Dorothee Soelle: Mystic and Rebel

Renate Wind, Fortress (2012), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Soelle (1929-2003) was a prolific theological writer (25 books in English translation), rethinking Christian convictions in light of WWII and the Holocaust.  She organized ‘evening prayers’ from 1968-1972 as discussion groups held in the Cologne’s St.  Anthony’s Church, fostering critical thinking.  The over 1000 participants found that ‘dealing with theological issues necessarily leads into political engagement’ (p 57); issues such as the Vietnam War, the arms race and especially the rearmament of Germany, third world development, and women’s roles were central to discussion.  Her doctorate centred on the relation of theology and poetry and made her a popular speaker; her outspoken opinions resulted in both state and church refusing to grant academic employment.  (Some of her statements:  ‘Every theological statement must be a political statement as well.’ ‘The Third World is a permanent Auschwitz.’)  1975 – l987 saw her engaged six months out of the year as successor to Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary, New York (the other six months were spent with her husband in Germany).

Wind’s book is a moving overview of Soelle’s life and writing, carefully augments and illustrated by Soelle’s poetry.

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

Ministry in an Oral Culture

Tex Sample (1994), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The concept of oral culture hit Sample at university when he realized the contrast between everyday oral culture and philosophic analysis of the world around us, the difference between the worlds of discussion of Will Rogers and Socrates.  Oral culture, of the everyday living, was ‘not one of discourse, systematic coherence, the consistent use of clear definitions and the writing of discursive prose that could withstand the whipsaws of academic critique’ (p 3).  An oral culture makes use of proverbs, sayings; lives by storytelling (the family traditions); thinking in relationships ( an issue that comes up will be considered in terms of the family and communal ties; religious beliefs will be understood much more in relational than discursive ways’ (p 5).

Sample writes compellingly that ‘literate clergy and laity may become far more appreciative of and adept at working with people who face life and death, morality and faith, and G-d and the world with a traditional morality’ (p 6).  This means that a significant part of the ministry and mission of our churches needs to be done in an apprenticeship way….  The teaching occurs through hands-on mission’ (p 19).  Churches need to be both literate and oral, utilizing the strengths of each:  forming small communal groups telling their stories to each other, to work (in ethical formation) on a morality that is concrete, operational and contextual, eg the AA model.  A study I did with palliative care level patients identified the most useful and helpful of those they were involved with as being not medical or religious (chaplain) people, but the cleaning staff!

A wonderful book to understand better the church’s mission.

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


News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  29 September 2016  •  No. 90

Introduction: Special issue on fear

Not every fearful moment is holy, but holy moments are almost always scary.

Think of Hagar’s deathwatch in the desert, the Hebrew people at the Red Sea, Elijah when surrounded by Aram’s army, the psalmist’s pilgrim in the valley of the shadow of death, the angels’ first words—fear not!—to Zachariah, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds; then later Jesus’ resurrection greetings to the disciples.

Fear arises because such epiphanies call us out of comfort zones, into threatening circumstances and risks whose outcomes are indeterminate. Heaven’s hail always entails abandoning security guarantees and fixed arrangements. Manna’s fall, and water’s flow from desert rocks, are beyond our management. Strategic goals and objectives planning will be interrupted.

Some things will fall away, and maybe apart, when human hearts rhyme with Heaven’s intent.

Fear makes fools of us all. Enmity is infectious. Hatred bounces and inflicts collateral damage. Hope is to be had, but not for private consumption. We will get there—together or not at all, which is why Jesus’ bidding binds us to enemies.

Holy callings are more common than you think. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

This special issue is dedicated to all my fellow patients undergoing fear displacement therapy. —Ken Sehested

Processional.Lo Yira” (“Will Not Fear”), Yuval Ron Ensemble.

§ There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. ~1 John 4:18

§ The world is God's and it will not fall apart. The new age which the Lord has begun cannot be driven out or held back. The church need not live out of fear as though the gospel were not true. It is destined to live toward freedom, toward the pain of the world, toward the hurt of the world, toward the joy of the world—the hurt and pain the world does not understand and the joy the world does not anticipate. ~Walter Brueggemann

§ When we are able to keep company with our own fears and sorrows, we are shown the way to go, our parched lives are watered, and the earth becomes a greener place. ~Elizabeth O’Connor

§ Fear is the polio of the soul, which prevents our walking by faith. ~Clarence Jordan

§ When the escaping Hebrews were caught between the Red Sea ahead and Pharaoh’s army behind, Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. ~Exodus 20:20

§ Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it. ~C. JoyBell C.

§ It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms industry which was bred in an artificially psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear. ~General Douglas MacArthur

§ Faith is not the absence of fear or doubt, but the force that gets you safely through those long, dark, waiting-room hours. ~Merrill Womach

§ Courage is fear that has said its prayers. ~Joseph Gallagher

§ Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation. ~Isaiah 12:2

§ It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. ­~Aung San Suu Kyi

§ One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. ~Thomas Merton

§ Fear is not the opposite of courage. Fear is the catalyst of courage. ~Joan D. Chittister

§ And you, O mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions. ~Ezekiel 2:6

§ I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and so for a short period of time the mental tension and the fear lessens. But when the sky brightens, the drones return, and so does the fear.” ~Zubair Rehman, 13-year-old Pakistani whose mother was killed by a US drone attack, speaking through an interpreter at a 2013 Congressional hearing

§ PHOBIAS. Glossophobia: Fear of speaking in public or of trying to speak. Agoraphobia: Fear of leaving a safe place, the outdoors, or of being in crowded, public places. Sesquipedalophobia: Fear of long words. Coulrophobia: Fear of clowns. Kenophobia: Fear of voids, or wide-open empty spaces. Arachibutyrophobia: Fear of peanut butter stuck to the roof of one’s mouth. Claustrophobia: Fear of confined spaces. Herpetophobia: Fear of reptiles or creepy-crawly things. Arachnophobia: Fear of spiders. Lygophobia: Fear of darkness.

