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When the dream gets a bit dreamy

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech

by Ken Sehested

        Having been sheltered during adolescence from the Civil Rights Movement (and most everything else outside my small hamlet—except, of course, the far reaches of missionary testimonies), when my attention did turn, during seminary, I became a voracious reader of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others of the era.

        One of my purchases was an over-sized book of photos of Dr. King and other civil rights moments and luminaries. Flipping through, I came upon a photo of King and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.

        The hymnal cover was clearly visible, and I audibly gasped at the recognition. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention, the same body whose Executive Committee voted down a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four children.

        At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman.

        That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.

        With Dr. King’s birthday now a national holiday, and his iconic profile ever present around this time of year, it’s no longer possible to be sheltered from that history. The problem with icons, of course, is that they become fixed in stone and have little capacity to get under our skin. Some forms of remembering work like vaccination: we become immune to prophetic fever. Putting our saints on pedestals allows us to revere their memory while reneging on their mission.

        This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of King’s last major address, delivered from the dais of The Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech that rocked not only the enforcers of Jim Crow but the Civil Rights Movement itself. In delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” Dr. King enlarged his challenge far beyond segregated buses and integrated lunch counters. Instead, he explicitly linked domestic oppression with international aggression, naming what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

        We forget the scandal he provoked that day, 4 April 1967—precisely to the day one year before his assassination in Memphis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. As it happens, this year the yohrzeit (death anniversary) of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel begins at sunset on 15 January, the birth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. (The Jewish calendar is lunar and not in sync with the Gregorian solar calendar; so this concurrence is uncommon.)

        Heschel, among the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century, was a close companion of King not only in the civil rights struggle but also in vigorous opposition to the War in Vietnam. Heschel was known for speaking about “praying with my legs” in reflecting on his marches alongside King and other civil rights leaders.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, seated at far left at the table, during King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church.

        In addition to reading King's "Beyond Vietnam," also read Heschel's “The Meaning of War,” written in 1944. To grasp the continuing relevance of Heschel’s essay, where he wrote with the background of the struggle against Nazism, mentally substitute “terrorism.” The same insights apply now.

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©ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

*Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge, a three-volume history of the modern civil rights movement, in “Dr. King’s Newest Marcher,” New York Times, 5 September 2010.

 

Prettifying prophets

A Martin Luther King Jr. birthday remembrance

by Ken Sehested

        I have a vivid memory of that exact moment. I was in seminary, having fled my native South to Yankeedom to finish college and start theological training, embarrassed at being a Baptist, at being a white Southerner, and not entirely sure if I was a believer. But the God question wouldn’t go away.

        A mighty wrestling match was underway in my soul, trying to come to terms with my adolescent “youth revival” preacher days. Neither the Civil Rights nor the anti-Vietnam War movements had disturbed my piously-furrowed brow. Once, in high school, starting a 12-hour shift pumping gas and washing cars, I was transferring product displays and stacks of new tires outside as we prepared to open shortly before dawn. I overheard the radio saying something about Martin Luther King Jr.

        "That Martin Luther Coon, he ain’t no Christian,” the station owner muttered toward the radio. "Everywhere he go there’s trouble."

        It would be years before it occurred to me the same was likely said about Jesus.

        By the time I entered seminary the history, details and figures of the Civil Rights Movement became almost an obsession. I read everything I could get my hands on. And that’s when that vivid moment came.

        As it happens, my seminary’s earlier affirmative action commitment was taking effect, and a significant number of African American were classmates. A great many of them from the Baptist side of the ecumenical spectrum. Almost without exception, they were deeply committed to the church and actively involved in local congregations there in New York City. Since their religious culture and mine shared a good many common cultural elements—the style of preaching, the rhetoric of piety, even many of the same hymns—I puzzled over how their loyalty be so clear and mine so murky.

        Then came that vivid moment. I had purchased one of those over-sized books of photos of Dr. King and other civil rights moments and luminaries. Flipping through, I turned to a photo showing Martin and his wife Coretta sitting at a piano, their infant daughter Yolanda perched on Martin’s lap as he and Coretta sang from an open hymnal.

