of Iglesia Enmanuel, Ciego de Avila

• “Reflections on Changes in US-Cuba Relations,” by Stan Hastey

• “My Sling is That of David,” US-Cuba Relations as an emerging agenda

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.or

Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean

A resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba

Approved by the 23-25 June 2016 United Church of Christ
Southern Conference annual meeting, Elon, North Carolina

BACKGROUND

            On some medieval maps, the phrase “Here be dragons” was written just beyond the boundary of known exploration. For nearly six decades this image has applied to U.S. citizens’ perceptions of Cuba.

            Our incomprehension and enmity have developed because of: a partial trade embargo against Cuba announced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960; the rupture in diplomatic relations in 1961, vividly symbolized by the shuttering of the U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, respectively; the imposition in 1962 of a total trade embargo by President John F. Kennedy; the passage by Congress and signing into law by President Bill Clinton of the Helms-Burton Act of 1998, the reversal of which requires both congressional and presidential agreement in a new law; all of which together have resulted in the effective blockading of information about our nearest overseas neighbor and constitute the last remaining vestige of the Cold War.[1]

            Clearly the time has come, indeed has long since passed, to tear down our own “Berlin Wall” in the Caribbean.

            Thankfully, over the past year and a half, the dismantling of that barrier between the United States and Cuba has begun. Evidences of this thaw in bilateral relations include the joint announcements of 17 December 2014, made concurrently by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, of the restoration of full diplomatic relations; the removal of Cuba from the U.S. Department of State’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism” on 29 May 29 2015; and the subsequent executive actions on the part of both governments to ease trade and travel restrictions.

BIBLICAL/THEOLOGICAL GROUNDING

            Such transforming initiatives are especially encouraging for those of us formed by a biblical vision. Jesus’ mandate to love enemies is more than sentiment. It included feeding them (Prov. 25:21; Rom. 12:20). Jesus went so far as to say that worship, the act of adoration, is dependent on the initiative of reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-24). Indeed, the Apostle Paul considered the ministry of reconciliation to be at the heart of our calling (2 Cor. 5:18).

WHEREAS

            Accordingly, the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ resolves as follows:

            WHEREAS, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has previously urged this diplomatic renewal with resolutions in the General Synods of 1979 and 1993, and the General Council action of 1983; and

            WHEREAS on 10 March of this year UCC General Minister and President Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer co-signed a letter to President Barack Obama, with other Christian and Jewish leaders in the U.S., expressing support for the president’s historic trip to Cuba in March 2016, for the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, and for President Obama’s executive actions easing some of the travel and trade restrictions; and

            WHEREAS, respected international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long opposed the U.S. embargo of Cuba;

            WHEREAS, every year since 1992 the United Nations General Assembly has overwhelmingly condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba; and

            WHEREAS, recent polling indicates that 73 percent of all U.S. citizens (including 59 percent of Republicans) favor ending the embargo;[2] and

            WHEREAS, 53 percent of Cuban Americans, traditionally the Cuban government’s most fervent critics, now favor ending the embargo, with only 31 percent wanting it continued;[3] and

            WHEREAS, the governments of the United States and Cuba have resumed formal diplomatic relations; President Obama has become the first sitting U.S. chief executive to visit Cuba in more than 80 years, and has used his constitutionally authorized executive prerogative to ease some trade and travel restrictions; and

            WHEREAS, members of congregations belonging to the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ in recent years have initiated people-to-people connections between Christians here and in Cuba, resuming a legacy of border crossings led by Rev. Theodore Braun, a longtime UCC pastor who beginning in 1979 led 40 delegations of Christians from the U.S. for meetings with their sisters and brothers in Cuba;

BE IT RESOLVED

            THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the delegates to the 51st Annual Gathering of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, meeting 23-25 June in Elon, N.C., give thanks to God for the progress made over the past year and a half by the governments of Cuba and the United States toward the normalizing of diplomatic and economic relations, and particularly applaud President Obama’s initiative from the U.S. side in giving high priority to the same; and

            BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we applaud the initiatives of UCC congregations and others in developing friendships across the divide separating our countries, encourage additional delegations from our churches to visit Cuba, and to invite and host Cuban clergy and lay leaders to visit us, thereby strengthening our ties as sisters and brothers in Christ and mutually encouraging one another to pursue the consensus of public opinion in both countries needed to implement new political policies; and

            BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we encourage every level of Southern Conference life to give priority attention to the history of Cuba, of U.S.-Cuba relations, and the life of churches in Cuba; and

            BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we will continue to advocate for further U.S. administrative actions and congressional legislation in order to secure the full normalization of relations between our two countries, including the consideration and passage of current bills H.R. 664, The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act; H.R. 3238, The Cuba Trade Act of 2015; and H.R. 3687, The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act of 2015, and their companion bills in the U.S. Senate; and

            BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the UCC Southern Conference heartily supports honest and respectful negotiation between our governments to restore mutual dignity and to resolve political differences; and

            BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that Christians in the U.S. need to attend the testimony of our Cuban brothers and sisters. Due to political circumstances, for three generations the churches in Cuba have learned to live without access to social privilege, a status we have long assumed, compromising our understanding of the kind of authority granted under the Spirit’s direction. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6). We stand in need of being evangelized anew.

#  #  #

Written by Ken Sehested, founding co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, N.C., with assistance from Stan Hastey, Tom Warren, and Elmer Lavastida.

NOTES
[1] See this summary history of U.S.-Cuban relations.
[2] "Growing Public Support for U.S. Ties With Cuba – And an End to the Trade Embargo,” Pew Research Center, 21 July 2015 .
[3] Bendixen & Amandi poll for the Miami Herald, 17 December 2015.

Epiphany: The queerness of God

A sermon for Epiphany Sunday

by Ken Sehested
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

            It wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve never heard of the Naga people, whose ancestral homeland straddles the border area of northeast India, southern China and northwest Burma. In the early 19th century, when British colonizers exerted control over the region, the Nagas were the one people they were never able to fully subdue. The Nagas were known as fierce warriors, and in fact they were headhunters until the first Christian missionaries reached them in the mid-19th century. Naga history before this period is unwritten and barely known; more than likely they migrated from the area now known as Mongolia.

            Ever since the British were expelled from India in 1947, there has been a low-intensity war going on in Northeast India. The Naga people actually declared their independence from Britain one day before the new Indian government did so. Both Gandhi and Nehru, the first Indian premier, promised independence for the Nagas. That promised was never kept, and the region has seen sporadic civil war ever since. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that the Naga political party suffered several splits, so that now there are four rival parties, two of which have substantial guerilla armies—often shooting at each other as much as fighting Indian security forces.

            In a chance meeting at a Baptist World Alliance Human Rights meeting in Zimbabwe in 1993, I ran into a remarkable man who for several years had been attempting to mediate the internal conflict between the Naga parties. I had done a presentation giving anecdotes of Baptists, from every continent, who have been actively engaged in various movements for justice, peace and human rights over the past generation. One of those was a Naga leader from the mid-60s who repeatedly risked his life shuttling back and forth between the various Naga factions. Dr. Wati Aier, president of the Oriental Theological Seminary, took me aside after the meeting and asked if my organization, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, would be willing to get involved as a third-party mediator. We had never done anything like this, and I certainly felt unprepared for the task. But Wati insisted that we were the ones for the job, in part because the Naga people hold Baptists from the U.S. in great respect. (That’s the other very unusual thing about the Nagas: Because of a unique missionary history in that region, an overwhelming percentage of the Naga population is Christian, and the vast majority of them are Baptists.)

            A year later I made my first trip to India. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a special permit to travel to the Northeast region of Nagaland—at the time it was a closed military zone. But I spent two days in a Calcutta hotel listening to the history of the Naga struggle from the Commander in Chief of the principal Naga army, V.S. Atem, the former headmaster of a Baptist school—a highly wanted man in India who snuck into Calcutta for this meeting, a very pious man who insisted that we begin and end all our meetings with prayer.

            By the way, the manifesto of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland is one of the strangest political documents I’ve ever read. Basically it’s filled with Maoist political analysis and rhetoric. But the motto of the NSCN is: Nagaland for Christ!

