Day 22 of our Lenten Journey through Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam.”
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote:
Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.
“Slippery Words and Concealed Souls” by Joyce Hollyday (photo above), founding co-pastor at Circle of Mercy in Asheville, NC
…With speech smoother than butter,
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer than oil,
but in fact were drawn swords.
The year was 1983, and I was on a bus with a group of U.S. peacemakers, bumping over a rutted road from the tiny, isolated village of Jalapa, Nicaragua, toward Managua. Bursts of mortar fire erupted from the trees. A young mother riding with us held up her infant son. “Take him,” she pleaded in Spanish as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Take him to a place where there is no war.”
Nicaragua was my Vietnam. I was too young by a few years to really understand the conflict tearing apart Southeast Asia. In junior high school—to my embarrassment now—I wrote a paper titled “Stopping Communist Aggression in Vietnam,” well researched from several issues of The Reader’s Digest. After stunning failure there, the U.S. government turned its attention to Central America as the place to draw its line in the sand.
Nicaragua is where I learned about slippery words. Then-president Ronald Reagan infamously called the U.S.-backed contra forces that were pillaging, kidnapping, raping, and massacring Nicaraguans “the moral equivalent of [our] Founding Fathers.” He oiled his slick propaganda machine with lies, portraying Nicaragua as a “totalitarian dungeon” and the U.S. as the world’s purveyor and protector of democracy.
But the Buddhist monk quoted by Dr. King had it right. Our image in the rest of the world is not one of freedom and democracy, but of violence and militarism. When the Twin Towers in New York fell, many people asked aloud, “Why do they hate us?” We should wonder how the world can bear to tolerate us, exploiting labor across the globe and exporting war to every corner to back up our theft of precious resources. “The Americans,” said the monk prophetically, “are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies.”
In the years since Vietnam, new wars have erupted and new lines have been drawn—in the desert sands of Iraq and Afghanistan, in Colombia and Kosovo, in Pakistan and Palestine, in Honduras, Libya, Ukraine, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria, in the streets of our own cities, and in more places than there is room to mention. I think back to that young Nicaraguan mother and wonder, where is that place where there is no war?
Dr. King saw the Vietnam conflict as a “horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play.” Decades later we are still orchestrating this shell game, hoping the onlookers and pawns don’t catch our sleight of hand. Trying to convince ourselves of our own goodwill and exceptionalism.
But Lent exposes what is true and invites us to see how this deadly game has permeated not only the corners of the globe but also the recesses of our hearts. Dr. King called for us as a nation to “atone for our sins and errors.” As individuals we are also beckoned this season to expunge the violence that has taken root in our attitudes and our relationships, as surely as in our foreign policy. To put away the daggers and swords that masquerade as olive leaves.
The journey begins with facing our fears, opening ourselves to be channels of reconciliation, and praying for the courage to follow where faith leads. In a world where words smoother than butter and softer than oil mask reality, we claim once again the power of the Word Made Flesh. Bringing truth. Protecting the vulnerable and provoking the powerful. Dying and rising again. Banishing every false word and violent act. Leading the way to peace.