The posture of prayer in light of Ukraine’s misery

Responding to a friend’s report on the harrowing violence in Ukraine

by Ken Sehested

Composed after fumbling for worthy words, over several hours and much soul-shaking.

Invocation. “When You’re Broken Open.” —from Dance: 1, Anna Clyne, cello soloist, with Inbal Segev & London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop

§  §  §

We, from this distance and in our negligent comfort and

delinquent affluence, lack the ability to stretch our hands to

yours to feel your shivers; to enlarge our hearts so that they

beat in rhythm with your sobs; to train our eyes so that they

rise above the frivolous, paltry distractions, immune to grief,

comforted in our colonized minds, asking only

      what more is there to drink?

      what more, to eat?

      what more, to abduct our attention from the brutal fate

            of distant, disposable victims of imperial lust

            and bloated arrogance?


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


Who indeed—as the Apostle beseeched—can save from this

body of death? In our weakness we pray, all the while

recognizing that our own spiritual pittance, rooted in our

insulating wealth, renders us complicit in a world governed by

bloated avarice, administered by relentless corruption,

subjugated by callous threat.


We, too, have received our 30 pieces of silver to turn a blind

eye to a rapacious economy, propped up by legislative infamy,

and enforced by judicial villainy.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


May our prayers for mercy embolden our hearts and hands,

put us on alert, to the moments and whereabouts of the Spirit’s



Blessed One, tutor us in the practice of praise that provokes

treason against every hard-hearted arrangement.


Only embodied reverence can tame leviathan’s violence. Only

disarmed hearts can contend with the beast without making us

beastly. Only such praise can leverage the earth’s maddening

orbit back to its Rightful Tender.


Then, no longer shall the beggarly be auctioned to satisfy

ravenous demand. They shall find refuge, deliverance, in

secured, Promised Land—all under their own vine and fig tree

where none shall be afraid. For the Beloved has vowed a

ransomed release from misery’s increase: healing the lamed,

gathering the shamed, transforming their weeping to a torrent

of praise.


Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


So, dear sister, be assured that intercessions are being

launched on behalf of all under assault in your region,

accompanied by our material support. Human words are too

frail to express what is needed; but we trust the Spirit to fortify

our meager supplications.


And we ask to receive yours, for us, in return.

§  §  §

Benediction. “Benedictus.—by Karl Jenkins from “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace,” featuring Croatian cellist Hauser with the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir Zvjezdice, Zagreb, Croatia

# # #

Artwork below: “Madonna,” painting by Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze, Republic of Georgia


The Last Word

A wedding blessing for Caitlin Hope Wood & Zack Neel

by Ken Sehested

May you store up patience, for life is not always kind, and you need to persevere.

Remember that regret is not the last word.

Despite life’s disregard, the last word is this:

One day every cup will overflow.

May you store up affection, for sometimes the heart grows cold, and you need to persevere.

Remember that bitterness is not the last word.

Despite every cold-hearted season, the last word is this:

One day the sun’s warm embrace will thaw every brittle grimace.

May you store up mercy, for life is not always gentle, and you need to persevere.

Remember that enmity is not the last word.

Despite life’s brutal stain, the last word is this:

One day pardon will trump vengeance.

May you store up forgiveness, for life is not always charitable.

Remember that judgment is not the last word.

Despite all cruel reproach, the last word is this:

One day grace will have its way.

May you store up hope, for life is not always buoyant, and you need to persevere.

Remember that despair is not the last word.

Despite all dismay, the last word is this:

One day the meek will inherit the earth.

May you store up faith, for life is not always devout, and you need to persevere.

Remember that infidelity is not the last word.

Despite life’s treacherous grip, the last word is this:

One day creation itself will shed its decay.

May you store up praise, for life is not always jubilant, and you need to persevere.

Remember that lament shall not have the last word.

Despite every mother’s grief, every father’s sorrow, the last word is this:

One day those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy.

#  #  #

What a great time to be alive

On the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021 assault on the US capitol

by Ken Sehested

We are not so much brave as desperate;

to hear a Word above the noise;

a Song beyond the clatter;

a Hope beyond the cheeriness;

a Faith beyond the infamy.

Our body politic is under assault from those possessed of fear gone feral;

whose rage has erupted, threatening carnage;

whose lies have become dogma;

whose hearts have been wrapped in concertina wire.

The verity of virtuous life is scorned;

the moralists embrace lewd vainglory;

empathy, consigned to the gallows;

mercy, judged as weakness.

Liberty has become a warrant for licentiousness;

freedom, a cover for insolence and ethical harlotry;

privilege, practiced as impunity and arrogance.

These things are on display as rarely before in public life.

These are the gaping tears in our national fabric.

Two things are abundantly clear:

We are, as a nation, in deep doo-doo; and

what a great time to be alive!

#  # #


Summon your nerve

A call to the Table on Pentecost Sunday

by Ken Sehested

I would love to think approaching

this table conferred visions of

leisurely picnics in green meadows

beside gentle bubbling streams,

with cooling breeze matched by

warm sunshine and birdsong in

nearby long leaf pine and hemlock.


Truth is, it’s more like unleavened

bread, hastily prepared under dark

skies when death angels rout the

countryside, on the eve of betrayal

and the cusp of terror, in a land on

the brink of ecological collapse and

lead-lined water pipes poisoning

the young and an infestation of

woolly adelgid leaching the life

from majestic forests.


You will be disappointed if you come

here anticipating ease and distraction—

and, if so, consider making a quick exit

now. If not, if you brave the danger

circling this table, I can promise that

you will find sustenance, and persevering

power, Pentecostal power, for the living

of these days, come what may.


