A Book Review: A Good Look at Evil, by Abigail Rosenthal

(NB: I have agreed to act as a reviewer for the Speakeasy website (thespeakeasy.com). Hence, I received the book I am reviewing free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes within this book review are taken from:

Rosenthal, A. (1987/2018) A Good Look at Evil. Eugene OR, USA: Wipf and Stock.

The philosopher Abigail Rosenthal has taken on one of the perennial challenges for philosophy and theology – evil. She has deliberately decided to not focus on the why of evil, known in theology as the challenge of theodicy, or as Harold Kushner named it in his first famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rather, she focuses on defining evil, trying to say what evil is. In her introductory chapters (Chapters One and Two), she puts forth her thesis that human life should be understood as story, and that people seek to live out the stories of their lives according to the models their communities and cultures provide for them. It is possible for people to miss out on the opportunities to live out their story – Rosenthal calls this ‘banality’. It is also possible for people to ‘thwart’ – through circumvention/prevention – the ability of other people to live out the stories of their lives. It is this which she pinpoints as defining what evil is. She rejects the notion that value judgment is purely the realm of subjective evaluation and cannot be based on objective fact, arguing that evaluation is required in all human endeavor, even when deciding what is an objective fact. She also rejects cultural relativism as a complicating factor (one culture says this is how the human story should be lived, another culture says something else), though she concedes the possibility that the ways in which people can live out their ‘stories’ in a culture can change, shift, or even be renegotiated.

With this model established, Rosenthal spends Part Two (Chapters Three and Four), Rosenthal explicates the forms of evil which are carried out more in the realm of personal affairs. She uses as her archetypes ‘The Rake’, more clearly defined as ‘the seducer’, and ‘The Sell Out’. She suggests a progression in the type of evil between ‘The Rake’ and ‘The Sellout’, naming seduction as a kind of interference in the life stories of individuals, whereas the ramifications of ‘The Sellout’ can have destructive consequences for groups of people or communities.

I find her usage of alcoholism, addiction, gambling, and even prostitution as steps in defining the degrees  of evil which lead to the ultimate form of ‘going to the bad’ (her term) in the rake/seducer disturbing and even annoying, given what we understand about addiction as a disease, thereby affecting those addicted to alcohol, other drugs, and to gambling, as well as the nature of sex work as often being a financial necessity for those who are involved in it. Ignoring these factors in explaining these phenomena and simply to list these as degrees of ‘going to the bad’ is simply unfair. It weakens her argument.

Rosenthal suggests that it is possible for these forms of evil to be overcome in persons by exposing them to the consequences of their actions, and thereby expose to them how they are interfering with the ability of others to live their lives, and how their life stories are consequently less fulfilling than they could be. As intriguing as these remedies may be, these are presented as ‘Evil Under Wraps’, evil which can be conducted in a more concealed, private context. As such, they are preludes to the greater evil she examines in Part Three (Chapters Five and Six) – the ‘Evil in the Daylight’.

Here is where Rosenthal gets to the core subject of her writing – an analysis of genocide, culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust) of the Jewish people, as exposed in the trial of Adolf Eichmann carried out through the legal system of Israel in 1961. If evil generally is the attempt to prevent another person from living out their story, genocide becomes the deliberate attempt to eliminate the story of an entire people, as delineated through phenomena like language, culture, and religion. Her examples in this section, the attempted extermination of the Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire, corporate greed, the legacy of residential schools in Canada, and the banning of the potlach, are well discussed, in all their complexity.

The ultimate in genocidal evil is, as the reader suspects, defined in the extermination project of the Jewish people as carried out by the Nazi government of Germany. Their Holocaust experiment is defined by Rosenthal as ‘the destruction of history’ (p.158). History is defined by the Nazi German perspective alone, and all other groups which impinge on their definition of history must be eliminated. This leads to her consideration of the trial of Adolf Eichmann by the state of Israel in 1961. She sets in her sights the theses of Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem and argues strenuously that the evil perpetuated by Eichmann in perpetuating the Shoah (Holocaust) was not ‘banal’. She strongly takes issue with Arendt’s assertions that Adolf Eichmann was a mere operative, that the Jewish people in some way facilitated their extermination by cooperating with Nazi authorities, and that the court in Jerusalem which tried Eichmann did not have the proper authorization and legitimacy to do so.