            Long story about all the twists and turns that followed. But in 1997 we reached an agreement with each of the four Naga parties to sit down to attempt a negotiated settlement of their conflict. Not only that, they all wanted to come to the U.S. for these talks. In fact, originally we were scheduled to meet at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter is a revered figure for the Nagas.

            Because of complications, we had to move the talks to Emory University; and, at the last minute, leaders of the principal Naga faction refused to come, which very nearly collapsed everything. But the talks did take place with the other three parties, and some important progress was made.

            However, in the weeks leading up to these talks, the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., called almost daily asking where the talks were to take place. We had invited the governor of Nagaland—a Naga considered a collaborator by many—to also attend these talks; but for security reasons we kept the precise location a secret. We did not want to take a chance that our conversations could be secretly recorded.

            This story of intrigue is about as close as I can come to a story that comes close to paralleling the intrigue unfolding in Matthew’s account of the arrival of the Magi which was read earlier. It’s a familiar story. The “We Three Kings” carol is a standard song for every Christmas caroling and a standard scene in every Christmas play. The sight of three Middle-Eastern-looking men riding on camels in the direction of a bright star is among the most common scene on Christmas cards.

            I don’t know why, but every time I see a card like that I think of the drag queen characters played by Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo in the 1995 film, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!” Lots of pomp, circumstance and outrageous fashion statements.

            The story of the Magi following the star to Bethlehem’s stable is one that is so familiar to us that we lose sight of the political intrigue in the drama—more than that, also of the scandal which it probably provoked for the original hearers.

            (By the way, can you tell me how many “kings” are present in the story? The text never mentions a number, and they certainly weren’t kings. Their professional identity is impossible to translate into English. They were a combination of “medicine men” and astrologers, among the most learned class and probably also had a priestly role in the ancient Persian lands we now refer to as Iran.)

            You probably picked up the sarcastic humor in the story I read, particularly the part where King Herod asked the magi to find out where this new baby king was born, “So I, too, can come and worship him.” Yeah, right.

            Poor ol’ Herod has a bad reputation in the Christian Gospels. He was actually among the most benevolent and efficient rulers of the region. He led in the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, among other major public construction campaigns. He was effective in bring stability and order in a region notorious for its many terrorist groups. But he was also very jealous of his power. The though of a rival is what prompted him to order the execution of all male babies in the region—a brutal story about what wars on terrorism inevitably become.

            But there’s another, frequently-overlooked and quite controversial angle to this story. Notice the division between the cast of characters in this Christmas story. None of the ruling authorities—political, economic and religious—were invited guests to the manger scene with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus—not Herod, not the chief priests and scribes (all of whom were contentious rivals for power). It was a peasant teenage girl to whom the first Epiphany came. It was to sheep herders—people whose social standing was much like that of migrant farmworkers—who were visited by the angels.

            Luke’s Gospel gives an even more dramatic contrasting account: “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (3:1-2). In other words, the ruling hierarchy of the known world was bypassed by the Word of God and issued instead to a somewhat-crazy nobody out in the boondocks of a god-forsaken backwater country. It’s like saying the Word of God bypassed Washington, Raleigh, even Asheville, and went to a storefront Pentecostal preacher in Edneyville.

            But there yet another reason why this story has a controversial edge to it—one that escapes our ears because of the cultural distance. The “Wise Men,” Magi, were not only Gentiles—foreigners, and maybe members of a terrorist cell—but the GSP—the Global Positioning Device—they were using was the stars. All the more reason to qualify them as pagans and enemies of Yahweh God. You see, of all these Middle Eastern cultures, only the Israelites had sacred teachings warning against astrological calculations. It was the author of Deuteronomy who first warned about being “led astray” by the study of the moon and stars (4:19). And the prophet Isaiah chimes in: “You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you (47:13).

            Basically, I have two points to make. The first is that the Christmas drama, which formally closes on Epiphany, is at bottom a story about conflict: Conflict between the way things are and the way things are meant to be.

            In high school I often worked a 12-hour shift on Saturdays at Cagle’s gas station, pumping gas, changing oil and washing cars. This was in 1968-69, shortly before Dr. King’s assassination. I remember early one morning, after hearing a radio news bulletin—something that had to do with Dr. King—Mr. Cagle growled: “That King ain’t no Christian. Everywhere he goes he causes trouble.” It would be years before it occurred to me that you could say the same thing about Jesus.