        The cover title was clear. It was the Broadman Hymnal. The hymnal I grew up with. Published by the Southern Baptist Convention (the same body whose Executive Committee voted down a resolution of sympathy to members of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one day after the terrorist bombing in 1963 that killed four young children). At one time I could quote from memory the page number of dozens of titles in that hymnal. As I came to discover, a good many churches that hosted Civil Rights Movement mass meetings—churches that were threatened by cross-burning Klan torches—did their singing from the Broadman. And I also learned that terrorism on American soil has a long history.

        That moment—that photo—stands among my life’s greatest epiphanies. I came to realize that the language of faith can have many different, even competing meanings, just as any chemical compound, minus even one element, turns into something else altogether.

        The annual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday provides a perennial occasion to remember the dream that still beckons both church and civil society. And not just in the US: I’ve listened to children in Baghdad sing “We Shall Overcome” in Arabic, and read similar accounts from the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to South Africa’s Soweto Township, even in North Korea. A comic book-style telling of the Montgomery bus boycott, first published in 1958, was translated into Arabic in 2008 and circulated widely during the recent democracy struggle in Egypt.

        Yet Dr. King was not assassinated because he was a dreamer, though the national holiday-makers have largely domesticated and smoothed over the threat to he represented. (“The most dangerous negro in the country,” according to the FBI’s assessment.) It’s a common pattern, this prettifying of prophets. Amid the recent global accolades for the life and legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, including from President Obama, came the leak that Mandela’s name was on a US government terrorist watch list until 2008.

        Admiring Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is not the same as being captured by it. It is not only possible but common to respect the man but relinquish the mission, to revere the dreamer but renege on the dream  . . . such that it turns into something else entirely.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

My soul magnifies you

A contemporary midrash on the Magnificat, inspired by Luke 1:46-55

by Ken Sehested

My soul magnifies you, O Lord, and my spirit rejoices in your Saving Presence.

Everything in me comes alive when you look in my direction.

No longer will I languish among the unnamed, the unknown, the unworthy.

Hereafter, for generations, when my name is spoken, all will know it echoes the wonder of your Mercy.

Your power is sufficient to baffle the aims of the arrogant. Imperial might trembles at the sound of your approach; but the prison yards and the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses erupt in jubilation!

With your arrival, the bailout bounty will flow to the hourly wage-earners; the stock-optioned executives will apply for food stamps.

In the land of lies and deceit, in the season of bankrupt promises and boardroom corruption, the lair of every heir to every privilege and every power will be confounded by the herald of your Promise.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Painted ceramic artwork by ©Manuel Hernandez, Matanzas, Cuba.
©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

John the baptizer

by Ken Sehested

John.

Such a tame name for a man born to inhabit
           the wild side of heaven’s incursion into
           earth’s contempt.

You startle children with your leather-girdled,
     camel-haired attire, hot breath calling the
     devout into Jordan’s penitential wake.

Witness to the Spirit-dove’s descent,
     confirming Elizabeth’s praise and Mary’s assent.

What brings you and
     your honey-smeared beard
           into such a barren land?

Wade in the water. Don’t mind the mud.
     A certain drowning is required as Breath
           from above is delivered on the wings of a dove.

The baptizer’s bargain is this:
     There’s no getting right with God.
           There’s only getting soaked.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org. Inspired by Mark 1:4-11, adapted the author’s longer poem, “The Baptizer’s Bargain.”

Don’t go moonshining on the empire’s behalf

Or, what to do with disconsolation

Ken Sehested

You are encouraged to listen to Roberta Flack and
Donny Hathaway’s rendition of “Come, Ye
Disconsolate
”  before, during or after you read.

We are often suspicious of words of comfort, and
for good reason: such sentiments too often coax us
into being comfortable, too often keep us on our
couches, too often justify passivity in the face of
pillage. As if sanitizing our own hands is the end of
our duty.

