Come home to Calvary
Thank you all for this opportunity to worship with you, and for this chance to share a brief message. It is a pleasure to visit Calvary Presbyterian Church for the second time. I had visited 7 years ago and only given a presentation after worship. So I’m grateful to you for this special opportunity to share a message and some music from Korea where I serve as a PC(USA) mission co-worker.
When I visited you last time, I was working as a team with my married partner, Hyeyoung, as dual site coordinators for the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer Program. The Young Adult Volunteer Program, or YAV Program, brings US young adults, age 18-30, to live with us in Korea for 11 months, and we connect them to volunteer placements and help them immerse into communities working on issues of justice and peace. When I visited you last I had just began working half the week with the National Council of Churches in Korea or NCCK to assist with their Reconciliation and Reunification Department.
Then in 2018 I stepped out of my role in the YAV Program to spend my whole week working full-time at the NCCK. The NCCK is an ecumenical council of Koreas major protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and more. At that time in 2018 our family moved from Daejeon further north to the city of Seoul where I work with the NCCK full time now and Hyeyoung is the solo site coordinator. I hope to share with you a story from one of our partners in the NCCK, and I hope it will illustrate for you how I have some of our partners have come to the God’s table and been met by grace.
For those first four years in Korea, half my time was spent working with our YAVs, setting up meetings with Korean partners, taking them on study trips to learn about Korea’s culture and history, especially the parts entwined with the USA, and helping them to reflect theologically. Now that I am working full time with our partners in the NCCK, I help them communicate their peace advocacy efforts to partner churches around the world and to governments who are still participating in the ongoing Korean War, especially the US government.
One of those communication projects involved an interview with Rev. Dr. David Suh, an NCCK stalwart and long-time peace advocate in Korea. I interviewed him for a webinar that the NCCK broadcast with the help of the UCC/Disciples Christian Church denomination. Dr. Suh’s story reminds me of the meeting between Jacob and Esau, because it is a story that involves meetings between South Koreans and North Koreans, two enemies on opposite sides of an ongoing war, looking for understanding and hope for healing.
Dr. David Suh grew up in northern Korea when it was occupied by the Japanese empire before World War II and before it became what is now North Korea. His father, a Christian pastor, regularly spoke out against Japanese authority, so they had to leave Korea and live in Manchuria until 1945 at the end of World War II. When he returned, the USA and the Soviet Union had decided to split up Korea despite the fact that no Koreans participated in that decision and the vast majority of Koreans assumed they would remain united in their liberation and attempt to create a new independent Korea.
Soon the two zones turned into competing nations in 1948, and young David’s land became what is now North Korea. Young David’s father continued speaking out against North Korean authority. His father especially spoke out against the Christians who helped the North Korean government in the policies of land redistribution.
His father considered the man who founded the Korean Christian Federation, the federation of protestant Christians who are now officially recognized by the North Korean government to be his enemy in particular, not only because he was communist, but because he refused to support USA administration over Korea, as he considered the USA to be God’s instrument on earth. After the Korean War broke out, young David’s father went missing. David later found out that his father had been executed along with several other pastors by North Korean officers for treason.
When young David found his father’s body, he pledged revenge against his father’s enemies and all North Koreans. This opened up a major wound in his heart. He fled south and joined the South Korean navy to live out that revenge in the Korean War. As Jacob became estranged from his brother Esau, so Dr. Suh became estranged from his fellow North Korean Christians.
But after the armistice of 1953 put a cease on open hostilities, young David was given the opportunity to study theology in the USA. There he learned about the Civil Rights Movement, and he heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach about love for our enemies and transforming hate into love.
Now Dr. David Suh began to question whether he could still harbor the hate he carried for North Koreans and whether he could maintain his desire for revenge and still live truly as a Christian. He began to wonder if healing is even possible through revenge.