§ When we speak we are afraid / our words will not be heard / nor welcomed / but when we are silent / we are still afraid / So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive. ~Audre Lorde

§ When the King of Aram’s army surrounded the house of the Prophet Elisha, Elisha calmed his frightened servant saying, "Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them." ~1 Kings 17:13

§ When our moral lives are shaped by fear, and safety is worshiped as the highest good . . . we are more likely to tell our children to “be careful” than to “be good.” Our moral lives atrophy on this new diet of self-protection. ~Scott Bader-Saye

§ He will never have true friends who is afraid of making enemies. ~William Hazlitt

§ Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead

§ Inspiration and craft plus time and effort minus fear and doubt multiplied by purpose equals song. ~Ray Wylie Hubbard, country/folk/blues singer-songwriter

§ Don't be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything. ~Carlos Ruiz Zafón

§ They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. . . . They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. . . . They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid. ~Ezekiel 34:28; Micah 4:4; Zephaniah 3:13

§ “The thing with fear is, it's like anger. You've got to change it into something else. Make it your weapon. Some can just turn it into smarts. The best of ’em can turn fear and anger into love.” She looked out toward our neighborhood. “I'm not there yet.” ~Margaret McMullan, Sources of Light

§ A bird sitting on a branch is never afraid of it breaking, because her trust isn’t in the branch but in her own wings. ~author unknown

§ Fear is a hazard of great endeavors to bridge political differences. In 1963, racial apprehension before [the March on Washington] drove the federal government to furlough 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 games], just to be sure. When the march of benign inspiration embarrassed these measures, opponents still insisted that the civil rights bill would enslave white people. ~Taylor Branch

§ There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been. ~Annie Dillard

§ The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ~Psalm 27:1

§ Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~James Hollingsworth

§ Die now! die now! / In this Love, die; / when you have died in this Love, / you will all receive new life. ~Rumi

§ “NO!” (Don’t be afraid to say it.) ~author unknown

§ We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies. ~Etty Hillesum

§ Has it ever struck you that those who most fear to die are the ones who most fear to live? ~Anthony de Mello

§ In God I trust; I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me? ~Psalm 56:11

§ I don’t gather that God wants us to pretend our fear doesn’t exist, to deny it, or eviscerate it. Fear is a reminder that we are creatures. But fear shouldn’t dominate or control or define us. Rather, it should submit to faith and love. ~Philip Berrigan

§ Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. ~Nelson Mandela

§ Courage has never been about being fearless, it has always been about loving something or someone so much that you'll brave the scary parts. ~Carrie Newcomer

§ I’m not fearing any man! ~Martin Luther King Jr. (Watch this 1:16 video clip from his final speech)

§ Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. ~Isaiah 41:10

§ We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well~places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places. . . . As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us. ~Parker Palmer

§ I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. ~Rosa Parks

§ If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron. ~Lee Trevino

§ It is impossible to be unarmed when my blackness is the weapon you fear. ~Rev. Traci Blackmon

§ Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. ~Matthew 5:10

§ I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves. ~Harriet Tubman

§ Fear tells me that while there might be a host of people who wish to stand beside me in times of crisis, the tangled wreckage is sometimes so enormous that the best of their efforts leave them stranded at a great distance. And standing desperately alone surveying the carnage that holds all others a bay, God suddenly taps me on the shoulder, leans over and whispers, “how about a little demolition?” ~Craig D. Lounsbrough

§ Though voters may speak piously and rather vaguely about Christian values and ideals, polls and election results communicate clearly that this is a nation consumed by fear, anger and suspicion, none of which are Christian virtues. ~Norman Werzba

§ Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. ~Maggie Kuhn

§ Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong. ~Zechariah 8:13

§ Fear displacement is the most important pastoral duty we have in our communities, to heal the dis-ease of anxious hearts and timid decorum, thereby unleashing confident defiance of the politics of panic. Jesus beckons us to the Table for just this purpose. ~Ken Sehested

§ The phrase “do not be afraid” is written in the Bible 365 times. That’s a daily reminder from God to live every day being fearless. ~author unknown

§ “Fear of God” is not cowering, frightened intimidation. Those who fear God are not wimps and are not preoccupied with excessive need to please God. They are rather those who have arrived at a fundamental vision of reality about life with God, who have enormous power, freedom, and energy to live out that vision. “Fear of God” is liberating and not restrictive, because it gives confidence about the true shape of the world. ~Walter Brueggemann

§ The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls. ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton

§ Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble. ~G.K. Chesterton

§ Fearless citizens are a king’s greatest nightmare. ~author unknown

§ I, I am the One who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die, a human being who fades like grass? ~Isaiah 51:12

§ Thou, greatest solace in all suffering, / Help us to fear neither shame nor death, / that we do not despair / before the enemy sues for our life. / Kyrioleis. ~Martin Luther’s Pentecost hymn lyrics

§ Grab the broom of anger and drive off the beast of fear. ~Zora Neale

§ Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. ~Matthew 10:28

§ To him who is in fear everything rustles. ~Sophocles

§ I say I am stronger than fear. ~Malala Yousafzai

§ Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely. ~Buddha

§ I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. ~Thomas Jefferson

§ Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant . . . that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear. ~Luke 1:72-73

§ What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it. ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

§ Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here. ~Marianne Williamson

§ No good work is ever done while the heart is hot and anxious and fretted. ~Olive Schreiner

§ Courage is a peculiar kind of fear. ~Charles Kennedy

§ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. ~John 14:27

§ Grief has limits, whereas apprehension has none. For we grieve only for what we know has happened, but we fear all that possibly may happen. ~Pliny the Elder

§ There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. ~Michel de Montaigne

§ Only when we are no longer afraid do we begin to live. ~Dorothy Thompson

§ Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another's fear. ~Umberto Eco

§ In the world you face persecution. But take courage [be of good cheer]; I have conquered the world! ~John 16:33

§ Hate is the consequence of fear; we fear something before we hate it. ~Cyril Connolly

§ As a child, I was more afraid of tetanus shots than, for example, Dracula. ~Dave Barry

§ Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself. ~Samuel Butler

§ Fear is excitement without breath. ~Robert Heller

§ For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" ~Romans 8:15

§ A child understands fear, and the hurt and hate it brings. ~Nadine Gordimer

§ There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope. ~Baruch Spinoza

§ The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~Mark Twain

§ So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" ~Hebrews 13:6

§ You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

§ To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true. ~Bayard Rustin

§ Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment. ~Mahatma Gandhi

§ I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship. ~Louisa May Alcott

§ Those who “fear the Lord,” who “abide in [God’s] tent,” who “dwell on [God’s] holy hill, are marked as those “who walk blamelessly,” “speak truth,” “do not slander,” “nor take up reproach against their neighbors,” “stand by their oath,” “do not lend money at interest,” “do not take a bribe against the innocent.” ~Psalm 15