Comfort’s purpose is so much more. Blessed
assurance is the latch that springs the doors of
compassion. Encouragement is the infusing of
courage in the face of trembling, troubling news. To
be assuaged is not to be sedated. Spend your grief
wisely. To be nurtured in hope’s promise does not
involve eating cotton candy. Being consoled is the
opposite of being appeased.

When we sing, “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” the hymn is
not an invitation to a pity party. The music is not
for dissipating passion or tempering conviction.
Rather, disconsolation is the Beloved’s tutor sent to
instruct; it is the Spirit’s invitation to dig deeper, to
lift our eyes beyond the current horizon, to draw
apart from the cacophony in order to hear with
clarity, to awaken to an epiphany calling into
question the wretched order by which the world is
currently ruled.

To be forced to our knees by truth’s eclipse and
enmity’s reign is exactly and precisely the posture
whereby we may avail ourselves of that power
“from above”—power not as magic, not as
desertion from fleshly life, but power disguised so
as not to be accessed by arrogant soul-mongering
forces. The bended knee and the penitent, empty
handed surrender in the face of failure’s threat is
the very thing that steals death’s sting.

Comfort is available to the obedient, because
obedience, in its root meaning, is the capacity to
listen rightly, specifically for the Spirit’s trespassing
presence, of her bridge-building, wall-broaching
advent into a world hijacked by “principalities and
powers,” by pirates and plunderers, gangster
banksters and freemarketeers, trumphoolery of
every sort.

Only the comforted can access the beatific vision,
which is armed with a realpolitik aimed at the
politics of privilege. Conflict is inevitable. The
prevailing derangement will first ignore you; failing
that, it will ridicule you; then censure you; then jail
you; maybe even impale you.

The quieting still point to which the conflicted are
called in the midst of every scandalous and
scorched regime does not quell truth’s insistent
claim. Rather, it gives staying power and holy
perseverance. Because she persists, so can we. The
Mercy Seat in whose presence we bask is the only
reliable position from which we can be immersed in
the Blessed One’s baptismal warrant.

In the midst of tribulation, take heart. Don’t go
moonshining on the empire’s behalf. Walk in the
Spirit’s spell, cast against every desecrating
imperium. Sisters and brothers, do not grow weary
in well-doing, in bearing one another’s burdens, for
in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
(cf. John 16:33; Galatians 5:16; 6:2, 9)

For earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

The faux fight for Christmas

Backdrop on the annual year-end culture war

by Ken Sehested

"Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born.
Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable."
—Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly

I have to admit it was a bit embarrassing to watch the social media outrage of “progressive” Christians (and no, I’m not fond of the modifier) stirred up by the apparent indignation of “traditional” Christians that Starbucks would serve its brews in plain red cups, with nothing but their logo—a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid—instead of those more hallowed images of snowflakes, snowpeople and snow-scened carolers.

Given the fact that over 70% of the world’s Christian population live in the Global South—where, for most, December is in the middle of summer—“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” is a carol for decidedly ivory-shaded people.

For Christ’s sake (and I mean that) we would do better saving our outrage over more seriously righteous stuff.

We forget (or never knew) that in the liturgical traditions’ lectionary memory, the Sunday after Christmas is the “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” the ISIS-like episode of Herod’s desperate attempt to wipe out an imperial threat by the slaughtering baby boys around Bethlehem. Which then prompted the holy family to undertake a Syrian refugee-like flight through the Sinai desert to Egypt.

The current “war on Christmas” mania got its biggest boost in 2005 when Fox News host John Gibson wrote a book by that title, subtitled “How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse than You Thought.” But the pro-Christmas vigilante movement goes back further.

In 1921 the automaker and notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford blamed the Jews for squelching Christmas. By the time the Cold War came around, it was the nefarious Communists who were out “to drive Christ out of Christmas.”