Apparently, this was not enough for Rosenthal, so three decades later, she added an extra chapter to argue that Arendt’s desire to question the horror of the Shoah and the legitimacy of the trial of Eichmann can be traced to her relationship with German philosopher Martin Heidegger, with whom she had a brief affair during her undergraduate studies in Marburg. Following their abrupt break-up and Heidegger’s subsequent Nazification in the 1930s, it is argued that Arendt disassociated herself with Heidegger and launched herself into pro-Zionist work and philosophical writing. However, after meeting up with Heidegger in the 1950s and rekindling their romance for a short time, Rosenthal claims that Arendt became a virulent defender and advocate for Heidegger, and that this in fact led her to embrace the ‘banality of evil’ argument she put forth in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Can it really be this simple, though? Adam Kirsch (2009) has argued (convincingly) that the interplay between the German and Jewish aspects of Arendt’s personality which resulted in a clear disdain for sentimentality and an unwillingness to blend the personal and the political/academic poles of her life are strong undercurrents that run through her entire life’s work, as well as her ambivalence concerning the world Jewish community – she may have blamed Jewish councils for playing a role in the extermination of Jews, but she also advocated for a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allied powers. Rosenthal makes convincing arguments against viewing the evils of the Nazi Shoah as ‘banal’, but there is also evidence suggesting some of her arguments to be leaning towards being simplistic.

The final chapter, as moving as it is, seems out of place. Rosenthal makes a personal testimony of sorts concerning her obstinacy in sticking with her teaching position when, after years of being denied tenure and being disciplined for not publishing any significant work, a freak occurrence at an academic seminar on Spinoza allowed her the opportunity to impress someone no less than the President of her college, after a mystic vision she experienced did not result in the hoped-for reversal of yet another annual disciplinary warning from her department. Is it an attempt on Abigail Rosenthal’s part to emphasize the importance of preserving one’s story (in this case, a need to complete and posthumously publish her late father’s work on Spinoza and Hobbes) in the face of blind institutional justice? I could not make a connection.

In conclusion, while Abigail Rosenthal takes A Good Look at Evil and provides good arguments concerning what evil is and how dark evil can get, she also sometimes veers toward simplistic assertions and black/white distinctions which detract from the quality of those arguments. It’s a volume worth reading, but not by itself. One must refer to other works of differing perspectives in order to make one’s own conclusions.

Other Works Cited

Kirsch, A. (2009, 5 January) Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal. In The New Yorker [online]. Retrieved 10 August 2020 from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/01/12/beware-of-pity).

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Stone Throwing? Don’t Even Think About It!

It has started.

One person makes an unfortunate decision to go out when they’re sick (it’s not clear if they knew they had symptoms of an illness), and they go to a few nightclubs. People have been exposed to Sars-COV-2, and according to the official statistics from the Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC), there have been 33 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far. It’s a localized outbreak, which is a cause for concern, since some of the steps taken toward relaxation of quarantine guidelines will likely have to be walked back.

This could have happened in any number of gathering places, and similar scenarios have occurred in other spots.

Does it really matter that these cases are associated with clubs found in the gay club district of Itaewon?

To some people, it does.

The conservative Christian daily newspaper, the Kookmin Ilbo (People’s Daily), has apparently made this event a major part of their news coverage, accentuating the names and locations of the clubs, and seemingly attempting publishing as much information about the source patient as possible, even to the point of naming the company this person worked for[1].

I can just imagine the fodder this will provide for some Sunday sermons this morning.

Well, since a media mouthpiece for the CCFs[2] in South Korea wants to play up this outbreak, and in the interest of accuracy, let us remind ourselves of where other significant localized outbreaks have occurred – and I’m not even talking about the role of Sincheonji in all this[3].

Let’s have a look in the records of the KCDC[4], shall we?