When he left, Jesus said something like

this to his friends, “I didn’t say it would

be easy. I said it would be worth it.”


Come, friends of Jesus, summon your

nerve. You’ve nothing to lose but your

fears. And the Beloved Community to gain.

#  #  #

Hallelujahs and heartaches, too

On the occasion of a friend's retirement after more than four decades of pastoral ministry

by Ken Sehested

What a day! What a day! Not to mention a year,

4+ decades piled head-to-toe,

some of them a bit fuzzy now

(thank God!),

others like constellations whose radiance still

guides during dark nights of the soul.

Little did you know, a half-century ago

when your vocation was gestating,

what your profession would involve, where your

convictions would take you, the joys then unimaginable,

the sorrows ruthless beyond belief. And the

“ordinary” days, the days for which songs are

never composed, for which cakes are never baked,

for which poems are never rhymed nor hymns

inspired, for which hardly anyone

but the Beloved took note.


Scores upon scores of hallelujahs and heartaches, too.

Cares that kept you up at night and joys that set you

moving at the first sight of dawn’s light.


If you could have known then what you know now, would

you have allowed those authorizing hands to be laid

on your head? Would you, instead, have run

screaming from the room, faster than Jonah in a

speedboat, further than Tarshish multiplied many

times over? Bemoaning the day of your birth,

more bitterly than Jeremiah?

Cursing God more boldly than Job, demanding a

grand jury indictment for the Most High?


Might you have sought an easier Gospel to declare— a

compliant, more digestible announcement, something

less thorny, less disturbing to patrons, more likely

to win friends and salutations from chambers of

commerce? How many times have you been

tempted to soften the Word, to something like:

thus recommendeth the Lord?


Would you have preferred a cool breeze and votive candle

to Pentecost’s raging wind and flaming tongues of fire?

Maybe a luxury hotel room to the Nativity’s

barn yard stable? Did another life tempt your fate,

one free of property maintenance, boo birds in

the balcony, last minute panics when there’s not

enough grape juice for communion?

You should be happy to not pull off

another capital campaign.


Wouldn’t it all have been easier if Jesus had turned those

rocks to bread. Or cut a deal with the devil in order to

accomplish salvation’s end? Or to undertake a few

magical feats to pack the sanctuary,

grow the membership, spit-polish that

muddle of a sermon?

What harm could that have done?


But, no. Nooooo.

You knew, down in your toes if not in your head,

that there is no skipping from

the crib to the cross

to the Crown of Glory.

No shortcuts to bypass those ordinary days.

No passing the cup of those agonizing experiences.

No surge protection

against joy’s electrifying arc.

For there is no ordinary in ordination’s destination.


Now, though, receive gladly the permission to lie fallow

on days other than Mondays. Let your appointment

book and dress shoes gather dust. Have a Bloody

Mary for brunch on a Sunday. Linger longer with the

morning paper. Give those grandbabies your

undivided, leisurely attention. Let the

lectionary recede, at least for a while .

Turn off your phone for long periods of time. Be less

wordy, and less worrisome, in your prayer time.


Yet may you continue to live large

laugh often, and

love well.

#  #  #

—commemorating the retirement of Paul Hayes, pastor of Noank Baptist Church, Noank, CT.


The storied history of a Walker L. Knight devotional

How lines from a Woman’s Missionary Union conference ended up in a historic speech by President Jimmy Carter

by Ken Sehested

This tale is the unlikely story of a single, five-word sentence, a fragment of a much longer prose poem.

It was first uttered during what many would consider a parochial backwater event: the April 1971 annual meeting of the Florida Baptist Convention Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU).

Several lines from that poem, including the pivotal sentence, was later quoted by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during his March 26, 1979 speech at the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty signing at the White House.

Years later that poem portion would be produced as a large poster, seen hanging on walls on three different continents, and has long since entered the international vocabulary of advocates of all sorts pursuing justice, peace, and human rights.

The key sentence?

“Peace, like war, is waged.”

This December represents the 50th anniversary of the initial publication of Walker’s phrase, embedded in the poem’s text.

Then directing the editorial services department of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board (HMB), Walker wrote the poem for a series of devotionals at the April 1971 Florida WMU gathering, at the request of Carolyn Weatherford, who later became synonymous with missions education as director of national WMU.

When Everett Hullum, Walker’s associate editor of Home Missions magazine, read the manuscript, he insisted that the entire piece be printed. It debuted as an 18-page spread, accompanied by a series of striking photographs, in the December 1972 issue.

The storyline of how some of that text ended up in Carter’s historic speech is circuitous.

It began when John Nichol, pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church (OBC) in Decatur, Ga., used several lines from the poem in a sermon he guest preached at First Baptist Church, Vienna, Ga., where his friend Rev. Robert Maddox was pastor.

Maddox was already an acquaintance of Jimmy Carter, a farmer and active church member in nearby Plains who had done some guest preaching in churches in the area. Twice, in the summers of 1967 and ’68, when Maddox was on vacation, Carter filled his pulpit.

Fast forward several years, after completing a Ph.D. at Emory University in Atlanta, Maddox was called as pastor of First Baptist Church in Calhoun, Ga., where one of the Carter’s sons was a member.

One Sunday Rosalynn Carter, the president’s spouse, visited the church. Maddox invited her to lunch, and she agreed. This was in September 1978, during the 12 days of strenuous diplomacy happening at Camp David, the presidential retreat, when the president was hosting Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in talks aimed at creating a peace treaty between the two countries. Ms. Carter shared what little she knew—and of the high stakes at risk in this diplomatic initiative.