Likely the current phase of hysteria should be credited to a former magazine editor named Peter Brimelow, a rabid anti-immigrant crusader, who founded the “VDare” website which railed against the displacement of “Merry Christmas” by “Happy Holidays” as a December social etiquette. (Brimelow’s organization has been classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Ironically, Matthew’s account (ch. 2) of Herod’s bloodletting contains an understated critique of orthodox arrogance by elevating the pagan Magi to hero status in the tale of baby Jesus’ escape. And Luke’s account credits that culture’s backwater day laborers—the shepherds—as being the first to hear and respond to the news. These are but two among a host of examples of Scripture’s persistent theme of God’s reversal of existing arrangements and presumed privilege.

The paradox of the saving-Christmas movement is greatest, though, when you consider our nation’s Puritan ancestors’ attitude toward the occasion. Instead of putting Christ back into Christmas, they wanted to remove him entirely, going so far as to outlawing seasonal cheer both in the Puritan-controlled British parliament (1643) and later in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Between 1659 and 1681 any Massachusetts colonist found making merry on Christmas was fined five shillings.

A 1580 essay by English Puritan Philip Stubbes complained “that more mischief is that time committed than in all the year beside, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder.  . . what banqueting and feasting . . . to the great dishonor of God and the impoverishing of the realm?” In 1706, a Puritan mob smashed the windows of King's Chapel in Boston to disrupt an Anglicans Christmas service. It wasn’t until the 1870s that New England abandoned its scroogyness and embraced year-end revelry. It took nearly another century before Christmas became a holiday in Scotland in 1958.

Benjamin Franklin penned what was likely the best general assessment of the holiday, both in Britain and in the Colonies, recorded in the 1739 edition of Poor Richard’s Alamanac: “O blessed Season! Lov’d by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”

       Art by Len Munnik

The New Testament’s and early church’s general disinterest in dating the birth of Jesus was key to the Puritan bah-humbuggery. The earliest recorded speculation about a precise nativity date is in the late second century CE, when

Clement of Alexandria surveys several then-current theories, all of which proposed spring season days. It’s just not a thing, at least not until the fourth century when the church was enthroned as the Roman imperium’s queen and pressure to control content became an ecclesial preoccupation.

The desire to control content, define the boundaries and name apostates has always been the fly in every faith-based ointment when powerful enough to work its will.

What is far more corrosive to Communities of the Way is the substitution of cheery sentiment and commercial advantage for Advent’s precarious scenario.

In a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case (Lynch v. Donnelly), regarding the constitutionality of a Pawtucket, R.I., courthouse crèche (Santa was among the visitants), former Chief Justice Warren Burger established legal precedent for existing polity, saying the Christmas display “engenders a friendly community spirit” and “serves the commercial interests” of the merchants.

Then there is this newer-age faith-based tendency, just announced in my newspaper’s review of holiday offerings: “Bringing Happy Back Into Your Holidays: An Evening of Befriending the Mind and Discovering the Sacred in the Holiday season.” With which we can discard minor-keyed carols’ reminders of shameful unplanned pregnancies, with migrants consigned to beastly stables, Herod’s fury a distant memory, and a child to whom is subversively given the very titles—“savior,” “son of God,” “redeemer of the world”—then reserved for none other than the great Roman Caesar. No more discordant words from Mary about the rich being sent away empty.

And the hungry being filled? We’ve got charities for that—the poor get their share of column inches and broadcast minutes in the annual “season for giving” disguise of impoverishing policies, assuring a steady stream of docile recipients for next year’s benevolent binge. Time now for marshmallowy hot cocoa and Rudolph’s red nose. Ah, the aroma of chestnuts roasting! And happy 100th birthday anniversary, Frank Sinatra!