§ Courage is knowing what not to fear. ~Plato

§ A friend may be waiting behind a stranger's face. ~Maya Angelou

§ Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey. ~Lord Byron

§ She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. ~Proverbs 31:25

§ Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. ~James A. Baldwin

§ There is a time to take counsel of your fears, and there is a time to never listen to any fear. ~George S. Patton

§ Courage consists not in hazarding without fear; but being resolutely minded in a just cause. ~Plutarch

§ God called to Hagar in the wilderness after Sarah expelled her and Ishmael from the house: "What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” ~Genesis 21:17

§ Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. ~Mark Twain

§ Fear is the highest fence. ~Dudley Nichols

§ I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Ain't no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God's face. ~Fannie Lou Hamer

§ Be truthful, gentle, and fearless. ~Mahatma Gandhi

§ On his right hand Billy’d tattooed the word love and on his left hand was the word fear / And in which hand he held his fate was never clear. ~Bruce Springsteen, “Cautious Man”

§ Note the behaviors associated with “fearing God”
        • You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God. ~Leviticus 25:17
        • Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God. ~Leviticus 25:36
        • You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God. ~Leviticus 25:43
        • Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes." ~Chronicles 19:7
        • The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people. . . . But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. ~Nehemiah 5:15
        • Those who withhold kindness from a friend forsake the fear of the Almighty. ~Job 6:14

§ We must not fear daylight just because it almost always illuminates a miserable world. ~Rene Magritte

§ Be fearless in what sets your soul on fire. ~author unknown

§ Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love. ~Dorothy Day

§ The process of spotting fear and refusing to obey it is the source of all true empowerment. ~Martha Beck

§ I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail. ~Muhammad Ali

§ In John the Revelator’s fantastic, frightening vision he saw the Promised One, who said “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. ~Revelation 1:17-18

Recessional. “Going home, going home / I'm jus' going home / Quiet like, some still day / I'm jus' going home / It's not far, yes close by / Through an open door / Work all done, care laid by / Going to fear no more.” ~“Going Home," music by Antonin Dvorak, performed by Libera

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

 "Days of hysteria, promise of hilaria: Response to a presidential debate"

Leave your comments (or post your favorite quote) on this issue in the "reader comments" section below. Or send them directly to me at kensehested @

©ken sehested @

Days of hysteria, promise of hilaria

Response to a presidential debate

by Ken Sehested

There is a certain pathology in our current season,
electoral follies punctuated by fresh tales of human
fury and nature’s duress—the combination exaggerated
if not unique. All the more reason to be reminded:

There is a life beneath, above, on the other side of this
present madness, a brightness excelling all expectation,
but not necessarily the one imagined, a surprise ending
beyond the sadness, a gladness for which we can only

wait in vigilant stillness—stillness, not inertia—where
the stilling is an ascetic centering and concentration
of the heart’s innermost desire reaching past the
boundaries of skin and kin, beyond stingy

care-fullness to generous care-lessness, where hope
eclipses fear’s gravitational pull, freeing hands to
practice the things that make for peace, releasing feet
to comport the good news of earth’s impending

reclamation and renewal. Despite much evidence,
those with eyes on the prize of a different, deeper
calling arise to confess that terror’s bedeviling will
not last. Creation’s aria and Redemption’s descant

may yet be heard above the dissonance, bolstered by
a chorus of witnesses, some as recent as yesterday,
sometimes even the stones themselves, in simple
melodies and complex harmonies. God’s orchestration

is not yet done. The finale is assured. Those with ears
to hear, persevere. Adagio. Be still. Hysteria’s reign is
in recession. Hilaria’s days of rejoicing approach.
Maranatha. Come quickly!

©ken sehested @




News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  23 September 2016  •  No. 89

¶ Processional. “Rivers of Babylon,” The Melodians.

Above: A caiman in the Amazon whose head is nearly covered in butterflies. Salt is critical to the survival of many creatures like butterflies and bees who sometimes drink tears from reptiles in regions where the mineral is scarce. Photo by Mark Cowan.

Invocation. “If you want to find a spark, sift through the ashes.” —Hasidic saying

Right: Water defenders shut down construction of the Dakota Access pipeline by obstructing the equipment on 6 September 2016. Photos by Rob Wilson.

"It’s being called 'the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century': scores of Native American tribes camped among the hills along the Cannonball River. . . And they won a partial victory on Sept. 9, when the federal government ordered a provisional halt on construction [of the Dakota Access Pipeline–DAPL] near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. What’s behind the opposition to the pipeline, and what makes it spiritual?” Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service

Call to worship.By the Waters of Babylon,” a cappella round by foxxvixx.

This was a pretty stunning initiative, made more dramatic by the fact that it is a collaboration between three separate federal agencies. “Important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain. . . . The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline . . . until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act or other federal laws.  Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time.” —9 September 2016 Department of Justice news release
        Stay tuned; this is but a temporary measure.

As of 7 September, “The broadcast news networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—have aired exactly one report on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests since the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe began an encampment against the project in April, according to a search of the Nexis news database. That report, read by Anne-Marie Green, aired on the CBS Morning News at 4 a.m. on September 5.” It was a mere 48 words long and cribbed from a National Public Radio report. —Jim Naureckas, FAIR

¶ “There is an old Lakota prophecy of a black snake, a creature that would rise from the deep, bringing with it great sorrow and great destruction. For many years, the Lakota people have wondered what the prophecy meant and when it would come to pass. When they heard news of this pipeline — this tube, immeasurably long, that would pump black oil through the heart of this country — some Lakota people began to wonder if the snake appeared at last.” —Kristen Moe, “How a ‘Black Snake’ in the Heartland Brought Spirit to American Environmentalism,” Yes!

¶ “The Great Sioux Reservation, formed in the eighteen-sixties, shrunk again and again—in 1980, a federal court said, of the whole sad story, “a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” In the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, the Army Corps of Engineers—the same Army Corps now approving the pipeline—built five large dams along the Missouri, forcing Indian villages to relocate. More than two hundred thousand acres disappeared beneath the water.” —Bill McKibben, “A Pipeline Fight and America’s Dark Past,” The New Yorker

Hymn of praise.Waters of Babylon,” Sweet Honey in the Rock.”

In light of the civil disobedience action at Standing Rock, commentator Lawrence O’Donnell’s brief (4:34) recitation of the historical treatment of Native Americans is the most concise and blunt, not to mention truthful, chronicle I’ve heard from mainstream media.

Good long read, for further background on the DAPL action. “Two of our country's biggest issues, racism and climate change, have collided on a North Dakota reservation. This week, I loaded up my station wagon with water and supplies and drove down for a look at a historic demonstration that could shape the national dialogue going forward.” —Mark Sundeen, “What’s Happening in Standing Rock" (Thanks Robin.)