He took those questions and returned to South Korea where he found a South Korean military dictatorship suppressing democracy there. He decided that whatever his father may have wanted, he needed resist oppression, even when it was supported by the USA. As he began to join the people calling for democracy in South Korea, he and other democracy activists also began to learn more about how US policy in 1945 helped to lead to the Korean War.
For example, he learned that the US Military Government chose primarily the Koreans who had helped Japan colonize Korea to be their allies. These Koreans who supported Japan’s fascist government through World War II were the most hated by the vast majority of other Koreans, but the US Military Government made them the bedrock of the new South Korean state placing them in positions of leadership over the government, the military, the police, and even former Japanese businesses.
General John Hodge, commander of US military government in 1945, was asked why US policies were so unpopular in Korea, and why so many Koreans were taking to the streets in 1946 to protest the US choice of Korean oppressors as new leadership. He replied to the state department, “we are not dealing with wealthy US educated Koreans, but with… poorly educated Orientals… who are definitely influenced by direct propaganda and with whom it is impossible to reason….” This quote by General Hodge betrays the assumptions of Orientalism, a Western assumption that Asians are not as intelligent as Westerners and naturally tend toward tyranny unless Westerners, ironically, force them to accept the US’s version of democracy.
General Hodge’s statement implied that those Koreans who opposed US policies only did so because they must have been organized by the Soviets, since they were supposedly not intelligent enough to organize themselves. Therefore, the US supposedly needed to use the force of the military and former colonial police to crush their attempt at actual democracy and an independent Korean government. This same kind of racism continues today not only in the anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, but also in ongoing US policy that assumes it is impossible to reason with current North Korean leadership.
Dr. Suh also began to learn more of the teachings of US missionaries that had been sent to Korea since 1884. He found out that many US missionaries, like the Rev. Arthur Judson Brown had supported Japanese colonization of Korea because they believed Koreans were not intelligent enough to be civilized on their own. They needed to be forced into civilization by modernized nations.
While there were some Christians like his father who didn’t support Japanese colonization, many of those did so based on other Orientalist assumptions. For example, the Rev. Homer Hulbert spoke out against Japanese colonization because it was a colonization by Orientals, and he wanted the US to colonize Korea instead. Dr. Suh found out that many Korean Christians accepted this Orientalist assumption and were willing to fight for obedience to US policies and against Korea’s right to self-determination.
For decades, many Christians supported military dictatorship in South Korea, or they tried to dissuade anyone from speaking out against it. There are Christians who participated in massacres with the South Korean government and US military before the Korean War broke out. There are people living with physical wounds given to them by US and South Korea who are continuing to live in both North Korea and South Korea, people in need of space to heal from the wounds we have given them.
Before I went to live in Korea, I assumed we were the good guys, and they were definitely the bad guys. Now I wonder if there are any good guys in the conflict. So Jacob recognized that Esau had good reason to be furious with him. You remember, Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright, so Jacob wasn’t kidding when he prayed to God saying, Esau might come here and try to kill me.
But because of all these new understandings, Dr. Suh began to speak out against South Korean dictatorship, tentatively at first, joining a minority of Christians at the National Council of Churches in Korea, the NCCK, who refused to accept the assumptions of Orientalism. One day, working with the NCCK, he had a chance to meet North Korean Christians at a conference on Korea peace in Canada.
The Korean Christian Federation, the KCF, the North Korean Christians I mentioned earlier, joined this conference hosted by the World Council of Churches. The leader of the North Korean Christians at the Canada meeting happened to be the son of the founder of the KCF, the most hated enemy of Dr. Suh’s father.
That enemy approached Dr. Suh the night before they were both supposed to give a speech. His enemy asked him for help to interpret his speech into English, since Dr. Suh had studied in the USA. Dr. Suh was stuck in a hard place because for one, South Korean law would have him arrested for helping to translate for a North Korean, and two, he might dishonor his father by helping his father’s enemy. He went to bed that night asking God for an answer as to what to do. He prayed and struggled, with whether he would continue to struggle against his hated enemy, or whether he would finally open himself up and allow himself to be embraced by grace, embraced by the grace of God offered through his sworn enemy. Jacob too, expected a slap from his brother, and instead received a hug, and he was embraced by Grace.