  • Onchun Presbyterian Church, Busan, where a localized outbreak began on February 24th – 39 cases have been officially linked here;
  • The Archdiocese of Daegu, the Roman Catholic Church in Korea, which sponsored a pilgrimage to Israel – 49 cases have been linked to this trip;
  • Myeongnyun Church, Seoul, to which at least 3 cases have been traced;
  • Geochang Church, which has had at least 10 cases;
  • Saengmyeongsaem Church, Suwon, which was first highlighted on March 4th – at least 10 cases;
  • Haeungae-gu Catholic Church, Busan, first highlighted on March 7th – at least 4 cases traced here;
  • Dong-an Church, Seoul, where an outbreak was first highlighted on March 9th – at least 20 cases;
  • Grace River Church, Seongnam, identified on March 9th – at least 72 cases from here;
  • Sangmyeongsu Church, Bucheon, identified on March 18th – 44 cases identified
  • Manmin Central Church, Seoul, first identified on March 25th – at least 43 cases traced here

That means about 2.7% of the total COVID-19 cases in Korea are non-Sincheonji church-related.

In spite of this, some churches just haven’t been taking it seriously, to the point of a church pastor being detained and his church fined for defying government orders and holding church services. Apparently, this pastor is also head of a group agitating for the resignation of President Moon Jae-In[5].

There have also been 14 cases of COVID-19 linked to a wine bar in Pyeongtaek. Do we now blame it all on ‘the demon alcohol’?

There were over 100 cases connected with a gym in Cheonan. Have people been railing over the evils of exercise?

No one’s sinless here, and no person, or church, or other group, has any reason to be smug. Concentrate on people’s health, by all means, but there is no justification to start a string of stories that suggest being gay is an automatic link to COVID-19, any more than being Christian, or being athletically active, or enjoying a glass of wine. That is simply walking down the lane of false news and conspiracy theories.

Church, you have no grounds for being accusatory or self-righteous. Put down the stones. Better yet, don’t even think about picking them up.

[1] If you find their homepage( http://www.kmib.co.kr/news/index.asp) and use Google Translate, you can get a good idea of what their coverage is like.

[2] Conservative Christian Forces

[3] I’ve already referred to this in a video blog (Bartlett, C (2020, April) ‘Even Gwynne Dyer Get Its Wrong Sometimes’. In On The Outside Looking In. Available on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mC6Ubg3TWE&t=124s)

[4] Just go to their Press Release web page (https://www.cdc.go.kr/board/board.es?mid=a30402000000&bid=0030), the information’s there, just do a little reading.

 

[5] Lee, J G (2020, March 31) S. Korean churches continue to act as agents for COVID-19 transmission clusters. In HANKYOREH, English edition [online]. Retrieved 10 May 2020 from http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/935093.html.

Betrayal?

The jockeying for the moral high ground has started in Korea all over again – as if it ever stopped.

In the aftermath of the convincing electoral victory by the Democratic Party (DP) in the National Assembly elections in April[1], the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCCK), one of South Korea’s main non-Catholic ecumenical groups, called on the incoming National Assembly to pass an anti-discrimination law which includes sexual orientation and gender identity. This is a standing policy of the NCCK, in line with its approach to sexual and gender minority persons in recent history[2]. There have been several attempts to pass such an ordinance in the National Assembly and assorted municipalities. While some municipal laws have passed successfully, others have not, or have been rescinded after they have been passed, and attempts at the National Assembly level have repeatedly been stymied by conservative politicians, often working in concert with conservative Christian forces (CCFs).

It’s fair to say that the most frustrating aspect of this ongoing conflict has been the confusing stances taken by Moon Jae-In, the president elected after the removal of Park Geun-hye from office. He was known for his work as a human rights lawyer before entering politics. However, he is also Roman Catholic, and when pushed by an opposing candidate in the 2017 presidential debate, he had to declare (in my view, almost sheepishly) his opposition to homosexuality[3]. He has had to, at times, seek the support of CCFs in Korea on various issues. Last autumn, he tried to tread a fine line with reigious leaders when he said that enacting marriage equality into law could not be done without ‘social consensus’, but that discrimination against sexual and gender minorities simply should not be condoned[4].

