I always remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the album, Jesus Christ Superstar. At that time I was a young, just turned 19 year old, standing guard one night in guard shack #1 on the very edge of the perimeter on Vung Chua Mountain in Vietnam. A dark night looking out into the perimeter, lit up with lights, the perimeter itself a wasteland of burned up jungle so that no enemy would find refuge in the tall grasses. Along the plot of land and rocks lay claymore mines, pointing out into the darkness that lay beyond the lights. Just within hand reach was a row of special plunger triggers, each one connected with a long thin wire to the various mines. Some of those mines were set at particular angles so that anyone foolish enough to come into that space would be instantly sprayed with a deadly hail of small, projectiles designed to rip human flesh to shreds. Looking out I could see the gatehouse that stood at the entrance to our small, mountaintop compound. At night the gate is closed and several of the claymore mines are wired up, just in case Charlie decides to do what they did during the infamous Tet offensive of 1968 where they used the gatehouse as a springboard onto Vung Chua, killing several of our troops during that fateful week. Next to that row of claymore triggers laid my weapon, a M-16 assault rifle, my particular one was made by GM, you know the folks that brought you Chevy in which you can see the USA. Now it lay there, ready for action, with a full clip of ammo ready to be locked and loaded. I peer out staring into the darkness that lay just outside, my hand on the M-60 machine gun that stands ever ready, and next to that an M-79 grenade launcher with its small but lethal shells sitting all in a row. Just in that one guard tower I had enough weapons and ammo to carry out my own deadly war, to send to our enemy a clear message of our might and power. Now, on this dark night, as a cool wind blowing up the valley knocked down the heat of the day, I sat listening to the noises of the world around us. Across the valley, on another remote mountain the now familiar crack-pow of an AK-47, to be answered by the sound of an M-16, red and green tracers can be seen flying across the darkened background. Our own mortar crew begins to launch high explosives into the dark sky, the projectiles falling onto some unseen target. The constant thump of the mortar as the crew works to fine tune the the weapon so that the shells fall in the correct place. As quickly as this moment of chaos started, all becomes eerily quiet again and I go back to staring out into the dark listening to the rats as they run around inside the lower part of our guard shack digging through our refuse of empty “C” ration cans. In this lull of the night one of our buddies came up to our guard post, “Hey!” In that kind of loud whisper using lots of throat so as not to startle anyone, “Hey, man. I’ve got something you got to listen to, just got this cassette tape from my sister. It’s so cool.”
“Come on up”, we call down into the lower part of the guard shack. He scrambles up the ladder, I tell him to watch out, the rats have been pretty active tonight. “No problem, man. I’ve come to figure that they are here, and if I don’t bug them, they won’t bug me.”
Scrambling up the narrow ladder way, he finally makes it up to where we are overlooking the perimeter, trying to keep our eyes open. “Well, what you got that’s so damned important that you have to show us so badly”, asks Mike who was on guard with me that night. “Man, it’s called Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s all music and it’s kind of cool. I mean, if church was like this I’d have gone more often.”
“Well, let’s have a listen,” and so we hunkered down as he pushed the play button on his well used cassette player. Soon through the small, tinny sounding speaker we heard those first words, “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening,” and began to listen. It was if we were playing a surreal soundtrack in the midst of the chaos that lay just outside our little home. The music drew us in, we could see in our minds eye the disciples not quite getting it, Judas struggling with his demons, Mary Magdalene she sings her song, I don’t know how to love him, all through to that final confrontation with Pilate and his question, “What is truth?”
Sitting up there, listening, watching and waiting, these words, “What is truth?” echo in my mind. What is the truth behind what we were doing here at this time and in this place? I look down and see the lights in the city of Qui Nhon, I can see the medivac choppers flying in and out of the airfield, their cargo of broken bodies being taken to the hospital. I think of those Vietnamese families, most poor villagers displaced by the war and now trying to eke out a living, some selling pot, some selling their bodies, some just too broken to do anything but beg along the dusty streets. What is truth, as I see children running through the small village at the bottom of our mountain, half naked, dirty, their faces covered with sores and snotty noses. They live in homes built out of our trash, cans of Coke, Bud, Miller and other such companies mashed flat and then spot welded together to create a wall or roof. What is truth in the midst of this poverty and despair, the old man or old woman carrying the scars of so many years of war, old mama sans teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nuts, squatting at some doorway, and again the question, what is truth?
The years have passed, I sit here now with these memories shrouded in mist and shadow. Our current world is sitting in a quagmire of our own making, truth is being exploited in all of its various definitions. Terrorists strike in Paris, young students are massacred in Kenya, a child escaping the violence in Central America is exploited while another child drowns in the sea fleeing from the violence in their land, and we ask what is truth? Politicians offer easy, quick fix answers, they play on our fears and anxieties as they parade around the country seeking power. All the while people cry out for justice and peace, the widow and orphan beg for the breadcrumbs that fall from our tables as we sleepwalk through life, focused only on self and our own needs. The low hum we hear in the deep recesses of our minds, that still small voice that speaks to us in the quiet and stillness of night calls us to seek that truth, the truth that is in the voice and heart of Jesus. Truth, not of power or control, but the truth of Gods love, of peace and of hope.