Another child leading. “This 8-Year-Old Boy Spent 2 Years Growing His Hair To Make Wigs For Kids With Cancer.” When Thomas Moore saw his mom watching a video on Facebook about a girl who had lost her hair to cancer, he had an idea. He decided to start growing his hair out for kids who had lost theirs to chemotherapy, and so that's what he did. For the next two years. —James Gould-Bourn, boredpanda (Thanks Jo.)

A testimony from Charlotte. “But then an officer walks onto our porch. I greet him at the door, cautious and respectful, and note that there are three others running down our driveway. There are two more in the front yard to the left. Three near the pecan tree by the street. Two cruisers parked on the side street. At this point it becomes clear that the helicopter is not just close by, it is hovering above our house. We are surrounded.” —continue reading Greg Jarrell’s “Standing as loving accomplices on a front porch surrounded by police

Good news from afar. In the Uttar Pradesh region of India, Sunni and Shiite Muslims make a point of joint worship during special observances, defying the typical narrative of conflict. Akhtar Ali, Religion News Service

Words of thanksgiving. “We give thanks for curious stories that nudge us to act with cleverness, creativity and compassion within such agonizingly unjust systems. May we be found as your church that has some tricks up the old sleeve for the common good.” —continue reading Nancy Hastings Sehested’s prayer, “Companions of comfort

The truth stings. “You know whose to blame for the problem of the abuse of women and girls? Men who don't give a damn. You know whose to blame for the problems of discrimination? The supposed superior class who does not give a damn.” —former President Jimmy Carter, address at the recent New Baptist Covenant conference

Confession. By the Waters of Babylon,” traditional Kievan chant, St. Symeon Orthodox Church.

My vote for the most significant-but-unheralded news of the year comes from Michelle Alexander. You may know her ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander has just announced that she is leaving her law professorship at Ohio State University to join the faculty at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
        It is an unusual move, since Alexander admits she “was not raised in a church.” But she goes on to say “But I know there is something much greater at stake in justice work. . . . I no longer believe we can ‘win’ justice simply by filing lawsuits, flexing our political muscles or boosting voter turnout. . . . At its core, America’s journey from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration raises profound moral and spiritual questions. . . .” —read Alexander’s entire statement at Faithfully Magazine

Words of assurance. “The fullness of life is in the hazards of life.” —Edith Hamilton

Professing our faith. “Ideas that matter will almost certainly cause calluses, maybe blisters, likely emotional turmoil and spiritual vexation of every sort. Tired bodies, cluttered minds, lagging spirits—all these and other impairments will have to be endured. A true and worthy hope, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote, requires more than admiration from a distance. You to take up residence under its roof.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s “Having a dream is not the same as being had by a dream

Hymn of intercession. By the Waters of Babylon,” Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

¶ Short take: On the salvific function of R-rated violence. The pervasiveness of gratuitous violence in popular media is rightfully a matter of judgment, calling for cultural resistance, public complaint and outright boycotting. But in order to see the world rightly we dare not close our eyes to the surrounding, actual bloodbath that marks our day, whether near or far away. If there is any hope of healing, people of faith and conscience must—must—be willing to risk the traumatizing effect of visual exposure to actual bloody history. Damien Cave and Rochelle Oliver have gathered “The Raw Videos That Have Sparked Outrage Over Police Treatment of Blacks” at one New York Times site.

Preach it. “The facts of this world seen clearly / Are seen through tears / Why tell me then / there is something wrong with my eyes?” —Margaret Atwood

Can’t makes this sh*t up. Michigan Officials Strip [the city of] Flint of Right to Sue Over Water Crisis.” Imani Gandy, Rewire (Thanks Lenora.)
        To add insult to injury, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette want taxpayers to cover the cost of using private law firms representing the state in civil litigation over the Flint water crisis ($1.2 million) and investigating the matter ($1.5 million). —Brad Devereaux, MLive Media

We can all wish for more of this. “He [Dominican Republic-born David Ortiz, aka “Big Papi,” Boston Red Sox star and future hall-of-famer] added that his kids are into baseball and said, ‘If they ever get up here [to the big leagues], I want people to say to them, I knew your dad, and he was a guy with huge power. But there was something better about him. He was a good person. That’s what I care about the most.’” Ortiz announced earlier that this will be his last season. —Jorge I. Ortiz, USA Today

Call to the table.By the Waters of Babylon,” Don McClean.

The state of our disunion. NC Representative Robert Pittenger on the protests in Charlotte after the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. “. . . they hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.” In a follow-up tweet Pittenger did not retract his statement, only “I apologize to those I offended.” The implicit message: It’s your fault that you were offended. CBS New York

Best one-liner. Stop trying to make everyone happy—you aren’t chocolate. —author unknown (Thanks Karen.)

For the beauty of the earth. “The Breathing Earth.” Watch this stunning, sequenced series of composite satellite photos of the earth. (1:40 video.)

Altar call. “There is a place between passivity and violence. I’ll meet you there.” —Rivera Sun

Right: Painting by Jose Ignacio Fletes Cruz.

Benediction. “We do not live by what is possessed but by what is promised.” —Walter Brueggemann

Recessional. By the Waters of Babylon,” Russian chant by the Moscow Srentensky Monastery Choir. (7 minutes)

Lectionary for Sunday next.The City: Besieged and Beloved: A collection of biblical texts for personal meditation and public liturgy.”

World Communion Sunday. “I’m not sure if it’s celebrated much outside the US. And that may be because much of the world suspects that ‘world communion’ holds the same promise of what we call ‘globalization.’ A globalized economy is supposed to work for everyone. ‘Everyone has an even chance,’ so we’re told. But casino owners say the same thing, knowing the process is heavily tilted toward the house.” —continue reading Ken Sehested’s World Communion Sunday sermon, “Remembering the Future

Just for fun (this is a genuine hoot). Comedian Ellen DeGeneres taking First Lady Michelle Obama shopping, to prepare her for life outside the White House. (9:20. Thanks Leslie.)

#  #  #

Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Having a dream is not the same as being had by a dream

• “Remembering the Future,” a World Communion Sunday sermon

Left: "Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Those Killed by Gun Violence," icon by Mark Dukes.

Other features

• “The taunt of Lamech’s revenge: Authorization for Use of Military Force: 60 words that bring the US to the edge of a permanent state of war

• “The US ‘secret war’ in Laos: President Obama’s visit to Laos casts light on a forgotten war

©Ken Sehested @ Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor. 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.