Now that the party of which he is a member appears to have a 60% majority (180 out a total 300 seats) in the upcoming National Assembly, they have the technical ability to pass laws without seeking consensus with the conservative minority, now represented almost exclusively by the United Future Party (UFP)[5].

This could include, potentially, an ordinance which guarantees equality before the law as defined in the Constitution to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The CCFs in Korea are far from done, though. On April 22nd, several para-church organizations protested and condemned this, likening the NCCK’s stance on an anti-discrimination law as being ‘no different from the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.[6]

I guess if you’re going to vent your sense of betrayal, you might as well invoke the ultimate example of betrayal in the Gospels, eh?

If we examine recent polling and census numbers, though, it seems to me that the CCFs of South Korea should make their complaint to Korean society in general, and with younger generations specifically.

Throughout its history, close to half the population of South Korea (the Republic, post World War II) has had no religious affiliation. After significant growth in Catholic and Protestant groups throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the proportion of people claiming no religious affiliation jumped by 10% between 2005 and 2015. Among age groups, all groups under 50 years old showed over 50% of Korean residents claiming no religion[7].

These numbers are generally confirmed by polling done through the KCC in 2017. An even more significant finding was found in a sub-poll of 1,000 non-Protestants, where it was found that less than 1 in 10 of respondents (9.5%) had a favorable impression of Protestant Christians. Among the reasons cited for this dislike, selfishness, a materialistic orientation, and an authoritarian streak were given often[8].

Could this mean that Protestants just – aren’t – liked – in South Korean society? Given that conservative Protestants seem to be the most vocal groups in the media and social discourse, could they be feeding the very dislike they’re experiencing?

In terms of perceptions of sexual and gender minority (SGM) persons in South Korea, there is a truly clear generational gap. In recent polling, it has been shown that acceptance of SGM persons is higher among younger generations[9]. There has been increasing acceptance of marriage equality, and one poll has shown that as many as 80-90% of Koreans are opposed to discrimination against SGM persons in employment[10].

This is not to say that the Democratic Party is a paragon of progressive virtue. In fact, the chance to gain the cooperation of the Green Party in the recent elections was ruined when the President of the DP made anti-SGM remarks at a press conference[11]. There are socially conservative lawmakers within the DP, and there’s no guarantee that all lawmakers would obey a three-line whip[12], so the support of minority and parties like the Justice Party will be needed.

Even having noted these factors, it seems to me the incoming, DP-led National Assembly has an opportunity to at least take a first step in clarifying the status of rights for SGM persons. An anti-discrimination law ensuring employment and housing rights for all citizens, and clearly identifying sexual orientation and gender identity as being included in this legislation, has a good chance of gaining broad support and passing.

Is the language of betrayal appropriate here? The NCCK’s standing policy concerning non-discrimination is a faithfully discerned policy, based in what it means to follow in the way of Jesus in this nation, in this age – how is this a betrayal of Christian norms? CCFs in South Korea have only recently had enough monetary and political power to influence social issues in this nation, and it seems as though they’re losing it again, due to a combination of increasing secularization and their own self-inflicted wounds. If CCFs want to bandy about terms like ‘betrayal’, they’ll need to apply it not only to liberal Christian organizations but to the younger generations of South Koreans for not dutifully following their direction. Something tells me that would only alienate younger people from the church more so than they may be today.

It is not an easy thing to follow the dictates of your conscience when those views become less commonly held. To insist on those views being enshrined in law, and to brand those who do not hold your view as turncoats and betrayers, is show a sense of entitlement. It seems to me that, to make the charge of betrayal stuck, the CCFs in this South Korea will have to accuse not just the NCCK, but more and more, the entire society. Are they willing to do this and risk alienating themselves further in Korean society?

It seems to me that the conservative Christian forces of South Korea need to sit down and have a good think about their entrenched positions on sexual/gender minority people in their midst. Otherwise, they will either turn society against them even more, or they will have to engage in some kind of political power play to construct some kind of theo-oligarchy, and something tells me that South Korean society, especially younger generations, won’t have much time for that.

[1] Min, C (2020, April 16) S. Korea’s Ruling Party Clinches Landslide Win In Parliamentary Elections. In TBS eFM News [online]. Accessed 18 April at http://tbs.seoul.kr/eFm/newsView.do?typ_800=N&idx_800=2391336&seq_800=.