Previously, in May of 1978, one of Carter’s aides whom Maddox had known in Vienna called to say the president would be speaking to the Southern Baptist Brotherhood Commission, saying that none of the speechwriters knew the context, asking if Maddox would consider working up a draft. Maddox jumped at the chance. Afterward Maddox wrote to the president to offer his services as a speechwriter, but was declined.

The Camp David Accords represented an agreement in principle. Afterwards, Begin and Sadat returned to their respective countries to sell its details to their respective governments. That’s when things began to fall apart, necessitating President Carter’s diplomatic shuttling between the two countries. Finally, in March 1979 Carter announced that final agreement had been reached.

Upon hearing the news, Maddox, on his own initiative, decided to write a speech for Carter for the treaty signing ceremony at the White House. He remembered that phrase from Walker’s poem—“Peace, like war, is waged”—and inserted it, along with several other lines, and sent it to Rosalynn Carter’s press secretary.

Carter ended up using what Maddox wrote, including these lines:

“It has been said, and I quote, ‘Peace has one thing in common with its enemy, with the fiend it battles, with war; peace is active, not passive; peace is doing, not waiting; peace is aggressive—attacking; peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy; peace marshals its forces and storms the gates; peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense; peace, like war, is waged.’”

Though Walker was not identified as the author, a White House aide specifically asked Maddox for attribution of the quote.

A few days later, while Maddox was in Florida, an aide to the president called, urging him to find a TV—Carter was about to give the speech.

In May of that year, Maddox was hired by the Carter Administration, first as a speechwriter, then as a special religious liaison for the president.

Many who knew Walker often used the word “integrity” to describe his character. One of his associates remarked to a new staff hire, “there is no guile in Walker Knight.”

Such virtue does not show up overnight. It was be nurtured—clarified, trusted, repeatedly practiced—over time. Though it’s hard to identify one particular occasion when this temperament crystalized.

Quite possibly it was an experience recounted by his close friend, John Nichol, Oakhurst Baptist Church’s former pastor. At Walker’s memorial service in December 2019, Nichol, commented that “You have to go back to the time when as a teenager he made his first major trip out of Henderson County, Kentucky, with a group of teenagers from his church, to attend Training Union Week at the Baptist Assembly in Ridgecrest, N.C.

“One evening the preacher for that week focused on one of the beatitudes: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. “Dr. Johnson said that the verse could also be translated ‘Blessed are those who want to see things set right, for they will help accomplish it.’”

Wanting to see things set right, Walker wrote in his Memoirs, served as lifelong point of orientation. It’s what would steel his resolve to speak out on matters of racial justice, on questions of economic inequality, on support of women in ministry, along with numerous other human rights matters.

By the time he assumed his role as editor of the HMB’s Home Missions magazine (later renamed Missions USA), he joined his journalism skills to his theological vision and his editorial courage. He soon learned there would be a cost to such integrity.

Subsequent generations have hard time imagining the red hot emotions around Jim Crow culture and the revolt of the Civil Rights Movement.

One for instance: In the fall of ’71, James Sullivan, the director of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, halted distribution of a Training Union Quarterly (study material for teens)—140,000 copies, plus another 18,000 “leaders’ guides”—because of a photo of a Black teen talking with two white girls, along with a small portion of text. All those copies were destroyed and new copies, with substitute material, were printed.

Sullivan explained that he did so to avoid “misunderstandings. . . It could have been construed as improper promotion . . . of integration in churches, which is an individual church matter under Baptist polity.”

Walker recalled several occasion when the executive of the Home Mission Board (HMB) called him in, holding up the latest issue of Home Missions, and asking “what does this have to do with home missions?”

Walker responded that mission stories could only be interpreted in their social context. At the time, few if any in SBC life were using the language of “liberation” theology. But there it was. He was already practicing what Congressman John Lewis would later urge: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

By the early ‘80s, the SBC’s fundamentalist coalition’s bare-knuckled, publicly announced intent to take over the SBC. Walker could see the writing on the wall. At age 59, Walker and his beloved Nell agreed that he would resign from the HMB, take a 50% cut in pay, and, with support from a group of moderate-progressive pastors, started an independent Baptist publication. The first issue of SBC Today (later renamed Baptists Today and then again, Nurturing Faith) was issued in April 1983.

No single phrase has been more important to my own formation than Walker’s line, peace, like war, is waged. Peace is not simply a sentiment, but an active practice. Peace is not like peace-and-quiet, because peacemakers sometimes stir trouble. Peace, as Dr. King incisively noted, is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.

A broad consensus among New Testament scholars agree that Jesus’ call to love enemies is the radiant center of the Gospel, the hub in which many spokes unite. The capacity to love enemies (which is not the same as liking them) springs from God’s unilaterally disarming initiative in Jesus. Grace is the lubricant which loosens the grip of fear on our living, allowing us to live lives of extravagant love. Our penitential posture, opening ourselves to God’s love, is the very thing that makes us forgiving people, for “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (Luke 7:47).

The disarming of the heart and the disarming of the nations are intertwined.

Peace, like war, is waged. As Walker put it, originally to those WMU attendants: “Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy. / Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates. / Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense . . . / But Christ has turned it all around: / the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering; / the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer; / the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness; / the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God.”

#  #  #


The New York City Draft riots

Instructive history for the living of these days

by Ken Sehested

July 2022

“Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. They made the weather, then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining.’” —lines by Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) in the Civil War-era movie “Cold Mountain”

§  §  §

This week is the anniversary of our nation’s largest, longest, and most deadly race riot that began on Monday 13 July 1863 and continued throughout the work week before finally being suppressed by Union army military units and New York militia.