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

Having a dream is not the same as being had by a dream

The genetic flaw of idealism

by Ken Sehested

       Any of you who spend time on Facebook know you will endure . . . well, uh, let’s keep it decent and say a pre-edited version of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” And not just from . . . uh . . . the incredulous and socially-challenged who have too much time on their hands.

        There are also memes from the seriously well-intentioned, like the one I saw recently proclaiming, in all caps and bold face type, “RACISM DESTROYED IN ONE MINUTE.” As if being able to state insight about a problem is equivalent to implementing the remedy.

        Like many, I thoroughly enjoy stimulating conversations exploring seemingly intractable problems and coming to what feels like actual clarity about what might be done to at least nudge reality toward just and compassionate solutions.

        The genetic flaw in this form of idealism is that it substitutes ideas for solutions, severs vision from strategic planning. There’s a difference from having a dream and dreaminess.

        Whereas in reality having a good idea is like hearing the starter’s gun. The race has just begun. What comes next is sweat, persevering through frustration, maybe pain, coming to terms with the possibility that your best effort may not be enough, maybe even realizing you’ve marched up a dead end street, or that you are but one participant in a relay that will stretch on for years, decades, maybe even millennia.

        Having a dream is not the same as being had by a dream. The later may very well pick you up off the ground by your collar, toss you into a tornado, land you on a small boat in a very large storm—all without so much as a please-and-thank-you.

        Any dream worthy of the name may be hazardous to your career, your reputation, surely your economic security, conceivably your health, possibly even your life.

        The sharecropper turned civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer understand the risk. “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off.”

        The vast majority of those caught by a dream will never appear in anyone’s gun sight, or feel the weight of a billy club on your head, or hear a prison door close behind you. But there’s no warranty coverage.

        Ideas that matter will almost certainly cause calluses, maybe blisters, likely emotional turmoil and spiritual vexation of every sort. Tired bodies, cluttered minds, lagging spirits—all these and other impairments will have to be endured.

        A true and worthy hope, as Barbara Kingsolver wrote, requires more than admiration from a distance. You to take up residence under its roof.

        New friends will most certainly come along; but you may lose a few, too. If you’re honest, you will recognize there is always a little slippage between your comprehension of how to reach the Beloved Community and the actual Way forward. Righteous intention is no guarantee that you’re right. Owning mistakes, false conclusions, premature judgment, your own capacity to wound as well as heal—in short, living a life of penitential readiness—all of these foibles can be turned to strength if the ground of your confidence is more than personal pride.

        With any struggle worth the time, perseverance is more valuable than brilliance, in no small part because actual engagement is the best source of learning.

#  #  #

©ken sehested @

Companions of comfort

A pastoral prayer

by Nancy Hastings Sehested

Holy One, 

We give thanks for places of sanctuary to tend to the heart. Thank you for this circle who practices your way . . . who are quick to laugh, generous in mercy, hearty in hope. 

We give thanks for curious stories that nudge us to act with cleverness, creativity and compassion within such agonizingly unjust systems. May we be found as your church that has some tricks up the ole sleeve for the common good. 

For those whose sorrows are too tender to name, and those whose tragedies are too vast to number, and those whose anguish and anxiety has become a vise grip of pain, open up channels of mercy. Send companions of comfort to ease the burdens. 

Surround us with Your Spirit that swirls with a presence that unites, that heals, that transforms. 

May we mend this outer world according to the truth of our inner life in your Spirit. May our souls be shaped and nurtured by your endless love. 


©ken sehested @

Remembering the Future

A World Communion Sunday sermon

by Ken Sehested,
Text: Hebrews 2:5-12 (The Message)

      The main title of this sermon, “remembering the future,” is a nonsensical notion. How can you remember the future since it hasn’t happened yet? Maybe if you love science fiction, or if you’re a fan of the actor Michael J. Fox, you can imagine going “back to the future.” But remembering the future?

      How silly is that, in a grown-up world?

      Maybe, in our growing up, we have actually grown in, grown in on ourselves, grown sour on the world, grown weary of illusions, grown cynical about pious propaganda, pious politics, as well as pious religion.

Right: painting by Jose ignacio Fletes Cruz

      I believe, however, that remembering the future is at the heart of our redemptive calling. Remembering the future is what we ritually practice each and every week in the celebration of the Eucharist, communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s a ritual to remind us to remember the future each and every day. People on the Way of Jesus are by definition an unreasonable people—if, by reason, you mean the economic reasoning which generates extremes of wealth and poverty. If, by reason, you mean defense strategies that generate instability and terror. If, by reason, you mean the certainties which proclaim that you get is what you earn, that you are what you can buy, and that respect comes at the price of threat.

      We are, by definition, an unreasonable people, because we believe that another world is possible. We believe that one day mercy will trump vengeance. We believe we’re headed for a party, not a purge. We believe the meek will inherit the earth. We believe that what the poor and the abandoned need is not money but friendship. If we are to be co-inheritors with the meek, we’d best spend some time with them. For we have much to learn—much to learn about the faith we profess.

            Today is world communion Sunday. Our Presbyterian friends get credit for initiating this annual observance, back in the mid-1930s, then adopted in 1940—at the brink of world war—by the Federal Council of Churches (now National Council of Churches). I’m not sure if it’s celebrated much outside the US. And that may be because much of the world suspects that “world communion” holds the same promise of what we call “globalization.” A globalized economy is supposed to work for everyone. “Everyone has an even chance,” so we’re told. But casino owners say the same thing, knowing the process is heavily tilted toward the house.

      Having said that, however, I’ve always thought one of the strengths of this congregation is its global vision. We have consistently made connections with people and events at a distance from our own neighborhoods.

      Early this past summer I rediscovered a small 4” x 6” notebook I used to record the offerings we received in the first year after our founding in 2001. In fact, the very first offering we took as a congregation was not for our own support. Our very first offering was a mission grant to Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli organization which was replanting olive trees destroyed by the Israeli army on the West Bank in Palestine. The total was $305.

      In case you didn’t know this, the Circle of Mercy budget process requires that our annual mission grants line item be equal to 10% of everything else in the budget. And that line item is the only one that does not zero out at the end of the year. Meaning: if we don’t spend the allotted amount, we carry that surplus over to the next year. We don’t do that with any other line item. We maintain this commitment because when finances get tight, most congregations end up cutting the missions budget. This commitment involves a spiritual discipline as well as a budgetary practice: Relinquishing control over some portion of our assets reflects our convictions about God’s alternative economy. It is a counter-cultural habit that testifies against the rule of hoarding.

