A Life Which Reveals What Peace Requires
In his extraordinary book Biography as Theology, James McClendon contended that “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all.” He went on to say,
“Christianity turns upon the character of Christ. But that character must continually find fresh exemplars if it is not to be consigned to the realm of mere antiquarian lore. That is … why in Christianity there have been ‘the saints,’ not merely in the original, biblical sense of all members of the Spirit-filled community (I Cor. 1:2), but in the historic sense of striking and exemplary members of that same community.”
“Striking and exemplary” lives expand, enlarge, and correct our understanding of what it means to love God and neighbor in this world. Lives I have been privileged to know like this first hand include John and Vera Mae Perkins, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, and Angelina Atyam of Uganda. I can honestly say I am a different person from my close encounters with each of them.
But the saint on my mind today, on the anniversary of his sudden passing away two years ago, is another mentor, Syngman Rhee. Elected in 2000 as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, Rhee was the first Asian American to serve in that position. He also served as president of the National Council of Churches from 1992 to 1993. It was my great joy to journey with him from 2004 to 2015 on the Lausanne Reconciliation Project and a Northeast Asia reconciliation initiative
“Peace” has become such a popular and sentimental word. But theologian Willie Jennings once said something like this at Duke Divinity School: “Being a missionary to your people can mean being seen as a traitor to them.” This is what Syngman’s life reveals, in his journey from a 19-year old refugee during the Korean War, to the Korean marines, to his transformation in the U.S. during the civil rights movement, to his pioneering work across the divide between North and South Korea.
Peace, he learned, was “cross-bearing.” I leave with you two quotes from Syngman below (from a 2009 interview). In them is “striking and exemplary” truth so desperately needed across the divides of our time.
“When I first became involved in [Korea] peace and reconciliation work, it was extremely dangerous and risky. Anyone that even mentioned reconciliation between the two Koreas was branded as being pro-communist, a North Korean sympathizer, or anti-South Korean. I have been labeled a bbalgangi moksa — a communist minister — despite the fact that I lost my father in a North Korean prison, that I myself have been imprisoned, and that I fought with South Korea for 5 years during the Korean War. Those of us involved in reconciliation work, however, have seen these opinions as a form of cross-bearing.”
“What resonates with me most from that [American civil rights movement] era is the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about the oppressed and oppressors. He asserted that the Civil Rights Movement was not only for the liberation of the oppressed black people but also a movement to liberate the oppressors — the white people — who had a history of oppressing. By liberating both oppressed and oppressors together, it is possible to create a force that could establish a new society. He also stressed that the key to a new society was held by the oppressed. The oppressed had a choice: either seek revenge out of anger or forgive in an effort to create a new society. His vision — a very clear vision — impressed me and I became a follower and admirer of King.”