However, few US citizens have ever heard about it. Partly because historians have named this 1863 episode of insurrection as the “New York City Draft Riots,” since the triggering event, following congressional approval of our nation’s first military draft law, was the lottery rollout in Manhattan.

On 3 March, President Lincoln signed into law Congress’ “Act for enrolling and calling out the national Forces,” which required all male citizens between the aged of 20 and 45 to enroll.

Both racial and economic class status factored into the mayhem. President Lincoln’s earlier Emancipation Proclamation escalated the fears of white working class (most of them Irish immigrants) laborers’ fear of competition with the newly-freed African American population. Tensions between white and Black workers had flared since the 1850s. Months before the draft riots, white longshoremen attacked Black coworkers.

Another harsh feature of the draft law was a provision that allowed a draftee to pay $300 to be exempted from military service. Since laborers at the time made between $1-$2 per day, it was obvious that the law favored the wealthy. The draft law also excluded African Americans, who were not considered citizens.

§  §  §

On May 14, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, the New York Tribune editorialized that “this War is in truth a War for the preservation of the Union, not for the destruction of Slavery; and it would alienate many ardent Unionists to pervert it into a War against Slavery. . . . We believe that Slavery has nothing to fear from a Union triumph.” —quoted in “The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America,” Philip A. Kinkner

§  §  §

The first drawing of names for enlistment went without incident on Saturday, 11 July. But mid-morning of the second day, Monday 13 July, a mob of 500 white men attacked the provost marshal’s office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft selection was taking place.

The mob violence quickly morphed from an attack on city and federal government buildings to a focused assault on African Americans and the businesses that served them.

One of the first targets was the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836 by Quaker women. Rioters first looted the building, carrying away bedding, clothes, and food, and then set the building on fire. The 233 children housed there, plus their caregivers, managed to escape through the back door without harm.

Soon mobs were wrecking havoc in various parts of the city.

The total number of death of African Americans caused by the riots is unknown; but most historians estimate the number in the hundreds. About 100 buildings were destroyed; many more were damaged. At least 11 Blacks were mutilated, hung in the streets, and their bodies burned.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the riots were “equivalent to a Confederate victory.”

Several key ingredients in this volatile context are also little known.

New York City’s economy was deeply intertwined with that of Southern slavers. Nearly half of its exports were cotton produced in the South. New York’s numerous textile mills depended on Southern plantations. New York bankers provided financing and insurance companies sold coverage to slave shipping.

The city had long since closed its own slave market. But entanglement with the slave economy lived on.

§  §  §

“To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor. / And we ain’t for the n*****, but we are for the war.” —popular rhyme in Northern cities upon the outbreak of the US Civil War

§  §  §

Early in 1861, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, a Democrat, petitioned the city’s Board of Aldermen to “declare the city’s independence from Albany (New York’s state capitol) and Washington” in order to maintain the city’s lucrative economic ties to the South.

The abolitionist movement was vilified in the South; but it wasn’t exactly popular in the North, either, with many considering it a reckless, utopian idea. The famous abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass alluded to the frailty of the movement when, after Ft. Sumter came under attack, he said “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

Many abolitionists held opinions similar to Abraham Lincoln, who said in an 1858 presidential campaign speech, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

In the second year of his presidency, Lincoln wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Along with a number of abolitionists, he preferred the policy option of colonization: freeing Black slaves and sending them to Liberia.

We often forget, too, that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became law on 1 January 1863, was not a human rights statue but a military tactic. Slaves in “border” states, which had not joined the Confederacy, were exempt from the decree.

Another of our repressed memories is that the slave-freeing 13th Amendment to the Constitution nearly codified its opposite. In late February and early March, both the House of Representatives and the Senate narrowly approved an amendment (also known as the “Corwin Amendment”) legitimating slavery in those states where it was legal.

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Although presidents have no formal role in the constitutional amendment process, outgoing President James Buchanan signed the measure in a desperate effort to halt the march to war. Shortly after Lincoln was inaugurated, he sent the amendment to the states, with a letter saying “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Those Southern states that had already declared their secession ignored it; and within weeks Confederate troops in Charleston, SC, began its bombardment of Union troops in Ft. Sumter.

§  §  §

“Show me who makes a profit from war and I will show you how to stop war.” —Henry Ford

§  §  §

History is messy and more complicated than we wish it to be. That includes you and me.

The unflattering comments noted above about President Lincoln does not detract from his significance as, in the judgment of most US historians, the greatest president in our nation’s history. His views on race evolved—and likely would have continued to evolve if he had lived longer.

My views have also evolved. Probably yours, too.

Just so, admitting the relative unpopularity of the abolitionist movement in the antebellum North does not diminish the passionate courage of those in that headstrong movement. Admitting our exaggerated memory of these and other episodes is what inhibits white understanding of, and response to, continuing systemic racism and privilege in the US.

When doing historical analysis, our greatest need is to wade through the temptation to sentiment until we reach the solid ground of substantive facts. Which typically involves following the money. In considering social conflict, the question is not who started what and why. Rather, it should be: who profits form the conflict?

The New York Draft Riots pitted two racial-ethnic minorities against each other. (And a significant number of the police who confronted the rioters were also Irish.) But who profited from the conditions that provoked this conflict?

Surely the Civil War was a conflict over slavery. But the conflict between the North and the South was not so much a matter of human rights as it was the competing economic demands of an industrial-scale manufacturing economy with that of an industrial-scale agricultural economy.

§  §  §

“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you do not see.” —James Baldwin

§  §  §

Odd as it may sound, there is a proper evangelical edge to contemporary insistence to be more than not-racist. The altar call is to become anti-racist. White virtue signaling in the racial solidarity movement is the equivalent of hypocrisy in the church’s moral witness.