§  §  §

      There are a lot of courageous people in this small Circle. A significant percentage of you have taken risky adventures of faith which involved geographic dislocation. Just in recent years the Walker Wilson family spent 2 years in Colombia., tending the needs of the massive numbers of people dislocated by that country’s civil conflict. The Sigmon Siler family spent a year in Cuba, Mark working on the very first professional training for prison chaplains and Kiran, Joy and Leigh helping hosts other gringo delegations visiting the island. This academic year, Marc Mullinax is teaching in South Korea.

      Stephy has made several trips to Haiti, training trauma/grief counselors. At least 3 of our number—Mary Anne Tierney, Kaki Roberts and Rachel Berthiaume—have done Peace Corps tours. A couple years ago Will Farlessyost went on a Witness for Peace tour to Nicaragua. Joyce recently reported on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada regarding the treatment of indigenous people. Linda and Bill Mashburn have traveled countless times to Central America. Jane and Larry Wilson lived in Colombia for years, and LisaRose Barnes lived in Belarus for several years. Brian Graves grew up in the Dominican Republic. About half of our congregation—including many of our children—have visited our sister church in Camagüey, Cuba.

      This list is incomplete. If we were to start telling stories, there would no doubt be a lot more examples.

      But of course, “foreign” travel doesn’t always require many hours on a plane. Sometimes “foreigners” live close by. It’s easy to cross significant social, political and economic boundaries without leaving town, much less the country.

      Missy Harris has volunteered at the Haywood Street Congregation, whose membership includes a good many homeless folk. Tamara Puffer is part of a Homeward Bound team helping the homeless into permanent housing. As part of his ministry, Louis Parrish maintains daily contact with a 101-year-old woman in Swannanoa who has no family. At least once each year David Privette volunteers at a camp for young people living with serious illness or disability.

      A number of you have been advocates for the undocumented, none more than Tim Nolan. Mahan Siler is a regular volunteer at Marion Correctional Institution, and Mark Siler at the Buncombe County Jail. Chris Berthiaume and Tyrone Greenlee are both key leaders in Just Economics, which , among many other things, provides an economic literary training series each year—and each year, Jo Hauser has organized an evening meal for the group. I think Tracey Whitehead has raised money for about half the nonprofit organizations in town. Greg Yost has labored and lobbied and stood in courtroom defendants’ chairs several times—and jail cells as well—as an advocate of the earth’s health and well-being.

      Holly Jones is among the most intelligent, compassionate and competent public servant in the state. Jessica and Rich Mark gave away to local nonprofits $9,000 of the profits from the small business they created. (You can’t get more unreasonable than that!) Just recently, Sabrina Ip offered many nights of assistance helping Brian and Beth care for their twin babies. And Rachel Rasmussen returned to us after a year volunteering a Jubilee Partners, welcoming refugees from war-torn countries find a safe haven.

      Several in the congregation have maintained close contact with Wiley Dobbs, our member living on death row in Georgia. And supporting LGBT young people. Each year all our kids make cards for prisoners on Valentine’s Day—for some inmates, the only correspondence they receive; and cookies for the annual Christmas program. A little sugar goes a long way in prison cafeterias.

      Dozens of you volunteer in public schools, at MANNA Foodbank, with Room in the Inn and a host of other organizations committed to the common good of our city, of our nation, of the whole-wide world.

      Truth is, the majority of our acts of healing, our stands for justice, our pursuit of peace are anonymous, attracting no applause, no news reporters, rarely acknowledgment of any kind. Except in the heart of God. (Ethics is, as they say, what you do when no one is looking.)

      I could stand here all evening just telling you other specific examples. And I’m quite sure I don’t know the half of it. But you get the point.

§  §  §

      Many of you have seen the bumper sticker: The first line boldly proclaims, “Jesus is coming back soon!”

      The second line adds: “Look busy!!”

      Going and serving and telling the goodness of the news of grace and mercy we have come to experience in our own lives is surely part of our mission. But part of our mission is also learning to not be so busy, to be still and know, to opt out of the rat race, to come to experience the sheer relief of knowing the world’s healing is not finally up to us. Being exhausted in the world of nonprofit work can be as deafening as exhaustion in the for-profit world.

      As believers we have parallel callings, distinct in their performance but woven together in their origins and growth. There is the call to sacrificial engagement with the world’s pain; and there is the call to relaxing into the confident quiet and stillness of the abiding presence of God. Their rhythm has its own ecology, its own alternating impulses, its own distinctive and mutually-reinforcing requirements and disciplines. The deeper we dig into our own souls, discovering the DNA of God’s love, the more loving, and forgiving, we will be in the world. And the more loving and forgiving we are in the world helps us dig deeper into the love of God. Neither precedes the other. Neither is more important than the other. The joining of these two are linked as much as breathing in and breathing out.

      And the only way we can get it right is to remember the future, a future that in the book of Hebrews is referred to as “bright with Eden’s dawn light.” (The Message)

      The secret to our sacramental vision, the secret that inspires our conviction that heaven’s regard has not abandoned earth’s remorse, is that the future is not determined by the past. If that were true, surely we all would burn in hell.

      The Greek word that describes the early church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper is anamnesis. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means “a recollection of past events” or a “reminiscence.”  It’s true that when we gather for communion we always tell a particular story, of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. This is not a generic religious ritual. We are people of a particular story, though we believe the story to have global and even cosmic significance.

      But we don’t simply reminiscence: yeah, so-and-so did such-and-such around some Palestinian dinner table back in the day. Anamnesis is more that historical accounting. Anamnesis means to re-member, to put the pieces back together, to be animated with the same Spirit which drove Jesus to his confrontation with the authorities. It was not a confrontation he desired. The next to last prayer he said before his death was “let this cup pass from me,” which is fancy way of saying: Get me outta’ here!

      Elsewhere in the Book of Hebrews the text returns to the image of Jesus as the “pioneer” of our faith, and goes on to say that “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). It is this “joy” that here in chapter 2 is referred to with the image of the coming day that is “bright with Eden’s dawn light.”