            My second point is related to the first: The God whom Jesus referred to Abba is the kind of God whose movement, whose appearance, whose epipany, often overflows the banks of recognized boundaries of legitimate religious authority, proper social standing, and predictable economic and political forecasts. There is an otherness, a wildness, one could even say a queerness to God which does not lend itself to our management techniques. Another way to say this: In our ongoing attempts to discern what the Word of God is for us, in our time and in our place, we must always attend to a parallel question: When, and for whom, does the Gospel proclamation come across as bad news? Whose interests are threatened, undermined and challenged? In the story I told at the beginning, the Indian government was certainly anxious at the prospect of unification among the Naga parties, allowing them to press for some new political future with a single voice.

            I’ll finish with one more story. Early last week I was in Minneapolis at a meeting of the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a coalition of networks in the various denominational bodies advocating for a full inclusion of gayfolk in the life of the church.

            On the plane coming home I began composing a new course description: Queer Theology 101, dealing with the unpredictability, the queerness of God in choosing covenant partners and the destabilizing effect on all existing political arrangements and established orthodoxies.

            Queer theology points to the insistence of the Apostles Peter and Paul that Gentiles were to be welcomed into the household of faith. I can assure you that the question was as controversial then as the question of gays in the church is now. Queer theology references Jesus’ selection of the unclean Samaritan as a model of faith in the coming Reign of God; of pagan astrologers as the first to recognize the significance of Mary’s pregnancy; of Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus genealogy, even though she was a Moabite, a stranger to the household of faith; of a black Baptist preacher from Georgia of all things—Martin Luther King Jr.—who would come to be recognized among the leading figures in our republic’s pantheon of heroes. The Bible is chocked full of such queerness. And this is the heart of the Epiphany message. Though the news is good, especially for those who have had no place at the table of bounty, those in control of the table sense the terror of this message. And they will resist it, sometimes with bloody violence. Jesus’ birth, as Eliot wrote in his Magi poem, will be “hard and bitter agony” for some. And we could find ourselves in the middle of such a struggle.

            But already, a week ahead of another birth anniversary of Gospel proportion, we can hear the echo of that refrain, begun in the ancient Prophets and carried on by enslaved people ever since: How long? Not long. For we shall overcome. Thanks be to God.

#  #  #

Circle of Mercy Congregation
8 January 2006
Asheville NC

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

No time outs left

A national conversation about the dangers of American style football is underway. Thank goodness.

by Ken Sehested

“For truly, God laughs and plays.”
—Meister Eckhart

I played the game for 11 years, beginning in grade school, and enjoyed watching for many more after that. American style football (what we call soccer is known everywhere else in the world as football) is as choreographed as any ballet performance. Except when the ball is snapped, it turns into something like an after-hours jazz band jam, with improvisation by 22 different players. As such, it can get ugly; but when done with the skill shaped by disciplined practice, it is a thing of beauty.

It’s never been safe, of course. No sport is. For that matter, no part of life is risk free. Over 30,000 people die from car accidents every year in this country. When was the last time you thought, before heading to the grocery store, “I wonder if it’s worth the risk?”

But the beauty of the game is now overshadowed by its beastly afterword. We now know, definitively, that repeated blows to the head likely cause long term brain injuries.

Right: The author, 1968, attempting an intimidating pose.

It’s called chronic traumatic encephalopathy  (CTE), “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.” Members of the military exposed to the concussion of bombs are also at risk.

It’s time to have an adult conversation about risk. It won’t be easy, or accomplished quickly. Other sports are also guilty, yes; we’ll get to them in time. For now, let’s focus.

§  §  §

It was the first football game of my senior year of high school. We traveled west-by-northwest, paralleling the Louisiana coastline, to New Iberia, near where that bottle of spicy Tabasco sauce in your kitchen cabinet was made.

Sometime during the first half I was knocked silly, though I was still on my feet. All I remember is that I regained consciousness at halftime, sitting in the visiting team locker room. My teammates were milling around gulping water. One of my coaches stooped low and said something like: “Are you about ready to rejoin us, Sehested?”