The goal is not to be pure. The goal is to read history rightly (to “read history from below,” from the vantage point of the abused); debate and assess remedial and reparative action, including short and long-term goals; and join ourselves with diverse coalitions to bring focused public pressure for morally renewed public policy.

To be sure, truth telling will involve a measure of discomfort and displacement. Occasionally, a lot. As Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Privilege will not easily, noiselessly relinquish its grip on power. It will vigorously insist its status is earned or destined as part of the natural order.

In the end, though, what fuels the quest for the Beloved Community is not the exertion of heroic willpower. Over the long run—and it will be a long run—what is needed is some semblance of a beatific vision for a flourishing community with a table of abundance available to all, spirit and sinew, soul and soil alike, rooted in neighborhoods and reaching the nations, fostering kindred relations in every direction.

It’s not complicated: As Maya Angelou counseled, when you know better. But you must vigorously pursue the knowing.

#  #  #

Minute particulars

On finding opportunities to apply the slight weight of our convictions

by Ken Sehested

Recently I forwarded the social media link to an article detailing the ways religious piety was intertwined with the violent uprising at our nation’s capitol on 6 January 2021. My ever-thoughtful friend Susan responded with this question: “Scary. How is the best way to counter this descent into the same horrors as German Christians did following Hitler?”

I composed a couple sentences of response. But then a new door opened in my mind; then another, then another. And I ended up writing, over a few days time, the following:

Good question, Susan. At least at this point, I know of no singular strategy. As William Blake noted, those who would do good must do so in “Minute Particulars.” We are each given opportunities—on familiar streets, in specific watersheds—to apply the slight weight of our convictions regarding the Beloved Community in countless small acts.

  • in standing up and speaking out when opportunities arise, even if it disturbs the “peace”;
  • in doing the good because of its sheer beauty, without expectation of reward or applause—though at the same time looking for opportunities to encourage and applaud others in their devotion to personal kindness and to public justice;
  • in finding ways to collaborate with other people of faith and conscience, even when it’s costly or inconvenient or uncomfortable;
  • in refusing the temptation to think everything is up to us;
  • in living penitentially, ready to admit mistakes, but without becoming self-absorbed;
  • in understanding that no one can start a revolution but that we can prepare for one—for the time when extraordinary resolve and heightened risk may be needed;
  • in learning the difference between being a servant and being a slave;
  • in putting a bridle on our anger for use in constructive rather than destructive ways;
  • in refusing to postpone joy—or, in a slight paraphrase of a line from the Talmud: we will finally be judged for the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy;
  • in furthering truth without being mean; practicing compassion devoid of empty sentiment;
  • in knowing that sabbath keeping is so much more than taking a nap—that, as in Scripture, sabbatical practice involves land redistribution, cancellation of debt, release of slaves, and safeguarding the created order itself;*
  • in honoring the wisdom of our ancestors as well as the playfulness of our children;
  • in noticing, praising and applauding beauty not just in pricey art or elegant dining or exquisite attire but in every wildflower, in the cost-free colors of a sunset, in the aroma of fresh baked bread, in the caress of a lover’s hand or the winsome voice of a dear friend;
  • in living in, drawing from, and testifying to the well of hope needed to sustain life in every drought stricken season and circumstance;
  • in being ever mindful of the One Who cherishes every breath and heart’s beat—and Who safeguards our beloved presence even beyond the day of each heart’s arrest and every lung’s stilled silence.

# # #

*See the “jubilee” provisions named in Leviticus 25, to which Jesus appealed in his first sermon (Luke 4:18-19, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” quoting Isaiah 61).



Memory and mandate

A meditation on Maundy Thursday

by Ken Sehested

Under the sway of Easter bunnies, chocolate binges, and spring fashion sales, Holy Week and Resurrection Morning observances have shed almost all connections to the volatile political events in Jerusalem leading up to Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the city.

The season of Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem was the fevered occasion of Passover. Passover was the story of the Hebrews’ miraculous escape from Egyptian bondage. Passover’s observance in first century Palestine was like President’s Day, Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day all rolled up into one. Judea was again in bondage, this time subjugated by Roman occupation. Jews from around the countryside streamed into Jerusalem for reasons of piety mixed with nationalist fervor. Rome ramped up its troop level every year at this time.

Acts of terrorist assassination escalated during the Passover observance. Some Jewish Zealots—known as the Sicarii , armed with sicae, small daggers that could be hidden in their cloaks—attacked both Roman leaders and members of the Jewish Temple elite who collaborated with their Roman overlords.

Remember what the people shouted as Jesus, mounted on a donkey—an intentional act of satire against the assumptions of military prowess conveyed by the war horse—paraded into the city to be met by cheering crowds who laid palm branches in the street, a common symbol of victory, peace, and triumph among ancient Near East populations.

“Hosanna,” cried the people lining the parade route. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our Lord! Blessed be the kingdom of our father David! Hosanna.”

These shouts were thinly-veiled expressions of political subversion, with the memory of the mighty King David brought to bear against the Roman Caesar Augustus’ chokehold on the nation.

The word “hosanna” isn’t merely a pious expression. It’s not like saying “Amen,” “Hallelujah,” or “Thank-you-Jesus!” The word “hosanna” means “come and liberate us!” It expresses the hope for martial intervention, for achieving political independence, authored by none other than the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who sponsored Abram and Sarai’s trek to the Promised Land, the One who empowered Moses to organize the Hebrews’ flight from Pharaoh’s slavery, the One who ransomed Judah from Babylonian bondage, the One invoked by the Prophets to indict Israel’s failure to practice justice in the marketplace, righteousness in the judiciary, faithfulness in the legislature.

