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Syngman Rhee and the Costly Bridge of Mercy and Justice

January 14, 2016
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With Syngman at the 2014 reconciliation forum in South Korea.

“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).

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