I suddenly became aware that I had been mumbling to myself, over and over again, the familiar line from John’s Gospel, the preeminent text in my revivalist rearing: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (3:16). It was as if I were chanting a mantra—something, anything, to bring me back to consciousness.

This was the second of a half-dozen concussions, though I didn’t temporarily lose sensibility in the others. I was merely dazed, seeing my surroundings as though looking through a child’s toy binoculars turned backward, everything seeming to be at a distance. We called it “getting your bell rung.”

As far back as 2004 Virginia Tech researches documented the impact of head collisions in a football game, noting that it was the equivalent of a car wreck every week.

§  §  §

Being playful is not the same as being distracted, lighthearted, nonchalant, or indolent. Play can also be intense, demanding, sweaty, but is always refreshing. Creativity, wrote the psychologist Abraham Maslow, is purposeful play.

One of my great regrets is that I associate running with punishment. In high school, during the week following a football game loss, we ran extra wind sprints at the end of practice. But if you give me a frisbee, an open field, and a play partner, I will literally run until my legs give out.

Play in this larger sense is most certainly a form of godliness. To be playful is to participate in transcendence, to be elevated beyond productivity demands, to be freed of indebtedness. Which is why the jubilee year, including the release from literal debt and slavery, is the Older Testament’s vision for creation’s destiny, a destiny echoed in the famous prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Forgive us our debts. . . .”

In this sense, play is delight. In the Genesis story of creation, the crowning moment was sabbath, God’s resting and declaration that all that had been made was “good.” The English word fails to capture the full range of the Hebrew word used, which is much more like “and God said it is delightful.”

Sabbath rest is playful rest, is luxuriating in delight, is being caught up in rapture. As such, sabbath is not merely subsequent to the labor of creation—it is an indication of creation’s character, its stamp of approval.

We ritually practice sabbath every seven days not because God enjoys our inconvenience or demands a little grim regard. The practice is training for how to spot God’s delightful presence during the other six days.

As French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chadin put it, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Participating in God’s relishing of the world is the very thing that sustains us in and through the world’s suffering.

§  §  §

I don’t know when my doubts began. I suspect my first hint that something was askew was when my junior high school football coach yelled at me: “I need you to get mad. You play better when you’re mad.” Conscious admission didn’t occur until the fall of my freshman year in college.

I wasn’t a great player, but I did get to choose between four different universities who offered me a scholarship in exchange for my gridiron play. I chose Baylor because of its religious offerings and in light of my pastoral career goal.

The fall of 1969 was not an auspicious season for Baylor football. We didn’t win a game, the only time that’s happened in school history. It would be decades before the glory days arrived for the school’s players and fans. That glory later lost its luster when a history of alleged sexual assaults by football players came to light—over 50, by 30 different players between 2011-2014.

The coincidence of sanctioned violence and sexual assault has long been a thing. I remember the comment a TV sports announcer made in 2015 during the collegiate football national championship game. After one particularly brutal tackle, the announcer said with much enthusiasm, “Now there’s a player with a big heart and no conscience.” He meant it as a compliment.

Shortly before the Christmas break I set an early morning appointment to speak with one of Baylor’s assistant coaches, the man who recruited me, to tell him I was considering giving up my scholarship. Before the meeting I rose before dawn, drove to a park on the edge of town, and parked my car on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River.

Given the anxiety I was feeling, you would think I was considering jumping; and in a way, I was—an identity suicide. What kept going through my mind was returning home for the Christmas break, going to my barber, who would ask “How’s the team doing?” to which I would reply, “I quit.” I imagined him taking his straight razor and putting it to my throat. In my culture, “quitter” was an adjective just slightly less disreputable that “communist.”

On top of this fear was the dumbfounded reaction of my parents. A lower working class family, who scrimped, penny-pinched, and borrowed like crazy to support my sister’s college education, here I was giving up a free ride. For what? I didn’t have an answer.

It wasn’t the “0-for” season that drained my enthusiasm for football. The university atmosphere, small and parochial as it may have been, was cosmopolitan to me. My scholarship came with virtual year-round time demands. Experiencing a larger world proved more compelling, even though I couldn’t say why.

