Many biographies of the Vietnam era have been written. However enlightening they are most have been written by Americans. One of distinctive exceptions is When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Doubleday, 1989) written by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman. Le Ly lived through the unimaginable life of a peasant caught in the worst animosities of war, the most recent incursion of foreign powers into her country (what the Vietnamese called “The American War”).

After a long absence she returned to find her father at their ancestral home where he decided to stay when others left. What she found was a broken man barely clinging to life. But the conversation between this father and his struggling and traumatized daughter brought clarity and wisdom that would help her go on with her life.

My father stopped eating and looked at me intently. “Bay Ly, you were born to be a wife and mother, not a killer… You and me — we weren’t born to make enemies. Don’t make vengeance your god, because such gods are satisfied only by human sacrifice.”

“But there has been s much suffering — so much destruction!” I replied, again on the verge of tears, “Shouldn’t someone be punished?”

“Are you so smart that you truly know who’s to blame? If you ask the Viet Cong, they’ll blame the Americans. If you ask the Americans, they’ll blame the North. If you ask the North, they’ll blame the South. If you ask the South, they’ll blame the Vietcong. If you ask the monks, they’ll blame the Catholics, or tell you our ancestors did something terrible and so brought the endless suffering on our heads. So tell me, who would you punish? The common soldier on both sides who’s only doing his duty? Would you ask the French or Americans to repay our Vietnamese debt?”

“But generals and politicians give orders — orders to kill and destroy. And our own people cheat each other as if there’s nothing to it. I know — I’ve seen it! And nobody has the right to destroy Mother Earth!”

“Well then, Bay Ly, go out and do the same, eh? Kill the killers and cheat the cheaters. That will certainly stop the war, won’t it? Listen little peach blossom … Don’t wonder about right and wrong. Those are weapons as deadly as bombs and bullets. Right is the goodness you carry in your heart — love for your ancestors and your baby and your family and for everything that lives. Wrong is anything that comes between you and that love…that is the battle you were born to fight. That is the victory you must win.”


The Monday after Easter I walk the snowy stillness of a path beside the river, the tracks revealing only a solitary two-legged creature and an assemblage of deer preceding me since snowfall. There is not a stick of wind and the birds of spring have the sound of betrayal in their calls, the falling temperatures having disrupted all expectations.

I pause on the return leg and place my gloved hands on the sheer cliff, the rock formed billions of years before me. It is crumbling slowly, as all things do, but its ancient face holds a big story, bigger than my own. I listen. It says, “What is your hurry?”

And then back to my little shelter, the warmth, stretching cat and hot coffee.  J.S. Bach is playing in the background, Sheep Shall Safely Graze. My mind floats to Robert Frost, his own winter walking, and the verse that always haunts, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


On March 14 Brazilian human rights activist Marielle Franco was shot to death on the streets of Rio as she departed a community empowerment meeting. The 38 year old Franco grew up in dangerous Mare slum and was catapulted into public service through her election to the Rio’s city council. As a single black lesbian mother she was herself an extreme minority and she offered her voice to the voiceless of the city.

As one who confronted the power structures of the government she was vulnerable to acts of retaliatory violence. Her death galvanized thousands in a renewed quest for justice and equality.

When I think of Marielle and why and how she died my thoughts immediately turn to Jesus, one who sacrificed and died for very similar reasons. He also called into question the power structures of the status quo – both politically and religiously – and he was also silenced. I believe that is what happens when love comes to town and advocates for those who have no voice. Love gets crushed. But in the case of Jesus the seed that dies and falls to the ground germinates into a new, larger life. In the end you can’t kill love and the power behind it.

The people who killed Jesus out of the darkness of their souls are the same people who shot down Marielle. They will be forgotten, lost in the dustbin of history. But the power of love will ultimately triumph. So we sing on the other side of that portal of death we call the tomb, a passageway to more than we could of ever imagined.

It’s hard to call Good Friday good. But in this light it is; something good comes out of the tragedy and human darkness. And that good warms the hearts of all around it.

Call it Karma. Or what goes around, comes around. Or Jesus’ words, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Whatever you grasp, pursue, live in, is the bread cast on the water that comes back to you.

It was Thursday evening after the Passover meal, the last supper with his friends. They departed for the garden outside the walls, the garden of inevitability where Jesus prayed and waited and his disciples waited with him.

One of them appointed himself security for the garden, just in case of danger. He was packing … a sword. When they came for Jesus he leaped into action, slashing off an ear in the process. And that’s when we hear the unforgettable words that have tumbled down the centuries, sounding as though they were spoken yesterday: Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.

No matter how much security we post, no matter how much we harden the garden, unless we actually listen to the truth of Jesus’ words, it will just keep coming round and round again. As long as we remain obsessed with power and preoccupied with violence we will become the targets of our own animus. We will poison our own well. We will launch the torpedo that circles and comes back for us. Mutually assured destruction.

Call this the power of attraction. If you live in hate you attract hate. If you live in love you attract love. Not always, but usually. If you live in threats, brutality and violence you attract the same. If you live by the sword you die by it, too.

That’s some of the logic in Jesus’ other teachings about non-violence, turning the cheek and so on. It’s hard to not return evil for evil. That’s so natural. When we live by retaliation it perpetuates the cycle of violence. Interrupting that cycle is hard spiritual work.