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Information for this article is drawn from a variety of sources, including:

•“A Brief History of the War on Christmas,” by Alex Altman, Time magazine

•“Outlaw Christmas—It Wouldn’t Be the First Time,” by Pam Durso, ethicsdaily.com

•“Gold, frankincense and espresso,” by Bill Leonard, Baptist New Global

•“Starbucks red cups and the outrage machine,” by Laura Turner, Religion News Service

•“The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy,’” by Emma Green, The Atlantic

•“Christmas dissolved: English Puritanism,” by Douglas D. Anderson

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org

for thousands of years

A wedding call to worship

by Abigail Hastings
“Call to worship” for the wedding of
Jessica Sehested and Richard Mark, Saturday 6 May 2006

for thousands of years
people have gathered
under a grove of trees
or an expanse of sky
beside an altar of marble
or beneath a cloth of blessing
to bear witness to such
a beautifully simple act
   of intention and promise

for thousands of years
people have looked on
as those they love
make known their choice,
this choosing of love
   and life and future

for thousands of years
people have risked
the catch in their throats
the quickening heart
the dampening eyes
to sense the pivot of a moment

where all that has come before
yields to the possibilities ahead:
the deeper trails yet to hike;
moist dark earth turning
for new vegetable seeds;
the pleasure of tossing the dinner salad
greens; or teaching new tricks
to an eager-to-learn and
uncommonly happy dog

possibilities too measured in
shared confidences before a fire,
or unspoken ones beneath the
        canopy of a North Carolina
star-filled sky

and for us, for those of us gathered
here, as vivid to us now as this
time is, when the fullness
         of each
becomes the splendor of
         the together,
the lives we here witness and
         celebrate
are most piercingly imprinted
         in the record of our joys
by the way he looks at her,
by the way she looks at him,
by the light that fills that fleeting
         but luxurious exchange
from the depths of one’s being

it is that look, and that compass
of knowing and being
known, of loving and being loved,
that illumines all that we hope for
in this day and in the days to come.

welcome to this celebration
of two people
of two people finding
and of us, lucky us, finding ourselves
here in the privilege
of partying on in the midst of
the very best of what life
has to offer.

welcome, one and all,
         to the celebration.

©Abigail Hastings @ prayerandpolitiks.org

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  31 January 2018 •  No. 150

Processional. “I’m an ordinary man / from the place where the palms grow / and before I die I want / to sing out the verses of my soul.” —English translation of the first verse of “Guantanamera,” Playing for Change, performed by 75 Cubans from around the world collaborate on this historic recording of the Cuban unofficial national hymn.  The song’s lyrics, by Cuban singer-songwriter, Joseíto Fernandez, were adapted from José Martí’s “Versos Sencillos  poem. Pete Seeger made the song popular in the US after the Cuban missile crisis in an attempt to affirm US-Cuban cultural ties in the face of growing diplomatic hostility.

More background to the song’s repeated mention of guajira Guantanamera. “Another interesting part of the song’s story is the etymology of the word guajira. In the War of Independence, when the US came in at the 11th hour to ‘save the day,’ US soldiers saw some of the peasant militiamen on horseback, without uniform, rustic looking, and the soldiers greeted them, ‘Look at the war heroes.’ The Cuba ears, not accustomed to English, heard ‘war heroes’ as guajiros and thought they were being complimented, so the word stuck. Guajira is the feminine form, and the word now is used to identify country people, peasant people, much like we would say ‘bumpkin’ or ‘redneck.’” —Stan Dotson

Above: Overhead photo of the island of Cuba, Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook

Special issue
HISTORIC CUBAN ELECTIONS

Invocation. “Soon the time will come / when suffering will be erased / grudges will be put away / and we all will share / the same sentiment / although time has passed / with pride and dignity / I have taken your name / all around the World / I have told your truth.” —English translation of lyrics to “Por si acaso no regreso,” performed by Celia Cruz

Introduction

        You will be excused for not knowing that Cuba is in the midst of a historic electoral process which, when completed, will feature a Cuban president not named Castro.

        (It’s quite possible you didn’t even know Cuba had elections. Whether their process qualifies as “democratic” is an important question. Whether US elections qualify as such is also an important question.)

Right: Precinct polling station. Older children (younger than 16) serve as poll watchers.

        The process began on 26 November 2017 when citizens went to polling stations in every district across the country to select leaders to serve on ward [precinct] and municipal governing bodies as “delegates.” On 11 March, candidates for provincial and national legislatures will be chosen. The National Assembly will then chose a new president to succeed Raúl Castro, who retires on 19 April.