§  §  §

Last I heard, I still hold my high school record for the discus throw as a member of the track and field team. I played everything, one sport’s season melding into the next with hardly a break.

Sports taught me a lot about a great many important things. Learning to play as a team. Testing mental, emotional, as well as physical endurance and finding out that you had more than you thought. The exhilaration of a certain kind of exhaustion. Handling defeat but still coming back for more. Discovering the sheer intensity of relationships with teammates born of shared ordeal. Coming to recognize the irony that freedom of fluid movement comes by disciplined, repetitive, demanding practice. Realizing that getting up again is a coup against being knocked down.

Thus I speak as a devotee when I say we must begin dismantling the sport of football.

Lord knows it won’t be easy. The National Football League (NFL) projects its 2017 revenue at $14 billion, with plans to increase that to $25 billion in the next decade. The scale of star players’ salaries, combined with product endorsements, has broken the $50 million per year mark. The NFL commissioner commands $31 million annual salary, probably to be raised to $49 million in the coming year. The coaches of major college football programs make four, five, six times as much as school presidents, 10-20 times as much as full professors, and the football revenue in some schools pays for a lot of other things—not to mention the shared identity factor for more than a few alumni/ae donors.

In other words, a lot of people make a lot of money in and around the game at almost every level. Abolitionists will be branded as killjoys—even treasonous, or heretical, or fiscally irresponsible.

The strategy for addressing the carnage of this sport—like the strategies for most effective movements for social change—won’t begin at the top. Calling for an NFL or college football program boycott would be foolhardy. Rather, the squeeze needs to start at the lower end. Recently several former NFL star players called for a ban of football for those under 14. Now a Maryland lawmaker has submitted legislation to this effect. These initiatives will surely grow. Add the weight of your conviction to these efforts.

The recent time out strategy behind implementing the “concussion protocol” in football, along with severe penalties for certain head-to-head collisions, are delaying tactics. The ballooning size of players, speed of the game, and lengthening season simply preclude any meaningful measures to reduce the risk of severe injury. Think Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Force equals mass times velocity. The human body was not meant to withstand such fury.

It is a hopeful sign that numerous pros are publicly weighing the risks. Last year a prominent sports commentator, himself a NFL veteran, abandoned his six-figure salary, saying he could no longer in good conscience promote the sport. There will be more defectors.

Sure, I love cooperative games as much as competitive ones. I was raised as a “free range” kid long before the phrase was invented, and parented as such as well. But there is a limit to every laissez-faire posture. Football has crossed it. The beastliness outweighs the beauty. This demands an intervention.

Who’s with me?

#  #  #

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  7 February 2018 •  No. 151

Processional."La Danse de Mardi-Gras," Steve Riley.

Above: Last week’s super blue blood moon over Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Photo by Mack H. Frost.

Invocation. “For truly, God laughs and plays.” —Meister Eckhart

Artwork from prison—and not just any prison: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. CBS Sunday Morning (5:26 video. Thanks Abigail.)

Call to worship. This week’s Mardi Gras festival culminates in Fat Tuesday, whose message is the founding doctrine in Scripture: that creation is good. But God’s intent in creation has been hijacked. The invitation list, of who’s invited to the party, who’s allowed at the table, has been taken over by people who believe the only way they will get in is by excluding others.
        Guide us now, Beloved, as we untangle our hearts.

Moments in civil rights history. In 1952, Autherine Lucy, a young African American woman was accepted into the University of Alabama. When the school found out she was black, she was refused entry. What followed was a four-year legal battle. (1:58 video. Thanks Steve.) More short video stories at “Voices of the Civil Rights Movement,” a project of Comcast NBCUniversal and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Right: Autherine Lucy, escorted by Thurgood Marshall who tried her case on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall was later appointed to the US Supreme Court. Photo by Al Pucci, NY Daily News via Getty Images.

Good news. “Hailed as an example of how concerted global action can help solve a planetary crisis, a new study conducted by NASA scientists documented the first direct evidence that an international effort to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has led to the recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole.” Responding to the report, Greenpeace said, “We've stopped harmful pollutants before and nature has healed itself. Let's cut carbon emissions now and allow nature to heal itself again." Jake Johnson, CommonDreams

Takin’ it to the streets. Clowns, dancers, musicians, performers and play specialists work with children in Europe’s refugee camps. —BBC (2:10 video. Thanks Abigail.)