            The thing that drives us in our engagement with a world shaped by despair and driven by violence is the promise that another world is waiting, another world is coming, another world is groaning, waiting to be born, as a mother in childbirth. And we are among its midwives. Likewise, the thing that protects us from despair and exhaustion is this secret whisper we manage to hear when we quiet our souls: Be not afraid! God is not yet done. The night of travail will surely give way to the morning, a morning “bright with Eden’s dawn light.” Be of good cheer. For “we are people on a journey, pain is with us all the way. Joyfully we come together at the holy feast of God”: From College Avenue, to Camagüey, Cuba, to Bogota, Colombia. “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29). That’s a world communion Sunday worth working and waiting for.

            Sisters and brothers, the meek are getting ready. The invite us to join them in that risky vigil.

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Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC • 7 October 2012
©ken sehested @

The City: Besieged and Beloved

A collection of biblical texts for personal meditation and public liturgy

Racial antagonism, income inequality and urban decay go hand-in-hand in our culture.
The collection of texts below—for use in personal meditation or public liturgy—
bear witness to both the horror and the hope of our cities.

§ How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1:1)

§ Blessed be the Lord, for God has wondrously shown steadfast love to me when I was beset as in a besieged city. (Psalm 31:21)

§ There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved. (Psalm 46:4-5)

§ Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues; for I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go around it on its walls; and mischief and trouble are within it, ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its market place. (Psalm 55:9-11)

§ Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire. . . . [But] I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city (Isaiah 1:7, 26)

§ I have aroused in them righteousness, and I will make straight all their ways; they shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 45:13)

§ Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones. . . . Say to the daughter of Zion, "Behold your salvation comes. . . . And they shall be called the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought out, a city not forsaken. (Isaiah 62: 10, 11, 12)

§ But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." (Jeremiah 29:7)

§ Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt. . . . It shall not be uprooted or overthrown any more for ever. (Jeremiah 31:38, 40)

§ . . . for I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness. Behold, I will bring it to health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. . . . And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations. (Jeremiah 33: 5, 6, 9)

§ "Because the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence, I will bring the worst of the nations to take possession of their houses; I will put an end to their proud might, and their holy places shall be profaned. When anguish comes, they will seek peace, but there shall be none. Disaster comes upon disaster, rumor follows rumor; they seek a vision from the prophet, but the law perishes from the priest, and counsel from the elders. (Ezekiel 7:23-26)

§ O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name. (Daniel 9:19)

§ The voice of the Lord cries to the city—". . . Your rich ones are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies. Therefore I have begun to smite you." (Micah 6: 9, 12-13)

§ Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets. . . . And the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. . . . They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness. (Zechariah 8: 4, 5, 8)

§ And when Jesus drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! (Luke 19:41-42)

§ And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold the dwelling of God is with humankind." (Revelation 21:2-3)


Compiled by Ken Sehested @


News, views, notes and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  15 September 2016  •  No. 88

Instead of the usual "Signs of the Times" column, ponder this new essay, and let me know what you think.


The taunt of Lamech’s revenge
Authorization for Use of Military Force:
60 words that bring the US to the edge of a permanent state of war

by Ken Sehested

        Fifteen years ago today, 14 September 2001, the US Congress approved a 60-word joint resolution—with only one dissenting vote, by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)—named The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It grants the president sweeping latitude for authorizing military action. The implications it carries have become so commonplace they no longer raise public attention. Not unlike the lyrics to some popular children’s songs, the AUMF’s assumptions are repeated so often we are numbed to their significance.

        This is unfortunate, for the AUMF, approved amid the trauma and rage of the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, has brought us to the edge of a permanent state of war.

§ § §

"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment. We'll get better as we do it more often."
—Larry Di Rita, special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding in an
18 July 2003 news conference to reports of low morale of US troops stationed in Iraq, for whom
combat had not ceased despite President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech two months prior

§  §  §

        Many parents shudder when paying attention to the lyrics of some traditional childhood lullaby and rhyming songs. You got an old man who died after bumping his head. Three blind mice having their tails cut off. An old lady who may die because she swallowed a fly. Bridges falling. A lamb’s eye being picked out. Ashes! Ashes! they all fall down.

        Or my favorite, “Rock-a-bye Baby,” a broken bough, with cradle and child tumbling from the tree.

        There are many folklorist theories, but little hard evidence, about the origins of such songs or explanations as to why they endured. The genesis of some may have been disguised political satire, particularly “Rock-a-bye Baby,” sometimes associated with the overthrow of England’s King James II. (The first known publication of this song came with this footnote: "This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they may generally fall at last.") But the fact remains that mystery abounds and collateral damage endures.

        The cause for shuddering in the adult world mirrors and compounds, in exponential fashion, the foreboding lines amid children’s verse.

§  §  §

“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face.”
—US General Stanley A. McCrystal in his inaugural speech as
NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander in June 2009

§  §  §

        My vote for the most heinous euphemism of the 20th century is the phrase “collateral damage.” First used by Thomas C. Schelling, an economist and national security expert, collateral damage, in short, is the oops response to unintended damage in battle. So sorry. (See my “Sorry, sorry, sorry” poem.)

        Former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Hans-Christof von Sponeck—one of a slew of ranking UN officials who resigned in protest to the US sanctions against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War—made this assessment of collateral damage.

        “The 21st century has seen a loss of innocent life at an unprecedented scale, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he wrote in 2011. “Nobody should even dare to ask the question whether it was worth it!” [1]

        Like beauty, however, the calculation of worth is in the eyes of the beholder. A US Department of Defense document puts it this way. “Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack."  Notice the blurry boundaries created by the words “excessive” and “anticipated.”

        Who can forget when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was interviewed in May 1996 on the "CBS 60 Minutes" news program. Reporter Leslie Stahl asked:

        "We have heard that a half million children have died [as a result of sanctions against Iraq, documented by UNICEF]. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"

        To which Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it." A bough broken.

§  §  §

“Having a war on terror is like having a war on dandruff.”
—Gore Vidal

§  §  §

        One has to wonder whose violence is driving whom? We forget that Osama bin Laden was once on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) payroll, as a member of the Afghan mujahideen resistance fighting the occupying Soviet military—as, in all likelihood, was Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath party came into power in 1963 when the CIA engaged in an earlier regime change in Iraq. The US then supported Hussein’s war with Iran starting in 1980, including providing some of the ingredients for Iraq’s chemical weapons.

        We forget that bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in his outrage over Saudi Arabia’s allowing the US to use Saudi bases as a staging area for the 1991 Gulf War. Though he was an archenemy of Hussein, bin Laden considered US troops on his home country’s soil an abomination and vowed to take revenge. A bough broken.