There is of course profound spiritual significance in Good Friday’s brutal arrest, torture, and trial—resulting in Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, an explicitly political form of state-sponsored terrorism designed to repress revolutionary violence—along with the seditious drama of Sunday’s rolled-away stone. But it is a spirituality which informs and reforms social, political, and economic norms. Throughout Scripture, the indwelling of the Spirit traffics in fleshly affairs.

The starting point for this drama, though, occurs on Maundy Thursday, setting the stage for everything else.

In some parts of the church, Holy Week’s Maundy Thursday service is one where Jesus’ initiative in washing his disciples’ feet is replicated. “Maundy” (mandatum in Latin) means mandate, commission, injunction.

The story is unique to John’s Gospel (13:1-17), the Eucharistic account that has no ritual eating and drinking. We are only told that “during supper” Jesus abruptly takes up a towel and basin of water and begins to wash his friends’ feet. Such washing was a common act of hospitality for hosts in a dusty land trod by sandaled feet. We don’t know why this hadn’t happened before the meal. If I were guessing, I’d say no one wanted to do this because none of the disciples wanted to be in Jerusalem in the first place. They knew the danger to Jesus implicated them as well.

When he finished, Jesus used the occasion for his final instruction: “If I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This is Maundy Thursday’s mandate. It was a form of anointing his disciples to enact a reversal of the world’s understanding of power. The righteousness of Heaven’s purpose involves caring for neighbors, particularly the vulnerable, not lording over them. Indeed, naming Jesus as “Lord” disrupts and undermines all forms of lording.

But how is this annulment to be accomplished? By moral heroism? By accentuating the positive? By saintly disposition? By extraordinary feat of willpower?

Notice the odd question Jesus asks his friends in the middle of his teaching. “Do you know what I have done to you?”

In his presence, we have been acted upon. By his power we are no longer autonomous, belonging only to ourselves, putting our own welfare before all others. We do not become (as the marketing gods insist) consumers for whom “freedom” means the choice between cable or satellite, Mac or PC, window or aisle.

Servanthood in the manner of Jesus involves relinquishing private interests in favor of covenant ties to the welfare of the community. St. Augustine famously said, “We imitate whom we adore.” At the core of our faith, the privilege-abandoning Jesus is the cipher for the self-abandoning character of God’s love, inviting and empowering us to participate in that self-giving nature.

Short of Maundy’s mandate, Friday’s agony is little more than divine ransom (as if God was in the bartering business); the joy of Sunday’s empty tomb, little more than the reassertion of divine gloating.

Capacity for living beyond rancorous human competition has been bestowed. We are freed to wash because we have been washed; to forgive because we have been forgiven; to live graciously because grace is loosening the knots of self-absorbed greed in our own souls. The process of conversion, which is a lifetime appointment, is a form of divine photosynthesis: receiving the light of the Beloved’s delight to regenerate the verdant fields of creation’s intention for shared bounty and extravagant endowment.

In the Jesus story, the memory coheres with the mandate. However it didn’t take long before the church’s remembrance of the simple, embodied act of washing feet was replaced with philosophical, ritual, and moralistic conditions and indicators of exhibitionist purity. Exacting doctrine; fastidious performance; forensic precision.

A formula of the faith displaces formation in the faith. The former is easier to measure, manage and, thereby, to control.

There is no behavioral gap between believing and doing. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “blessed are you if you do them.”

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“Make them do whatever we want”

How to read the Cuban street protests in light of U.S.-Cuba history

by Ken Sehested

“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

Medieval European maps traced the outline of the entirety of its exploration. Just outside the bounds of what was known they inscribed the words “Here Be Dragons.”

Here Be Dragons is an appropriate mythological metaphor for the U.S. public’s image of our nearest offshore neighbor. Preoccupation with Cuba was a terrifying experience six decades ago when we came within a hair’s breadth of a full-scale nuclear war with the Soviet Union.[1]

One result of the terror—both shaping and being shaped by U.S. foreign policy—was the locking of public perceptions in a time warp. The U.S. embargo has not only been economic but also diplomatic and cultural.

Except in rare moments—like President Obama’s dramatic trip to Cuba in 2016[2] and, just recently on 11 July, the angry protests of Cubans in numerous cities across the nation,[3] the largest in decades, some met with violent repression and arrests—most in this country think little about U.S.-Cuba relations.

We just don’t get much news from there; and the little we hear is shaped by a woeful lack of historical context.[4]

Nothing that we say is accurate without a crash course in the tortured history of U.S.-Cuba relations.

And nothing could be more helpful in allowing Cubans to negotiate their future than ending the U.S. embargo, an utterly failed policy propped up not as a tool of diplomatic leverage but as a wedge in U.S. domestic politics.[5]

In this matter, we are the pariah nation.[6]

§  §  §

“In 1859, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate reported favorably a bill ‘to facilitate the acquisition of the Island of Cuba.’”[7]

§  §  §

Few know that the U.S. was considering annexing Cuba not long after solidifying our own independence. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba is ‘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.’”[8] In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams predicted the U.S. would annex Cuba with 50 years.[9] In 1854 President Franklin Pierce supported a plan to annex Cuba, by force if necessary.[10]

Few know that the Cuban people’s first constitution contained a provision allowing the U.S. to intervene in its affairs.[11] Or that when the treaty ending the U.S. war with Spain was signed (giving the U.S. control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines), the U.S.-based “Island of Cuba Real Estate Company” opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.[12]

We are largely ignorant of the imprint of the U.S. military’s boot there: of stepping in to steal the Cuban nationals’ expulsion of Spanish rule in 1898; of the Marines’ occupations of 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22; the 1971 disastrous “Bay of Pigs Invasion.”[13] Still today the U.S. maintains a naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s eastern shore.