Hymn of praise. Rhythmic performs Antonio Vivaldi’s “Storm” like you’ve never heard it before. (Thanks Pat.)

Confession opens the way to ecstasy, to the border of a graciousness and a mercy that is difficult to imagine, where there is a richness and beauty to life. The risk of confession and the experience of pardon is what opens us to the knowledge that we are headed to a party, not a purge.

Hymn of supplication. “Use me, Lord, in thy service / Draw me nearer, Lord, everyday / I'm willing to run all the way / If I faulter while I'm trying / Don't be angry, just let me stay / I'm willing to run all the way.” —Mahalia Jackson, “Run All the Way

¶ “I played [football] for 11 years, beginning in grade school, and enjoyed watching for many more after that. American style football is as choreographed as any ballet performance. Except when the ball is snapped, it turns into something like an after-hours jazz band jam, with improvisation by 22 different players. . . . But the beauty of the game is now overshadowed by its beastly afterword.” —continue reading “No time outs left: A national conversation about the dangers of American style football is underway. Thank goodness.”

Left: The author, 1968, attempting an intimidating pose.

Sign of things to come? A prominent ESPN college football color commentator resigned because he didn't want a job enabling a sport that creates long-term brain injuries.
        Ed Cunningham, a former NFL player himself, left a six-figure salary and a high-profile gig to do what he thought was right. “In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear," Cunningham said. "But the real crux of this is that I just don't think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it's unacceptable." Sam Blum, Rolling Stone

¶ “Football players were struck in the head 30 to 50 times per game and regularly endured blows similar to those experienced in car crashes, according to a Virginia Tech study that fitted players' helmets with the same kinds of sensors that trigger auto air bags.” Brian Dakss, CBS News

By the numbers. The National Football League (NFL) projects its 2017 revenue at $14 billion, with plans to increase that to $25 billion in the next decade. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell currently makes over $31 million per year and has asked for a raise to $49 million. Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford is the most recent winner of the star player lottery. Combined with his product endorsement deals, he took in $52.5 million in 2017.

¶ “Several former NFL players called for an end to tackle football for kids ages 13 and under. Pro football Hall of Famers Nick Buoniconti and Harry Carson joined four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Phil Villapiano and researchers from Boston University to make the announcement. They're working with the Concussion Legacy Foundation to support a new parent education initiative, Flag Football Under 14, that pushes for no tackle football until the age of 14.
        “‘I beg of you, all parents to please don't let your children play football until high school," said Buoniconti, 77, who has been diagnosed with dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease.’” Nadia Kounang, CNN

Watch this brief video (1:00) of former NFL player Chris Borland explains how you can make sure science isn’t sidelined in the investigation of sports-related brain injuries. —Union of Concerned Scientists

Words of assurance. “Whenever God shines his light on me / Opens up my eyes so I can see / When I look up in the darkest night / And I know everything's going to be alright / In deep confusion, in great despair / When I reach out for him he is there / When I am lonely as I can be / And I know that God shines his light on me.” Van Morrison, “Whenever God Shines His Light On Me”

Hymn of intercession. “My soul cries out now, can’t you hear it / Trying to find one kindred spirit / I’m bettin’s hard on you to see me thru / /If I don’t drown in these bad times / I’ll be a better swimmer when I’m thru.” Larry Jon Wilson, “Kindred Spirit” (Thanks Tim.)

Super Bowl actual madness.  “When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon imploring hearers to imitate the servanthood of Jesus, he probably didn't envision them buying Ram trucks to do so. And yet there was King's voice Sunday night, booming through millions of TV speakers during Ram's latest Super Bowl ad:
        "‘If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.’
        “The speech, delivered 50 years ago on Feb. 4, 1968, served to inspire a Ram Trucks ad of American workers wiping brows, fishing and riding horses, doing pushups and, of course, driving ram Trucks.
        “After King's speech culminates, the ad's tagline appears: Built to serve.” Josh Hafner, USA Today

Ironically, that same speech by King had these sentences:
        Advertisers “have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff.”

