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

Lingering in the Prayer Cloud

The Sojourners clan meets once a month for worship at the office. Yesterday, Sojo Assistant to CEO Tim King led us in a “prayer and praise” service.

Afterward, Sojo immigration organizer Allison Johnson sent a note saying, “Here is an image of the word cloud made of our collective prayers from today’s chapel.”

I thought it was lovely word-art. (It’s the kind of thing that makes the Baby Jesus smile.)


Dublin: How to Pray When You Have a Desk Job

At Trinity University in Dublin, along with the Book of Kells, there were other medieval manuscripts on display. The Book of Armagh, the Book of Darrow, and (one of my favorites) the Book of Mulling were all there to ooh and aww over.

Illumination of St. John from the Book of Mulling

It is perversely comforting to find the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages wrestling over the same issues we wrestle over today. In particular, how to pray when you have a desk job.

One display case held a copy of a sermon preached at the Durham Cathedral in England sometime in the 1100s. I was really touched by the details and the craft.

Medieval Allegory of the Scribes Tools

The parchment on which we write is pure conscience;
the knife that scrapes it is the fear of God;
the pumice that smooths the skin is the discipline of heavenly desire;
the chalk that whitens it signifies an unbroken meditation of holy thoughts;
the ruler is the will of God;
the straight-edge is devotion to the holy task;
the quill, its end split in two for writing, is the love of God and of our neighbor;
the ink is humility itself;
the illuminator’s colors represent the multiform grace of heavenly wisdom;
the writing desk is tranquility of heart;
the exemplar from which a copy is made is the life of Christ;
the writing place is contempt of worldly things lifting us to a desire for heaven.