In 2012, when I was at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation, we looked at rising conflicts around the globe and decided to gather 28 Christian leaders from China, Japan, Korea, and the U.S. to discern the signs of the times and ask if a fresh space was needed to further peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia. It was a rare meeting of Protestant and Catholic, academics and church leaders and practitioners. It was awkward at times and there were many surprises. One Hong Kong church leader said he had never seen so many Japanese Christians in one room–six! (Christians are less than 1% of Japan’s population, but what a terrific sextet we had). For three days we worshiped together, ate together, wrestled with Scripture together, and talked deeply about historical wounds and current divides and rising tensions in the region. At times it was contentious. But unexpected joy and laughter too.
At the end, the group called for a new initiative to nourish Christian leadership, theology, mission, and collaboration for the ministry of reconciliation in Northeast Asia.
Over the three years since, a core group who were largely strangers to one another have become companions in organizing what we now call the Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia–a kind of “theological fueling station” for the difficult work of peace and reconciliation. After Duke in 2012 (Duke is still a core partner and Mennonite Central Committee is a newer one), we expanded the group in South Korea in 2014 and then Nagasaki Japan in 2015, and this year we meet in Hong Kong.
I am happy to introduce the Forum’s new web site at neareconciliation.com. Below are three of my favorite stories posted there which embody the “new we” at the heart of our vision which we believe God is about, even in this time of rising tensions.
Last week my wife Donna and I returned from six days in North Korea, representing MCC along with two colleagues. Along with other Christian organizations, MCC is seeking to be a reconciliatory presence at a time of rising hostilities. In this spirit we at MCC recently published “Frequently asked questions on North Korea, MCC’s work, and why sanctions matter.” In addition to the urgent need for humanitarian exceptions, one question we address: If North Korea is considered an enemy of the United States, why should MCC assist North Koreans with food and material resources?
See the full document: Sanctions on North Korea (DPRK) are not the answer
“MCC was engaged as a reconciliatory presence with people in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Cuba before they had diplomatic relations with the U.S. Engagement, not isolation, is a more effective way to bring understanding between peoples and plant seeds for a new future of peace and security for all.”
Thanking God today for dear friend and yokefellow Spencer Perkins, who passed into heaven too suddenly 18 years ago. I so wish I could hear what he would preach and write now, in this new time of polarization. A poem I wrote, a year after he died.
Hymn to an Insane-Loving God
In memory of Spencer Perkins 1954-January 27, 1998
For him it was always hard, accepting who he was,
Even in your eyes.
So I do that today,
For he was much greater than he knew.
For his undeserved embrace of prodigals,
Despite their spit, persecution, flight, hubris,
Betrayals, stealing, addictions, lies,
From boyz in the ‘hood gone astray
To countless white eager-beavers busy disappearing.
For soothing souls with the balm of forgiveness felt,
Thus propelling them forward to make new history.
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For keeping his vows to his little postage stamp on earth,
West Jackson, in sickness and in health,
In Christmas robberies and barbecue throw-downs,
Over decades long enough to uncover all our masks,
A fellowship of recovering sinners
Freeing from addictions seen and unseen:
Self-condemnation and privilege, winos and egotists,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For his Labrador-like patience, stability, devotion,
Sticking with impossible people
And even a measly stray mutt we called Bebe—
Car-struck, we wanted her put to a restful end;
He couldn’t bear it and, without permission,
Spent $300, enduring our wrath,
And Bebe wiggled her way into our extended family.
Even for that, we thank you, insane-loving God.
For his restless truth-seeking,
No matter where it led him,
Whether seen as prophet or traitor,
Whether he liked it or not.
“Loving neighbor means especially loving white folks,” his parents had told him.
Refusing justice or refusing mercy was not a choice, he told us,
Nor facing down race or race fatigue,
Nor being free of the power to exclude nor of the power to not forgive.
Yes, this was bearing a cross, yet:
“Reconcilers don’t die, we multiply.”
For enlarging us all, for making all of us more holy,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
For yoking with me to the end,
Dragging the plow through sin-thick sod,
Never, either of us, easy to love.
The fragility of our yoke gave way,
Only to reveal a greater one, invisible,
Binding us mysteriously to you
And so, somehow, finding the way back to each other.
I miss that holy, muddy ground,
The jokes that only we shared,
His warm hug that day after we fought, and his promise:
“Chris, I love you like my own brother.”
I thank you, insane-loving God.
For, out of nowhere, bushwhacking him by grace,
And carrying him to the top of the mountain,
Moses-like, to glimpse wondrous new territory
And there, finally, to see himself with your eyes,
“My beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
For sending him back down, for a moment,
To describe the view,
We thank you, insane-loving God.
What he saw from afar
Is now for us to possess.
To cross treacherous rivers,
To embrace strange territory,
To cultivate the culture of grace,
Sowing with love beyond reason, unfair, undeserved—
The way you love.
Like you, he showed me how to love insanely, too,
And he was greater than he knew.
On this 30th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an eye-opening Washington Post story describes five common myths about King. (One myth: “King’s focus was racism in the South.” Yet King also opposed American militarism and campaigned against poverty in the north.)