When only the blues will do. Toby Lee (age 12) sitting in with Ronnie Baker Brooks, in Frederikshavn, Denmark. (Thanks Abigail.)

Preach it. Recently “visiting Brazilian pastor-theologian Odja Barros testified in our congregation. She was asked to say where she sees God at work. ‘I have confess,’ she began, ‘that the first thing that comes to mind is to say where I see God’s absence,’ going on to name just a few of the places, in concrete detail, where breaking and bruising and battering dominate the landscape. Deus absconditus.” —continue readingLent is the season when ‘Moonlight’ upstages ‘La La Land,’ A Fat Tuesday meditation

It was interesting to see, in another of the Super Bowl’s commercials, how interfaith relations has gone mainstream. Is this a good thing? (Thanks Shanta.)

Can’t makes this sh*t up. The designated, customized presidential plane, Air Force One, is getting new refrigerators—at a cost of $23.7 million. —Time magazine

 ¶ In Washington, D.C. and more than two dozen states across the country on Monday, supporters of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival gathered to kick off 40 days of "moral action" to highlight "the human impact of policies which promote systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and environmental devastation."
        Led by co-chairs Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis—and inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s original Poor People's Campaign in the late 1960s—the campaign, which was announced last year, live streamed a press conference from D.C. and delivered to lawmakers a letter outlining their demands for policy changes.

Call to the table. “Everything begins in ecstasy and ends in politics.” —Charles Peguy

The state of our disunion. Consumers can now get some relief from social media harassment. Purchase a home safe for your smartphone. When you get home, put that pesky co-dependent device in there, close the door, then set the timer for how long you want it unavailable. —USAToday

If you think the above is funny, you’ll love this social media satire. (2:42 video. Thanks Joy.)

Best one-liner. “A neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 NFL players—and 110 were found to have C.T.E., the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.” —“The Human Brain and Sports,” New York Times

For the beauty of the earth. Three-time bronze medalist and Olympic alternate Elizabeth Putnam skating on a remote, frozen lake in the mountains of British Columbia—and filmed by a videographer in an overhead helicopter. (3:18 video. Thanks Linda.)

Altar call: against what passes for realism. “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and see through our fear-stricken society.” Ursula LeGuin, who died 22 January, from her address to the National Book Award ceremony (6:08 video. Thanks Rose.)

Left: Art by Julie Lonneman

For Ash Wednesday’s lection. “‘I’m really tired of your smells and bells and frills and thrills.’ From the hollow of the Most High thunders the complaint of Heaven against every piety peddler. Good God a’Mighty, when we say our hail-marys, our thank-you-jesuses and our god-bless-americaswhy don’t you tip your hat and offer a prize?! ‘Your prayer breakfasts don’t cut it, given the way you treat school teachers and ICE-hounded immigrants.’” —“Riff on Isaiah five-eight,” a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 58

Benediction. Sisters and brothers, the metric of spiritual health is surprisingly simple: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” —Matthew 6:21

Recessional. The Fusion Fighters Irish dance troupe.

Lectionary for this Sunday. On the importance of unfiltered prayer: “I will accept no bull in my house.” —a play on the words of Psalm 50:9

Lectionary for Sunday next. “To the Blessed One of Heaven does my heart heave its burden. For release from my shame, I wait all the day long. Silence accusers; still every sharp tongue. For pardon amid failure, I wait all the day long. Alone to you do I yield, sealed in grace unrelenting. For the hint of your mercy, I wait all the day long.” —continue reading “All the day long,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 25

Ash Wednesday. “Burned palm fronds smeared on the forehead, in a shape that originally marked one for assassination? What kind of masochistic movement is this? I mean, I’m just now beginning to get over a lot of self-hatred I learned as a kid, and now you’re telling me I actually need to embrace suffering?” —continue reading “Ash Wednesday: the only counter cultural holiday we have left

Just for fun. The world’s most adorable wrestling match. (0:58 video. Thanks Pat.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Wilderness: Lenten preparation,” a collection of biblical texts that speak of wilderness

• “Riff on Isaiah five-eight,” a litany for worship inspired by Isaiah 58

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

• “All the day long,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 25
 
Valentine’s Day
• “St Valentine,” remembering prisoners on his feast day

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