Call to worship. Habana Compás Dance. (Thanks Jim.)

¶ “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.’” —continue reading “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

¶ “What Chicago is learning from Cuba when it comes to fighting infant mortality.” Cuban specialists in prenatal care are assisting medical officials in Chicago study the cause of low infant mortality rates in the city. Cuba’s 4.3 infant mortality rate is lower than the 5.7 rate in the US. In Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood the rate is14.5. Miles Bryan, WUNC

What follows is a bit more background on Cuba’s electoral process.

            • Cuba’s recent election is the first of three stages in choosing their provincial and national assemblies. A field of 27,000 candidates were on the ballot in 12,515 wards, with 11,415 members of Municipal legislators elected. Of those, 35.4% were women and 14.3% were “youth” (up to age 29). —for more see Telesur

        • The Miami Herald, one of the few publications in the US covering the election, ran the headline, “Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip?”

        • In fact, 85.9% of eligible voters in Cuba cast ballots—7.6 million of the country’s 8.8 million eligible voters. In US presidential elections, average turnout over the last 50 years is less than 55%. In mid-term elections that number goes down to 34.4%. In most major cities, fewer than 15% of eligible voters participate. —for more see Drew DeSilver, “US trails most developed countries in voter turnout,” Pew Research Center ; PBS News Hour; Kriston Capps, CityLab

For the full accounting of details on the electoral process, see “Cuba’s historic electoral process November 2017 – April 2018.”

Hymn of praise.La Paz de la Tierra/The Peace of the Earth,” a traditional Guatemalan blessing arranged and performed by Marty Haugen and Marc Anderson (sung first in Spanish, then in English).

¶ “I read all the speeches of [Pope Francis], his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.” Cuban President Raul Castro, in a visit May 2015 to the Vatican to thank Pope Francis for his work for a Cuban-US détente —Washington Post

Right: Artwork by Dan Trabue.

¶ “On January 18, 2018, Cuba was named ‘Safest Country for Tourists’ at the 38th annual International Tourism Fair in Madrid, Spain.” Christopher P. Baker, smerconish

Confession. “R.J. Suderman, a Canadian Mennonite, reports that in a 1986 interview Castro joking noted ‘either the church has changed a lot or I’m getting old.’ Just this past December, during a similar meeting with religious leaders from across the Americas, Castro is said to have repeated the following comment four different times: ‘Atheism has been the traitor of the revolution.’” —Ken Sehested, “My Sling Is That of David: US-Cuba relations as an emerging agenda

In a 2007 trip to Cuba, while visiting a small village in the central region, a member of a local church told me, with more than a little pride, that her pastor had recently been elected to the town’s municipal assembly. “Because of his involvement in community affairs, he was better known and more trusted by the people [than the other candidate, who was a Communist Party member]. It’s really that simple.”

Hymn of intercession.Fey Oh Di Nou” ("Oh Leaves Tell Us") by the Creole Choir of Cuba tells of a group trying to invoke the divine power of medicinal plants to heal a sick person.

Left: A major tourist attraction in Cuba is the presence of vintage American cars from the 1940s–1950s. They are a testament to the ingenuity of Cubans who, lacking access to replacement parts, engineer their own as needed.

Government documents declassified on 30 September 2014 reveal US plans to bomb Cuba in 1976. “I think we are going to have to smash Cuba,” Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Gerald Ford during a February meeting. A few weeks later he repeated that sentiment, saying “I think sooner or later we have to crack the Cubans. I think we have to humiliate them.” ­Raf Sanchez, The Telegraph

Words of assurance. “It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.” —Ursula Le Guin, in “A Wizard of Earthsea”

A decade ago, when some in my congregation’s visited our partner congregation in Cuba, we asked one of the lay leaders if he thought the US embargo would ever end. He paused before answering “yes.” But then he added, “But my fear is that your country will simply buy ours.”