[2] Park, J W (2020, 27/29 January) Protestant church group’s unwavering support for gay rights. In The Korea Times [online]. Accessed 1 May 2020 at https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/01/703_282505.html.

[3] Associated Press (2017, 26 April) South Korean presidential front runner Moon Jae-in says he opposes homosexuality. In South China Morning Post [online]. Accessed 30 April 2017 at https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/2090815/south-korean-presidential-front-runner-moon-jae-says-he-opposes.

[4] Shim, E (2019, 21 October) Moon Jae-in: Anti-LGBT discrimination not acceptable in South Korea. In UPI [online]. Accessed 10 April 2020 at https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/10/21/Moon-Jae-in-Anti-LGBT-discrimination-not-acceptable-in-South-Korea/1041571673042/.

[5] NB – even though there are regional and factional rivalries within major political parties, and they often change names like the average person changes their socks(!), the conservative-liberal divide is reasonably clear in South Korean politics.

[6] 지유석(lukewycliff) (2020, 22 April) 보수 개신교 단체, ‘NCCK’ 규탄 기습 시위… 그 이유는? (Conservative Protestant group protests against, condemns ‘NCCK’ … Why?). In OhMy News [online].

[7] Korea Statistical Information Service (1985/1995/2005/2015) 시도/연령/성별 종교인구 1985/1995/2005/2015. In KOSIS [online]. Accessed 8 May 2020 from the pages of http://kosis.kr/index/index.do.

[8] Kim H S (2017, 28 December). “종교인구 비율 46%로 하락…20대는 30%” (“The ratio of religious people in the population ratio fell to 46%… 30% among people in their 20s”). In Yonhap News Agency [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20171228175500005.

[9] Pew Research Center (2013/2014). The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

[10] Ock, H J (2017, 8 June) 6 in 10 Koreans oppose same-sex marriage. In The Korea Herald [online]. Accessed 10 June 2017 at http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170608000827.

[11] Nam, S Y (2020, 22 March) 녹색당, 비례연합정당 합류 제안에 “참여 않는다” 재확인 (Green Party Reaffirms “Not to Participate” in Proposal to Join Proportional Political Party). In 민종의 소리 (The Voice of the People) [online]. Accessed 7 May 2020 at https://www.vop.co.kr/A00001476701.html

[12] A tradition in parliamentary procedure which says that all members of a political party – leaders, ministers, and regular representatives – are required to vote in favor of a government law or motion.

Transitions

This is a time of transitions for me.

After being in my latest teaching position for two and a half years, I decided it was time for me to go back to the area of English Language Teaching in which I experienced the most fulfillment, namely English for Academic Purposes (EAP).

After being involved with my faith community in Seoul for five years, four and a half of those in some kind of leadership role, three and a half as the Pastoral Leader and serving as an ordained pastor in the Progressive Christian Alliance, and just over a year as an ordained pastor in Metropolitan Community Churches (during which we’ve had four changes in location), I’ve decided that I have done as much as I can for Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church, and I have resigned as Pastoral Leader to allow the community itself to decide its next steps in its ongoing presence in Korea.

It was difficult to be in a situation where many of the learners I taught were of lower language ability and limited motivation. There are people who can do this well – good on ’em, Korea needs more like them. I’m not one of them. Moreover, there aren’t all that many opportunities to teach EAP in Korea, so I thought I would take the opportunity while it was there.

It was difficult to be leader of a faith community which couldn’t find the combination of factors it needed to grow to a point where it could sustain a regular ministry presence in Seoul. It wasn’t an ideal situation to begin with. I joined a community where the founding pastor was foundering in terms of his faith stance, going between a deep Christian commitment and hard atheism and many places in between, which attracted and repelled many at the same time. I myself was developing a progressive Christian stance in my return to the church after being away for seventeen years, which seemed to satisfy neither the evangelicals nor the atheists in our midst. My not living in Seoul itself and not being a member of a queer community didn’t help either, I’m sure. Our church has been doing our work and trying to grow without a denominational mission support fund or a sponsoring church to help. There was always head office staff support, and they helped us any way they could, but a point came where I decided I need to let go of this role.