Jesus did that, he stopped the cycle with his own life, even though his disciple wanted to protect him. In fact, he turned his own maxim around. If you die by the sword you shall give life because of it. That’s why on any given day Jesus is so much deeper than I am. He says the hard true things and then does them. Me? Not enough or not at all. But I keep listening, waiting and watching, like some drowsy disciple who can’t seem to stay awake. But I see what he’s done. I hear the words. And maybe someday I will be ready to take the next leap and do the same. God willing, when much is demanded. God willing.

In our dynamic dialogue groups that include members of  white and black congregations we covenant to share the truth in love. That sharing is sometimes sobering, sometimes humorous, and sometimes both.

Just yesterday as members of our group spoke our truths and shared the work we have yet to do, one of our African American partners shared a story from her service to one of her caucasian employers. One of the tacit unwritten rules of serving as “the help” was to avoid too much familiarity, especially on the feeling level. Certainly the sharing of struggles on the part of the white employer was crossing that line. But one time it was different.

Our friend came in to find her employer crying. She thought to herself, “Why is this white woman crying?” It was an uncommon occurrence. When she asked if everything was alright the weeping woman told her that she needed to apologize to her. “Apologize? For what?”

She proceeded to tell her how at the beginning she never wanted her to serve in her home. She disclosed all the false assumptions she carried about her because she was black. And then she shared how absolutely wrong she was. It was a confession, the kind you make to your priest in the confessional booth. Fortunately it was heart-felt and genuine. But that didn’t take it outside the realm of strange.

For those who have enjoyed the fruits of white privilege making confession and then engaging in conversion is exactly the right thing to do. Making confession to the offended is important. However, the offended person may or may not have experienced it personally. The offense primarily happens because deep cultural racism exists in the first place. So just exactly how does one make confession on behalf of all who have participated in systemic racism? What’s more, can any one person accept an apology on behalf of an entire group?

The end of this particular story is a happy one, both ways. The relationship between these two women continued to grow and their trust and affection increased. That’s the good news. But that good news begs another question: Did that awakening lead to confronting the broader racism we all consciously and unconsciously share and continue to practice?

For people of faith structural racism is anti-Gospel. If it doesn’t square with the truths and values espoused by Jesus and the prophets it has no place in our lives or culture. We must first identify and next expunge it from our own minds. And then, with other people of good will, we must denounce it whenever and wherever it appears in the public square. We do that so such apologies become no longer necessary, so no one has to figure out just why the white woman is crying.

Meet Brian Mast: Republican, life-long NRA member, gun-owning, gun-toting, veteran of several deployments to Afghanistan, user and appreciator of automatic assault weapons, had his legs blown off, and now is a member of the House of Representatives in Florida, 18th Congressional District.

He holds the 2nd Amendment as one of the cornerstones of our constitutional freedoms. He’s no left-wing nut case. But he has a plan. He doesn’t care what anyone will do to him for speaking up. And if you can’t hear his straight forward reason you’re simply not listening:

Brian’s Plan

Moral Currency

Posted: February 22, 2018 in Uncategorized

The late Elie Wiesel wrote and spoke extensively on the horrors of the holocaust and the necessity of creating peace out of the ashes. Because of his experience of suffering and his response to it he had huge moral currency. This kind of moral currency is vested with spiritual authority. The suffering of the innocent often makes huge deposits in the moral bank account. The world regards such a voice differently, more attentively, with deep empathy. The moral currency debit card is fully charged.

After Nelson Mandela was released from his long sentence and prison cell on Robben Island, a punishment that came as the result of his resistance to apartheid in South Africa, he became not only President of a new nation but its moral example and icon. When he spoke his words were filled with moral authority, the kind of status conferred only on those who have been personally initiated into suffering. And Mandela traded in his currency for a new lease on life for his country.

In the months following the disastrous 9/11 terrorist attack on our homeland I was traveling in Scotland. Every time strangers discovered that we were Americans they automatically and genuinely lavished us with empathy. At that moment in history our country was endowed with the greatest amount of moral currency we would have into the foreseeable future. In the months and years following we borrowed down on that currency until almost nothing was left on the world stage. And today it continues to decrease day by day.

When surviving students and teachers emerged out of the smoke of the latest school mass shooting in Florida they did so with a tragically earned moral currency. They alone would have the right to speak of the evil that rules the land. So they seized an unplanned stage by trading on that currency. At this moment these young citizens have found their collective voice, the voice of a generation. It resonates more than any other present voice with truth and courage. Their simple and powerful message shines against the dark backdrop of a political leadership devoid of moral courage of any kind.

This American drama is now showing at a theater near you. Official power does not guarantee moral authority; in fact the opposite is often true: Earned moral currency speaks a word of truth to power, a word that intimidates the powerful, arrogant and self-interested, causing them to tremble on their thrones.

I have two hopes. The first is that the courage of this morning of moral currency will continue to show itself in stark, clear and unambiguous truth-telling.  The second may take longer but is just as important: May this generation continue to speak the truth in love until the day when they push their unrighteousness and impotent elders off their chairs of power and take their places.

Katniss lives.