Rev. Raúl Suárez, retired pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana and founder of the Martin Luther King Center, was the first Christian to be elected to Cuba’s National Assembly, in 1992, after the country’s constitution was edited to remove language identifying the nation as “atheist.” Two other clergy serve as deputies in the National Assembly: Miriam Ofelia Ortega, a Presbyterian, and Pablo Odén Marichal, an Episcopalian.

Short story: Footwashing in Cuba. “A simple wooden stool was placed in the middle of the circle. A large, dented, metal basin quickly appeared, and a two-gallon water bottle, one of the many we had used for drinking water, became part of the ritual. We quietly sang, swayed, and washed each other’s precious feet. For someone for whom public emotion is a rarity, I could not contain the sweetness and goodness I felt in this moment. I then had the chance to wash the feet of Joy, my courageous 9-year-old daughter. Be cleaned, I thought. Be free, I prayed.” —continue reading Kiran Sigmon’s “While Washing My Daughter’s Feet

¶ “I have never voted for anyone important, not even our president,” said a retired air force mechanic in Cuba. “I can only vote for my neighborhood representative and they never go anywhere,” he said, “but I still think it's a better system than one based on money and lies.” Marc Frank, Reuters

Preach it. "The society we seek, based on communal values, is spelled out not in Marx or Engels but in the Book of Acts. It's not pure socialism, but it's surely not capitalism either. I would applaud capitalism if it would feed the people of the world. But in fact, the forces of capitalism have a deteriorating effect on the two primary projects of God: human nature, and the creations of the natural world." —Rev. Raúl Suárez, retired pastor, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Havana, Cuba

Being in Matanzas [Cuba] and watching election results on the night of November 8 [2017] was surreal. . . . The most interesting conversations came from people like my friend Samuel, who didn't seem at all bothered by a Trump presidency.

        Samuel's view is that America has long been suffering from a political/economic cancer, and perhaps Trump is the poison, the chemotherapy or radiation, that we need to deal with our cancer. Our cancer is the imperial illusion/fantasy of unlimited growth. (Isn't that what cancer is? he asked me). We are a discontented people, never satisfied unless our bank accounts and material storehouses are growing.” —Stan Dotson,  who along with his spouse Kim Christman, are living and working in Cuba for the year. If you would like to receive their posts reflecting on everyday life in Cuba, send him a note: standotson407@gmail.com

Can’t makes this sh*t up. “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.” —prominent anti-immigrant Republican Steve King (R-IA), Mark 2017, reported on CNN

Call to the table. “Picture this, if you can: The Lord God of Hosts stands at the church house door, at the pulpit, at the communion table, maybe even at the potluck dinner counter, hands perched on hips, lips pursed and brows furrowed, voice wavering with a parental mixture of broiling anger and urgent affection, saying: What in heaven’s name has gotten into you dimwitted people of the Promise, you ninny-headed, shallow-hearted sucklings of the Most High God!—continue reading “Get over yourself,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:21-31

Good read. “As Cuba opens, it’s time to recognize our proxy role in Cuba’s slave trade, and the Monroe Doctrine’s real purpose.” —Stephen Chambers, “Our forgotten slavery horror: The shameful, untold history of America and the Cuban slave trade,” Salon

The state of our disunion. “When we evolved the [Electoral Integrity Project, for evaluating the relative freedom and transparency of purported democratic elections] I could never imagine that as we enter 2017, my state, North Carolina, would perform so badly on this, and other, measures that we are no longer considered to be a fully functioning democracy. In the just released EIP report, NC’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table—a deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.” —Andrew Reynolds, “North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy,” The [Charlotte] News & Observer

Best one-liner. “Cuba seems to have the same effect on U.S. administrations as the full moon once had on werewolves.” —Dr. Wayne Smith, former director of the US Interest Section in Havana, Cuba

For the beauty of the earth. Cuba is home to the world's smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird. (9:57 video)

Altar call. We “urge Christians in the US to attend to 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. We stand in need of being evangelized anew.” —“Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean,” United Church of Christ resolution approved at its 2017 General Synod, authored by Ken Sehested

Benediction. “We have only begun to know / the power that is in us if we would join / our solitudes in the communion of struggle. / So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, / so much is in bud.” —Denise Levertov in “Beginners”

Recessional. Chan Chan,” Buena Vista Social Club.