        We forget that on 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda was a force of a few thousand in Afghanistan with scattered supporters elsewhere. Now the spin-off groups and emulators are thriving throughout the Middle East and northern Africa. [2] And we’ve not yet come to terms with the substantial evidence that ISIS, our current Public Enemy No. 1, was spawned from Iraq’s killing fields.

        It would appear, as the bumper sticker says, we are creating terrorists faster than we can kill them.

§ § §

“[T]here is enough evidence that a substantial part of terrorism is engendered by military, intelligence,
and economic intervention of the very same countries that consequently make use of the pretext
of terror to politically legitimize their military and geo-strategic expeditions.”
—Jens Wagner [3]

§ § §

        Among the most notorious incidents of creating a terror pretext to justify intervention was “Operation Northwoods,” originating in a 1962 collaboration between the US Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to covertly instigate violence in Cuba—bombing and hijacking were specifically mentioned in the document—sufficient to warrant military response. Here’s a quote from that recommendation, titled "Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba”:

        “The desired resultant (sic) from the execution of this plan would be to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.”

        Luckily President John F. Kennedy quashed the top-secret plan that only came to light in 1997 when Kennedy’s records were released.

§ § §

"I think all foreigners should stop interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq"
—US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in a 21 July 2003 news conference in Baghdad

§ § §

        Fifteen years ago today Rep. Barbara Lee rose, alone, to speak against the AUMF. This past week she said:

        "I voted against that resolution 15 years ago because it was so broad that I knew it was setting the stage and the foundation for perpetual war. And that is exactly what it has done," Lee notes. "It’s been used over 37 times everywhere in the world," including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. (Listen to Rep. Lee’s original 2001 statement (2:19) on the floor of the House of Representatives and a recent Democracy Now interview with Lee.)

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“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” —Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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        Among the things learned by those of us required to take a high school civics course was that only Congress

      Above: A M1A2 Abrams tank in Baghdad, with the words "New Testament"
      painted on its barrel.

has the power to declare war. The US hasn’t declared war on anyone since World War II. Vietnam, Korea, and 14 US military incursions in Muslim-majority countries since 1980, are not “wars” at all. That mechanism is now irrelevant as an instrument of international law. Its modern incarnation is a congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force. And the one approved in September 2001 has no expiration date.

        In a mere 60 words Congress granted a virtual carte blanche credit card (and most of our wars since 9/11 have been funded by borrowing) to the President, for “he (sic) determines” when and where to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations or persons” who “planned, authorized, committed, aided” . . .  or “harbored” the 9/11 attackers in order to “prevent any future acts of terrorism.”

        The latter phrase in the AUMF—“prevent future acts”—echoes President Bush Jr.’s “National Security Strategy Paper” of September 2002 which, for the first time in US history, lays the legal groundwork for “preventative” war.

        The right to engage in preemptive war—to initiate hostilities when there is clear evidence that an enemy is on the verge of attack—is acknowledged in international law. Preventative war is not. Though the Obama Administration’s annual “National Security Strategy” doesn’t include “preventative” language, the precedent has effectively been set.

        Now, powered by the open-ended AUMF, the President simply has to declare that something bad might happen, sometime, somewhere, and the troops saddle up. Shout 9/11 and the drones are launched to anywhere in the world.

        This same preventative impulse emerges in the spate of domestic “stand your ground” state laws and the frequent exoneration of police shootings of unarmed black men. A perceived threat equals actual peril justifying acting with extreme prejudice.

        So many boughs broken.

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"We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable,
or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter."
—former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

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        A single photo (below, Manu Brado/AP) has haunted me, by day and by night, all this past week, with our nation’s 9/11 remembrances prior to the infamous date’s fifteen anniversary. [4]

        Look at it closely. You see an unidentified Syrian man holding his dead son. Take in the background. Notice the torn jeans. The blood stains. The boy’s shirt ripped away. The utter grief on the father’s face. The boy’s limp body. The immediate association my mind made was to name this photo “The Final Cradling.” Bough broken, baby fallen.

        Now bring up the most vivid image in your memory from 9/11. The Twin Towers on fire, and falling. The people who jumped to their deaths. The dust-choked, panicked survivors. The first responders digging through rubble, some in tears.

        Can you make a connection between these images?

        It’s almost certain that as many non-combatants died in the first few weeks after the 2003 “Shock and Awe” attack on Baghdad as died on 9/11. Wouldn’t that have satisfied an “eye for an eye” standard of justice?

        It hasn’t. Current estimates of fatalities just from our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria now stand at 1.3 million. [5]

        Lamech’s threat, in the earliest pages of Genesis, is with us still. Lamech—great-great-great-great grandson

      Above: Painting of Lamech, “Speculum humaniae salvationis,”
      Lamech tormented by his wives, 14thc German

of Adam and Eve—makes a vengeful vow that echoes to this day. With his two wives, Adah and Zillah, as his witness, he pledges “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23).

        9/11 has now been avenged 433 times, and the meter’s still running.

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“If we have to use force it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation.
We stand tall. We see farther into the future.”
—Secretary of State Madeline Albright, 19 February 1998

        Really? If true, I shudder over that future.

§  §  §

        The use of US military might is far more common than most of us think. In the 20th century there are but a handful of years when our troops were not actively engaged outside our borders. (See Wikipedia’s “Timeline of United States Military Operations.”) Now, however, with a preventative war precedent and the current AUMF in place—along with numerous national leaders speaking of the “long war” we face in the war on terror, I grieve.

        Nevertheless—and Scripture is full of neverthelesses—there is a saying from the Hasidic tradition, “If you want to find a spark, sift through the ashes.”

        Sisters and brothers, we have some sifting to do.

        And at the same time we must ask and act on a series of questions: What would it require to catch some of those cradles? Arrange for sufficiently sturdy boughs? Support arborists to treat weakened boughs? Work diligently at preserving more forest land, along with the ecosystem needed for all life to thrive?

Left: Textile art depicting Noah's Ark, by the Kairos Center sewing cooperative, Matanzas, Cuba.

        Lamech’s taunt awaits our response. There’s no better time than now to get started.

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[1] “Preface” to “Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility, pp. 6-7

[2] Tom Engelhardt, “A 9/11 Retrospective: Washington’s 15-Year Air War.”

[3] “Introduction” to “Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility,” p. 14.

[4] See additional photos at “What Is Aleppo? This is Aleppo.”

[5] “Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terrorism’: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Physicians for Social Responsibility," p. 15.