My Lai Massacre in Vietnam: 50 Years Later

I was five years old when the people of a set of small villages in the My Lai region of Vietnam were massacred by U.S. soldiers. I don’t remember hearing about it or understanding what it meant until much later. However, I do remember driving with my parents to San Francisco to pick up my cousin who was returning from Vietnam where he served as a medic. He was not the same cousin I remembered from before. He was traumatized.

I am of the era where my older cousins and my high school teachers were veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam. It colored everything they thought, did, felt. It set them apart from other Americans. In subdued desperation, all around us, the fought for their sanity and to make sense of hell. An impossible task.

Fifty years later, our U.S. wars are removed, sanitized. We don’t do “body counts.” We’ve outlawed frontline reporting. We have drones to kill for us. But the frontline soldiers still come back traumatized — and the killing of the innocent and guilty enemy is no less hellish.

I’m grateful to Ken Sehested for inviting me to submit a poem-prayer to this collection of worship resources produced for the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee to remember and repent what our war looked like on March 16, 1968. I invite you to use them in your personal Lenten reflections and with your community and Veteran’s groups.–Rose Berger

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Colorado, A Cry From The Heart

Aurora, CO: Prayer vigil for victims of shooting (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Continuing to reflect on the evil in Aurora, Colorado… How it gripped a young man, James Holmes … How it relishes and feeds off of the rippled effects of violence in victims and families and ultimately anyone who hears the story … How it must be confronted with the lamentations of Jeremiah and the righteous accountability of Job. Job …who gets to ask God face-to-face why evil happens and gets no satisfactory reply.

Below is an excerpt from a lovely letter written by a Lutheran pastor in Fort Collins. It helped me keep my reflections grounded in the unknowable heart of God.

… In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.

The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.

I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.

In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). …–Meghan Johnston Aelabouni, Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, CO

Read the whole letter.