Few know that for more than a quarter century the U.S. propped up the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who murdered as many as 20,000 of his critics and allowed the American Mafia to construct and control casino gambling, prostitution, and drug business, protected from U.S. law enforcement.

It is the rare scholar that knows by 1950 the U.S. owned most of Cuba’s sugar industry and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land. Or that by 1956, U.S. corporations controlled 90% of Cuba’s telephone and electric services; 50% of public railways; and Cuban branches of U.S. banks handled 25% of all deposits.[14]

Your school history class probably didn’t mention that in March of 1960, barely a year after the Cuban Revolution, U.S. President Eisenhower signed off on a Central Intelligence Agency project entitled “A Program of Covert Action Against the Castro Regime,” to create an organization of exiled Cubans to train for and carry out terrorist attacks on Cuba.[15] Or that the established U.S. policy on relations with Cuba—from the outset—called for “denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.”[16]

Furthermore, what do you make of the fact that China and Vietnam, also communist countries, are among our largest trading partners? And we frequently sell boatloads of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, among the most dictatorial governments in the world, where converting to Christianity is punishable by death.

§  §  §

We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course. . . . Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fail.[17] —Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds, 1927, quoted in Walter LaFeber’s “Inevitable Revolutions”

§  §  §

My personal interest in US-Cuba relations originated with a providential encounter with Rev. Raúl Súarez, a Baptist pastor in Cuba. A mutual friend connected us. I was fascinated to hear about the life of churches in Cuba, and astounded when Raúl quoted from memory long passages from the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[18]

Since that day I have traveled to Cuba numerous times and developed a network of friends and contacts. During those trips I heard this repeated refrain, “Cuba is neither heaven nor hell.” Almost all also say that they thoroughly support the values of the Cuban Revolution, but not its administration, with varying degrees of dissent. Do we, as citizens of the U.S., not exhibit the same diversity of opinions on our government?

The recent street demonstrations in Cuba are due to multiple layers of frustration. Despite the fact that Cuba is the only country in Latin America to produce its own vaccine, the country’s surge in COVID cases triggered unrest rooted in other complaints, which include anger at the government’s monetary policy shift in January, which dramatically increased the price of food and consumer goods; the lack of simple medicines; repeated electricity outages; dismal performance of Cuba’s inefficient, centrally-controlled economy; and outrage over the government’s human rights record and lack of political accountability.[19]

Many of my Cuban friends report an avalanche of disinformation about the pandemic, from shadowy sources, very similar to what we are experiencing in the U.S.

The Cuban government, of course, blames the U.S. economic boycott, a brutal measure which has lasted long beyond the Cold War’s legacy and is the longest such sanctioning policy in U.S. history.

Is the embargo the root cause of Cuba’s problems?[20] Maybe. Maybe not. Near the conclusion of this reflection I will offer a policy prescription to test this opinion.

§  §  §

It is my duty to prevent, through the independence of Cuba, the U.S.A. from spreading over the West Indies and falling with added weight upon other lands of Our America. . . . I know the Monster, because I have lived in its lair—and my weapon is only the slingshot of David. —José Martí, poet, philosopher, and journalist (Cuba’s national hero, considered the “Apostle of Cuban Independence) in his final letter, 18 May 1895, the day before he is killed in the revolt against Spanish rule

§  §  §

Needless to say, the audience here is my own fellow citizens. My goal is to offer historical context to expose a history largely unknown, one that we must take into account in our bilateral relations.

The key element we fail to recognize is that the Cuban revolution’s understanding of human rights, and the resulting idea of “freedom,” is different from that in the U.S.

For instance, despite its relative poverty, Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the U.S., and its literacy rate is higher. Prior to its revolution, Cuba was considered among the wealthier countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet its level of income inequality prior to its revolution was similar to that of the U.S. today, where 0.1% of the population earns as much as the bottom 90%.[21]

Cuba has one of the largest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.[22] By contrast, in the U.S. more than half a million citizens file for bankruptcy every year because of medical bills.[23] The homeless population in the U.S. is over half a million, whereas Cuba has virtually none.[24]

Few in the U.S. even know Cuba has elections.[25] Or that a 1990 dialogue between Fidel Castro and a group of 70 pastors and religious leaders led to a roll back of many religious discrimination policies and the substitution of “secular” for “atheistic” as a national descriptor in the country’s constitution.[26]

Given the recent public demonstrations, there is considerable anger among Cubans over their governance. But after the 2020 murder by police of George Floyd, 15-25 million U.S. citizens marched in cities in every state, a few of which turned violent and many resulted in arrests by police.

While it’s true that some Cubans (and many Cuban Americans) are calling for extreme measures, including violent overthrow of Cuba’s government, a recent poll in the U.S. reveals that one in three citizens agree with the following statement: “The traditional way of life [in the U.S.] is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”[27]

§  §  §

In one of his early visits to the U.S., Rev. Francisco “Paco” Rodés asked me to help him find a kitchen cabinet handle to replace a broken one in his home. These are the sorts of consumer items often difficult to find in Cuba. No problem, I said, and I drove him to a nearby home improvement store. It took a few minutes to find the right aisle. Then Paco’s eyes bulged in wonder: hundreds of different shapes, colors and designs of cabinet handles. Then he turned to me, with a sly grin on his face, raised his arms and jubilantly announced, “FREEDOM!”[28]

§  §  §

Back then to the prior question: Is the Cuban government’s claim that its nation’s ills can be traced directly to the embargo an established fact or a fig leaf to cover its own failures?

