‘If Jesus Were In Korea…’

It’s just after Chuseok in Korea now – the mid-Autumn Festival, Korea’s answer to Thanksgiving.  The rain came too late to save the tree outside my apartment balcony window, whose leaves have shrivelled up into crisp, dry flakes that could blow away at any moment, but it broke the stifling heat, and made life in Korea more liveable. Just last night, I had to take a jacket for the first time when going out.

Likewise, some reserves of water have been found in the well of inspiration (as compared to ‘When the Well Is Dry’, 31 August 2016), and I’ve found something I want to write about.

I’m going back in my memory to a meeting I had with my Elder (the rough equivalent of ‘Bishop’ in Metropolitan Community Churches) while at the MCC General Conference in Victoria BC. We had a good conversation about the state of the Emerging Church I serve in Seoul, and my Elder said a couple of things which have stuck with me. Now, my remembrance of the conversation is not perfect, so I take full responsibility for my remembrance. My first remembrance is of my Elder saying that our congregation may do well to become ‘more Korean’. My second remembrance is the qualification of that statement: ‘If Jesus were in Korea, what would he say about the LGBT situation?’

What would Jesus say, indeed?

If you read through any of my blog posts, you will read my poetic waxing about the situation for LGBT-affirming Christianity in Korea. I think it’s pretty clear to all who read what I write, or read news portals like Korea Observer, The Huffington Post, or any of the LGBT-positive gatherers of news that are around that the LGBT+ community in South Korea is a resilient community that is doing its very best to fight for its rights in a society which has some very accepting, affirming elements, but at the same time, contains some areas of fierce resistance, especially in the conservative Christian church.

…and yet…

‘Become more Korean’?

For one thing, our congregation, as small as it is, is multi-national, multi-ethnic, and even multi-lingual. We have attendees from six different nations now attending on at least a semi-regular basis, and in our services, we have heard not only English and Korean, but also Afrikaans, Japanese, French, and Bahasa Indonesia. This is a strength of our congregation I would not want to lose.

For another, I find the prospect of becoming ‘more Korean’ to be, honestly, unappealing. Korea is still, in spite of it progress, heavily influenced by neo-Confucianism. This philosophy favors family- and group-oriented approaches to living. That may sound harmless enough, unless you consider how family has been anything but a safe place in this country to come out. Even among the straight majority, I’ve personally seen how adherence to family harmony and deference to parents have put pressure on adult children – adults(!) – to choose majors and go into careers they weren’t interested in, to marry people they didn’t love, to be forced even as adults (especially female adults) to live under the parental roof and accept curfews, to basically be stunted in their adult development.

Most of the LGBT Koreans who haven’t come out have to live out a ‘double existence’ – they have to ‘play their role’ at the family gatherings, fend off questions about ‘significant others’ in their lives, and do their best to turn down ‘introduction meetings’ with the goal of getting them married off. Those who have come out, if they haven’t been disowned outright by their families, have tense relationships, at best, with their families of origin. If they are youth or young adults, the pressure to live a double life gets even worse. Some aren’t able to cope – we are reminded of that every spring when we get together for the Yukudang memorial service.

What would Jesus say, indeed?

I’ve also seen and experienced first-hand a certain xenophobia in this country, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. There was a time that foreign language teachers, because they were teachers, would receive a certain amount of respect in this society because of the emphasis placed on education. Well, I can tell you that, in the two decades I’ve been in Asia, this respect has deteriorated. A variety of reasons can be posited for this – scandal cases regarding the abuse of children or illegal drugs; the portrayal of English teachers in series like Taipei Diaries; the ‘lean to the right’ in politics over the past decade in Korea (although it may be leaning back the other way now).

Nonetheless, I can tell you that, even though I’ve been an English teacher in Asia for almost 20 years; even though I’ve been married to a Korean national for 13 of those years; even though I’ve invested heavily in South Korea, not only in my disposable income, but also in property and insurance/saving programs; I have to go through a ‘song and dance’ which just seems to be getting more and more arduous. I have to get a brand new Criminal Record Check from my home country – yes, from CANADA (never mind I haven’t lived there full-time in almost two decades) – as well as provide proof that my university degree diplomas have been notarized and certified by a Korean embassy and consulate. If I were starting from scratch, I’d think twice about whether it was really worth the trouble. It was hard enough two decades ago.

Have the words of the law and the prophets taken second place in this country, which some people wish to proclaim is more ‘Christian’ than the West? Well, let me give some gentle reminders:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 33:19 – It’s funny how some prefer certain parts of Leviticus to others!)

You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance. (Deuteronomy 1:16 – The same goes for Deuteronomy!)

“Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,

if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,

then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jeremiah 7:4-7)

do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. (Zecharaiah 7:10)

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)

And to those who say, ‘Those are just social teachings, they’re not moral teachings’, must I remind you that there was no distinction between those realms, neither in the time of the Torah and the Prophets, nor in the teaching of Jesus!

And to those who say, ‘Well, what about what Jesus says?’ Well, who are the types of people whom Jesus holds up as paradigms of what the Reign of God is about? A Samaritan – the ‘half-breed’ enemy of anyone who thought they were full-blooded Jewish! A poor man covered in sores, the very example of those who were thought to be under God’s curse for not being wealthy! The mustard bush, basically a weed once it gets out of control!

And if that’s not enough for you, remember the choice words addressing the religious authorities:

…you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith…. you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (from Matthew 23:23,25)

What would Jesus say, indeed?

Now I’m sure my Elder would not want our congregation to traverse in any of the life-denying directions I’ve described. However, I believe it’s important to remember that advice like ‘become more Korean’ could be interpreted as embracing an entire course of action that I think Jesus would have a lot to say about – none of it very complementary.