Overheard at the haricut place: “I was there. I’m sorry for what we did, and I’m sorry my country abandoned you.”
I get my hair cut by Lan. She and two other Vietnamese women, Danielle and Rose, run the shop. Eleven dollars twenty-five cents for a haircut. Today a tall, strong white guy in his 60’s had Danielle cut his hair while Lan cut mine. The TV was off for once, so I overheard their conversation, or part of it. I didn’t hear Danielle’s response, but they went on to have a conversation about the geography of Vietnam and other places they had been. Lan’s English is so-so, and I wanted a different do this time, so that took some negotiating.
The veteran said, “I was there. I’m sorry for what we did, and I’m sorry my country abandoned you.”
It was all I could do to hold back tears while Lan was working. In the anamnesis (re-membering) of the moral calamity that links the US and Vietnam, the insanity of war, and the occupying Power of negation that lives in our souls, nothing but the dignity of acknowledgement could suffice. In the shared space of acknowledgement, Danielle and the veteran met eye-to-eye.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who founded a program of Buddhist social work during the devastation, says to American soldiers, “You were not the cause of the war. You were the finger on the trigger.” He listens to Vietnamese survivors and their children so they will not be alone in their suffering. When suffering is so massive and so insane, the healing of the world can begin only when survivors, perpetrators, and non-participants bear witness to the damage.
I talked with the veteran in the parking lot and told him that his acknowledgement was utterly decent. I told him about my own family’s lack of innocence: my father took us to Mexico to evade my brother’s being drafted. Dad fought World War II and Korea, and he could not bear the thought of his son doing the things that soldiers do. But that left the dirty work to others, and it disrupted our family irrevocably.
Oddly, feelings of both guilt and superiority typically dominate victims, survivors, perpetrators, and even non-participants. When we acknowledge sin, its effects on us as victims, survivors, and perpetrators (and any combination of these), we are set free from inflated and deflated selves. We start to experience conjoined (not opposing) justice and mercy, which is God’s own response to sin. This is how the world heals.