There’s only one clear way to find out, and the burden is on the U.S., not Cuba, to provide the answer. An act of Congress and a presidential signature would end the embargo.[29]

If such a policy improved the lives of the Cuban people, its government’s excuse would be quickly exposed. The people themselves would know soon enough. And so would we.[30]

I do not know what freedom should look like in Cuba’s future. And, given our history of interference, the U.S. lacks credibility to instruct.

But I wonder about one thing, and I fear another.

Did Cuba’s independence leaders, working hard to fend off manipulation by the U.S., end up fending off the always-needed reforming influence of its own people?

My fear is that, in whatever change comes to Cuba, freedom might look like what one thoughtful Cuban friend said to me. When I asked if he thought the embargo would ever be lifted, he paused for a moment and then said: “Yes, but I fear your country will simply buy ours.”

Cuba’s resident population has been attempting to throw off colonial occupation since Columbus landed in 1492 (thinking it was a coastal island of Asia). He wrote:

“This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Then he went on to comment on the indigenous Taíno people of what is now Cuba: They “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

And in his letters, he repeatedly invoked the name of “our Saviour” and “His holy service” as justification for this subjugation. (Is it any wonder that the Cuban Revolution’s government declared itself atheistic?)

The Cuban people deserve to set their sights on a future freed from imperial meddling. Toward that purpose, and for us in the U.S., the first two steps require that we tell the truth about our nation’s orchestration of terrorist attacks on the country (for more than six decades) and then press hard for an end to the embargo.

# # #

End Notes

[1] U.S. President John Kennedy made a secret deal with Soviet Nikita Khrushchev that the U.S. would removed its nuclear weapons in Turkey in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their missiles from Cuba. “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962,” Department of State, Office of the Historian.  For decades the U.S. has had nuclear weapons, based on land, ships, and submarines, ringing the Soviet borders.

[2] See “Background to the touch down: President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba,” by Ken Sehested

[3] Hundreds of protests against coronavirus-related restrictions have occurred in at least 34 states in the U.S. —Wikipedia

[4] For some “did you know?” background on Cuba, see Ken Sehested’s “Thirty-five interesting facts about Cuba and its US relations

[5] See “A Time For Change: Rethinking U.S.-Cuba Policy,” Lilah Rosenblum, Washington Office on Latin America

[6] This past June the United Nations General Assembly voted (for the 29th straight year) to end the US embargo of Cuba. The vote: 184-2. Only Israel joined the U.S. in opposition.

[7]Cuba and Congress,” Albert J. Beveridge, The North American Review, Vol. 172, No. 533 (Apr., 1901, p. 537), University of Northern Iowa

[8] Quoted in “Cuba-United States Relations,” Wikipedia, citing “The American Empire? Not So Fast,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. World Policy Journal

[9] Cuba-United States Relations,” Wikipedia, citing Cuba and the United States : A chronological History, Jane Franklin. Ocean Press; 1997.

[10]Ostend Manifesto,” Wikipedia

[11]Platt Amendment,” Wikipedia

[12]Cuba-United States relations,” Wikipedia

[13]Bay of Pigs Invasion,” Wikipedia

[14]Fulgencio Batista,” Wikipedia

[15]Operation Mongoose,” Wikipedia

[16]Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State [Lester D. Mallory] for Inter-American Affairs,” Department of State Office of the Historian

[17] The US has overthrown the democratically elected governments of numerous governments: In Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973. [For more, see “The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War,” Lindsey A. O’Rourke, Washington Post and “United States involvement in regime change,” Wikipedia

[18] Raúl, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, would later found the Martin Luther King Center and, later still, become among the first three Christians to be elected to the Cuban National Assembly.

Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[19] See “Explainer: Causes of the protests in Cuba,” Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press.

[20] “No one will ever know the extent to which the US embargo has created the current failed state of Cuba, and the extent to which it is a failure of the socialist system. The US determined at the outset of the Cuban Revolution that it could not risk finding out if socialism could work, that would be too much a threat to our system if in fact it did. So we created every obstacle we could to ensure that it did fail, and then when we are successful in its failure, we can blame it on socialism.” Personal correspondence with Stan Dotson who, with his spouse Kim Christman, has lived in Cuba for much of the past six years. I highly recommend Stan’s book, “Cuba: A Day in the Life,” a wonderful collection of stories from everyday life.

[21] See “Income Inequality in the United States.”

[22]Countries With The Most Doctors Per Capita,” World Atlas.

[23]25+ Medical Bankruptcy Statistics to Know in 2021,” Christo Petrov, Spendmenot.

[24]List of countries by homeless population,” Wikipedia

[25] Ken Sehested, “Cuba’s historic electoral process November 2017 – April 2018: For the first time since its revolution, Cuba will not have a president named Castro,” by Ken Sehested

[26]CUBA: Churches Tackle Divisions by Discussing Ethics, Not Doctrine,” Dalia Acosta, Inter Press Service News Agency and “Sanctioning Faith: Religion, State, and U.S.-Cuban Relations,” Jill Goldenziel, Harvard University

[27]Poll shows disturbing level of support for political violence,” Dominick Mastrangelo, The Hill.

[28] The author’s personal story. Also see “Martin Luther King Jr. in Cuba: A Cuban pastor’s story of King’s influence,” by Francisco Rodés

[29]Why the Cuba embargo needs to end, explained in 3 minutes,” Zack Beauchamp, Vox

[30] For more see “Bring Down the Wall in the Caribbean: A resolution in support of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba,” written by Ken Sehested, approved by the 23-25 June 2016 annual meeting of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ and later approved by the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ, June 30-July 4, 2017.