Douglas “Pete” Peterson was a US Air force pilot who during the Vietnam War flew hundreds of bombing missions over North Vietnam. Then in September 1966 his plane was hit by a missile and he had to eject, landing with broken bones in a Mango tree near a small village.
Knowing who this man was and where he came from, the angry villagers paraded him around town like a hunting trophy. Treating him like dirt, they dragged him down dusty roads and jeered and taunted him, eventually landing him in the Prisoner of War jail otherwise known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. There he spent the next several years of his life until finally released in the mid-seventies.
Reflecting on his harrowing ordeal years later, Pete Peterson said that he had no intention of becoming a “career POW” and that God had not saved his life for him to be angry.
He was appointed by then President Clinton to be the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the war. It was awkward for both parties – first for the Vietnamese to receive a man who had killed many of their military and civilian population during those countless bombing raids.
On the other hand, for Peterson it was a challenge to be a diplomat working with the Vietnamese government who were ultimately responsible for the “lost” years of his life enduring torture and threat of death in the “Hanoi Hilton”.
A special moment came four months after he took up his post in May 1997. On the 10th of September – the same day he had been shot down 31 years earlier – Peterson revisited An Doai, the village where he had been taken prisoner.
He drank tea with Nguyen Viet Chop and Nguyen Danh Xinh – two of the men who had dragged him back to the village through the rice paddies. And he walked through the fields, holding hands with the grandson of one of his former captors, to the mango tree in which he had fallen 31 years earlier.
Peterson said that day: “I return here not to re-live what was probably the most unhappy day of my life, but to signify to the entire world that reconciliation is not only possible but absolutely the way to reach out.”
In his four years as Ambassador, Peterson became – in the words of one reporter – a “billboard for reconciliation”. Peterson himself confessed that working for the Vietnamese on behalf of the United States, he had to “check hate at the door”.
And what did reconciliation, love and grace accomplish?
He was instrumental in advocating for a helmet law for cyclists and moped riders in Vietnam. Also, a study he helped set up discovered that the leading cause of death among children in Vietnam was not disease, but accidental drowning.
It was calculated that in Vietnam every hour one toddler drowned. A large portion of Vietnam is covered in lakes and rivers and rice paddies. Also most people can’t swim – so parents don’t teach their children. The organization Peterson helped found lobbied policy makers so that today, the Vietnamese government has instituted swimming lessons in the schools with the hope that by 2020 every Vietnamese child leaving secondary school will be able to swim.
Today in the Gospel text we read the story about the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31). Often our first thoughts about this story center on the question of doubt in a life of faith; “Do not doubt but believe!” is the thematic call-sign for this annual Easter story.
The end of the story nevertheless implies a very important theme we may overlook. While we don’t know for certain, I believe it is fair to assume that Thomas is reconciled to his community of faith.
There’s a moving scene in the 2003 film, “The Gospel of John” (directed by Philip Saville), where Thomas returns to his community of faith in the upper room. He comes back a week later – how and why we really don’t know. Perhaps, after sensing the futility of remaining cut off from them, he was going to give his cohorts a second chance. Perhaps he “checked hatred at the door” and felt he had nothing to lose by showing up and seeing first hand if what they said was true: that Jesus was alive.
And when Jesus does appear and gives personal attention to Thomas, Thomas weeps. Watching this scene, you can feel the emotional release: all the pent up anger, fear and cynicism just surrendered in the wash of Jesus’ love and compassion for Thomas. “My Lord, and my God” Thomas is finally able to confess. His confession signals his reconciliation with Jesus and with his community of faith.
God is about reconciliation. God’s mission on earth is about reconciling those who have been divided. Paul calls it the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5). Where reconciliation happens – as it did for Thomas and Jesus in the Upper Room two thousand years ago; as it did for Pete Peterson and Nguyen Viet Chop in a Vietnamese rice field sixteen years ago – there God is.
So let us pray for, and work towards, reconciliation: Where there is division and hatred, may God’s grace and love and forgiveness heal, restore and reconcile. The Easter message is about second chances, new beginnings, new life, new opportunities, starting over. It was for Thomas and Jesus. It was for Pete Peterson and the Vietnamese.
May it be for us, as well.
You can read the entire, moving story of Pete Peterson in BBC News Magazine, 22 March 2013, “Pete Peterson: The exPOW teaching Vietnam how to swim” by William Kremer, BBC World Service