So, Dr. Suh decided to stop struggling against God and to accept that grace. Dr. Suh decided that night to transform his revenge into love by helping his father’s enemy and to risk being arrested when returning to South Korea.
He told me that the war, for him, had finally personally ended, and for the first time he felt free to heal from his wounds. He told me in the interview this was his liberation. After receiving this grace, it became much easier to speak out for democracy against South Korean military dictatorship.
He told me it became much easier for him to advocate for an end to hostile military policies from South Korea and the US. He more freely demanded that we create humanizing relationships across the border of conflict, because he believes when you are taught that your enemy is a monster, you will find it much easier to watch your leaders drop bombs on them. But if you cultivate humanizing relationships with them, you see them as Children of God with hopes and fears just like yours, and both sides will be less likely to push the button.
That doesn’t mean we automatically trust them with every sensitive part of ourselves, but it means we step into a space where we have the opportunity to take authentic steps toward rebuilding trust.
He continued fostering his own relationships with the official North Korean Church along with the NCCK who have joined the North Koreans in consultations for peace every year since 1986. Those meetings have also become the Ecumenical Forum for Korea, or EFK, to which I have been appointed as coordinator.
We continue trying to meet with our partners from North Kroea. Almost every year, the NCCK and KCF have been writing, jointly a prayer for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Also the hymn that we will sing in a moment, O So So (Come Now O Prince of Peace), was written by a Methodist musician who attended one of these conferences on Peace and Reunification in Korea.
When we sing this song, we do so in solidarity with Koreans in both North Korea and South Korea who seek unity rather than demonization. Dr. Suh told me that he had come to change his mind about his enemies, that he no longer considered the North Korean Christian Federation to be fake Christians. He came to learn and understand our North Korean partners much better, with a better understanding of the context in which they made desperate decisions to prioritize self-determination and autonomy. This has transformed his vision of how to resolve the conflict, not through revenge as he once believed, but through humanizing relationships and cultivating trust.
Democracy in South Korea is still vulnerable to a political party still connected to the dictatorship of the past. Koreans are still anxious about the threats of foreign power, “fire and fury,” and the total destruction of their peninsula. Millions of people who participated in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula are looking for space to finally heal, but they cannot while the state of war continues and mutual hatred, and Orientalism rules the day and drives policy not only in Korea but also in Washington DC.
Sadly, Dr. David Suh did not live to see a peace treaty established to end the Korean War. He passed away last year. But we all remain, and we have this chance to join the NCCK in their Korea Peace Appeal, hoping to gather signatures from all around the world to call on all governments participating in the ongoing Korean War to instead support peace and end threats of war and sanctions. We have this chance to sing in solidarity for unity, to hope that God may come and reconcile our people, to heal our people, if only we are willing to open ourselves up to being embraced by grace.
I want to thank you for joining me in this worship for this part of my journey in mission work. I am still trying to learn as much as I can about the context and the history, because Lord knows it’s so complex that even nine years of study won’t make anyone an expert on the conflict.
I hope that you continue to join me on that journey. If you would support me in prayer you will help make it possible for Hyeyoung and me to mentor our young adult volunteers and help them to reflect theologically on their relationship with Koreans, to pay attention and learn about their context as they accompany Koreans in their work for justice, peace, and healing. You make it possible for me to help the National Council of Churches in Korea expand its movement for peaceful reconciliation by communicating its story and sharing the Korea Peace Appeal with partners around the world like you.
Thank you again, and may the grace of God embrace us, giving us the strength tear down walls of hostility, and live in unity with all Children of God. Amen.
Genesis 32: 9-18
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
So he spent that night there, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. These he delivered into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between drove and drove.” He instructed the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present sent to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us.’”
Ephesians 2: 13-14
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.