But one myth not named by the Post is propagated by the National King Memorial itself, a monument that is situated at the center of the U.S. capital in Washington DC. I visited the memorial in 2012. It is only a stone’s throw from the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. It is moving. It is majestic. I am still astounded that the U.S. placed a monument to a non-violent peacemaker here.
Yet the monument ultimately gets King wrong. Fourteen stirring quotations from King are spread around the site, such as this one: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
But in not a single one of the quotations is God mentioned.
The monument is to Dr. King. Not Reverend King. Not the preacher King. Yet King’s ministry facing down America’s transgressions to redeem the soul of the nation made no sense to himself apart from the Scripture and church that shaped him and the Lord to whom he prayed.
One of the most important stories King told was of his “kitchen table” encounter in 1956 where he was ready to give up the civil rights struggle due to intense opposition and hate. In his book Stride Toward Freedom King testified that there, alone in his home, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
The fundamental identity of Martin Luther King was not grounded in his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. His core identity and imagination was grounded in that prayer, and in the preaching and way of seeing the world and the enemy which flowed from it. Without getting that right, we don’t get Reverend King right either.
“To pursue reconciliation is to become a bridge. This means we must be willing to be walked on from both sides” Syngman Rhee
The remarkable life of one of the world’s most faithful witnesses for peace between the divided Korean people ended suddenly a year ago. Syngman Rhee became a close friend and colleague, and two things he said in particular continually stick with me.
One is about the call and cost of reconciliation as making oneself a bridge. Syngman was able to hold together the pursuit of both mercy and justice in a world where polarized parties desire one or the either, rarely both. A 2000 interview with the New York Times after Syngman was elected as moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) said:
“But trying to bring together opposing sides can be very difficult, even personally painful. In describing his experiences as an advocate of reconciliation between the Koreas, Mr. Rhee said, ‘I was called all kinds of names — pro-Communist, North Korean sympathizer.’”
Yet from the other side, I know that Syngman was considered too evangelical, insisting that the church keep itself grounded in Scripture, prayer, and the ministry of evangelism. He was fully committed to what he called”roots and fruits.”
The other lesson that sticks with me ins one Syngman learned as a young Korean-American minister from meeting Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. He said that King insisted that the initiative for peace was with the oppressed. Syngman wished this otherwise; after all, his father, a minister, was imprisoned and killed by North Korean troops during the Korean War, and this filled Syngman with bitterness. But King persuaded him that the creation of the new society lies with those who are oppressed because they have a choice: to seek revenge for their pain and injustice, or to seek a new relationship and future through the gift of forgiveness.
A year ago, I was counting on Syngman to walk with us as Donna and I moved to South Korea and began a new chapter in the ministry of reconciliation in Northeast Asia. His passing was and is a great loss and I still feel it. I have learned from the sudden passing of several close companions that no person is replaceable, that they are absolutely unique and their loss is real. At the same time, somehow I have come to learn that my friendship with each of those departed lives within me. I knew them so well, I can somehow put them in front of me and imagine what they might have to say. I have come to claim this as a gift Christ gives us in the resurrection of the dead, of the communion of saints, that somehow God keeps their witness and even their presence living and real.
May I, may we, be inspired anew by Syngman Rhee’s holy, living example.
(See the story below about Syngman which we featured in a Duke Center for Reconciliation newsletter in 2015).
December 21, 2015: Today I was struck by these Advent words in the Liturgy of the Hours: “There is no need to be afraid; in five days our Lord will come to us.”
Our Lord is coming, in just five days. So powerfully simple. So wonderfully reassuring. How much we need the Lord to come to us and reveal to us the way!
Yet what time is the Lord coming into, here and now, in 2015? A Washington Post writer recently named the time this way:
My first full year as a citizen of the United States was also the year Donald Trump made nativism a viable political project. It was the year college activists battled racism with their own peculiar intolerance. It was the year Rachel Dolezal was redefined, Atticus Finch rewritten, Caitlyn Jenner revealed. It was the year police shootings became viral, mass shootings became daily and same-sex marriage became law. It was a year America did little else, it seemed, than fight over values, identity, premises.
It’s exhausting, being American. Seriously, do you folks do this every year?
Add to this the year ISIS became a global acronym, migrant became a contested household word across the world, and once-peaceful Burundi stood on the verge of vast violence just 20 years after genocide.
How does the Lord come to us here and now, in 2015, in a year so full of turbulence?
That question brought to my mind the words of Thomas Merton.
“Into this world,
this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
his place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.”
He has come for all of us, every one of us, the whole world. The question is, where will we find him? In these turbulent times, are we ready to find and receive this Lord?
The Lord will be here very soon, right into the here and now. This is the most wonderful news. And there is no need to be afraid.
My book Reconciling All Things (co-authored with Emmanuel Katongole) has been published in Portuguese. As a big soccer fan this excites me because now Neymar (Brazil) and Ronald (Portugal) are potential readers. Along with Portuguese-speaking Christians of course. Very happy that Reconciling All Things is now published in English, Chinese, Korean, and Portuguese.