Lectionary for this Sunday. “To what wilderness have you strayed, oh people of the Way? To what distraction have you tuned your ears? Have you not heard? To what diversion have you loaned your eyes?” —continue reading “Chords of comfort,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40

Lectionary for Sunday next. “The season of Lent is upon us. Listen for your instructions! Now is the time to flee Pharaoh’s national security state for the insecurity of the wilderness. Now is the time to listen for the Word whose hearing bypasses the ears of princes and high priests but is heard only in the wilderness.” —continue reading “Lent is upon us,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:23, 43:19; Matthew 3:3

Just for fun. World champion salsa dancers (ages 6 & 7).

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Chords of comfort,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40

• “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

• “While Washing My Daughter’s Feet,” Kiran Sigmon’s story from a trip to Cuba

• “Lent is upon us,” a litany inspired by Isaiah 40:23, 43:19; Matthew 3:3

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

Left: Bookmark created by the women's sewing cooperative of the Kairos Community Center in Matanzas, Cuba, which creates a variety of textile art products.

Other features

Two dozen new annotated book reviews

• “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

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

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Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance

Christine Smith, Westminster/JohnKnox, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Smith writes from the perspective that preaching is an interpretation of our present world and an invitation to a profoundly different world.  Preaching is a form of weeping in a universe filled with human suffering and oppression; it is a form of oppression where the preacher can call on communities into painful and honest confession, and it is a form of resistance, moving people to actively resist the attitudes and structures of oppression, of ‘isms’.  Smith sees three worlds that converge in the act of preaching; the world of the text, the world of the preacher and community where proclamation occur, and the larger social context in which we live out our faith.  Preaching is a theological act (mediating biblical perspectives) as well as an act of naming.  Smith’s three descriptions of preaching are those of weeping, confession and resistance (the Christian response to the real world).

        Smith identifies six areas of redemptive activity (handicappism, ageism, sexism, heterosexism, racism and classism).  Each of the chapters names a type of violence; describes her experience that moved her to passionate feeling; identifying the realities of our social and political life; adding a sermon on the particular issue (eg women standing at the cross, ‘Standing at a Distance’, Good Friday, Luke 23:44-49).  Smith’s close fellowship ecumenically, especially with Latin American struggles, adds powerful perspective to her presentations; it is a book that will bring preaching into a new partnership with the congregation.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Preaching in the New Creation

David Jacobsen, Westminster John Knox, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        We live in apocalyptic times, with a sense that an age is ending and a new one breaking forth.  Jacobsen provides methodology for preaching apocalyptic texts, starting with a definition.  ‘Apocalypticism is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which envisages eschatological salvation, invoking another supernatural world intended to interpret present earthly circumstances’ (p 6).  Jacobsen points out the ways in which a throne room imagery is common to both Hebrew bible imagery and the Christian literature, the new testament; all the  throne room scenes begin with the throne, move to the heavenly court and end with the commission (eg Revelation 5) (p 80ff).

        The symbolic language offers a vision, a symbolic inversion, capable of evoking not just a different image but a different social world and a different way of engaging the old one’ (p 89).  ‘Symbols are not interested in mediating information but in altering perception, as we live out in our lives the claims of colliding worlds…. John the Seer uses these symbols in order to encourage a praise of resistance among his hearers’ (p 89).

        Thus the throne room scene invites us to think of ways of maintaining or perpetuating the alternative reality that is John’s vision:  the tension between our own cultural messianic longings and the mystery of the Christ crucified, ‘to find places of tension where worlds collide and discern ways in which we can confirm the life the gospel offers us in the world, establishing the claims of competing symbolic worlds. (p 90).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.