I’ve found it difficult to fulfill the implied expectations placed on me as an English teacher in my most recent position. They were there, even if higher-ups might deny this. ‘Keep teaching from the supplied textbook to a minimum’ – well, why have a bloody textbook in the first place? ‘Always incorporate an English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) approach, bringing in things from students’ majors’ – how does that work when I don’t have a background in that major, and I get different majors almost every semester? ‘Ensure students make progress in the levels of the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR)[1]’ – how is that possible while keeping this EOP focus, when students at many of the lower levels of the CEFR simply don’t have the ability to accomplish tasks which are academically or professionally related[2]?

I’ve found it difficult to understand how it is that many persons of faith in the SGM communities want to hang on to traditional, even conservative, Christian beliefs. In at least one case, an attendee cited my not being ‘traditional enough’ as their reason to stop going to Open Doors. I realize that many SGM Christians of an evangelical background are trying to hold on to what they believe to be the ‘treasures’ of this faith expression while tossing away the ‘garbage’. If there is a way to do that, then bless ‘em – the evangelical world needs more of them. I freely admit that I’m cut from a different piece of cloth. I have always struggled to understand how persons of an evangelical Christian persuasion, regardless of whether they’re SGM or not, can persist in using certain expressions, postures of worship, hermeneutical styles, etc., in the 21st century world. With the election of the 45th President of the US, and the almost unquestioning support he received from white American evangelicals, I think it’s perfectly fair to ask if the evangelical brand has a legitimacy crisis, as some have[3]. Add the SGM element to it and I’m left asking, ‘Is this just wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too? Has the cake simply “gone off” and needs to be thrown out?’ Or to use a more Gospel-influenced image, ‘Should we be forcing new wine into old wineskins?’ I’m not saying people don’t have the right to express their faith as they wish. I am questioning whether the classic expressions of evangelicalism can serve persons of faith well, especially if they are members of an SGM, in a 21st century context.

I don’t know what’s going to come next for me. All I know is that I am in a new country, at a new school, waiting for full-time work to appear sometime (that in itself is another story for another time!). I also know that I have almost a quarter-century of teaching experience under my belt, and I’m ready to offer that, and the skills and abilities that go with it, to those who are willing to take a chance on me.

I don’t know where my next ministry opportunity will be. At this point, I am connecting with an ecumenical, lay-led international church in Hanoi which has made room for me. This may lead into a longer connection, or I may go into new ministry directions that I have not even anticipated yet. What I am assured of is that I will go into the future, trusting in that Love which has not let me go, even when I was a ‘done’ for seventeen years. I will continue to write, including on things MCC and things SGM. And I keep in the forefront of my mind the lines of a hymn from the priest and hymn-writer Herbert O’Driscoll:

‘In (our) agony and glory,

(We) are called to newer ways

By the Lord of our tomorrows

And the God of earth’s todays.’[4]

[1] There were in fact measurable objectives for this goal – at least linguistic ones.

[2] I can’t find the exact source, but I read a table for the expected academic and occupational tasks which people at the different CEFR levels should be able to do, and it was suggested that learners at the lower A1 and A2 levels, where many of the students we have are, are not ready for many of these tasks.

[3] Two of the most soul-searching critiques I have read have come from within the evangelical movement: from author Sharon Hodde Miller (2017, February 19, Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination, in Mere Orthodoxy [online], retrieved 19 September 2019 from https://mereorthodoxy.com/evangelicals-loss-prophetic-imagination/), and Dr Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary (2018, 20 April, Political Dealing: The Crisis Of Evangelicalism, in Fuller.edu [online], retrieved 19 September 2019 from https://www.fuller.edu/posts/political-dealing-the-crisis-of-evangelicalism/).

[4] From O’Driscoll, H ‘From the Slave-Pens of the Delta’, in The United Church Publishing House (1996), Voices United, hymn #690.

Craig-ey, Are You Queer?

Yes, this is a take-off on that classic 80s new wave tune (it’s too poppy to call it punk) by Josie Cotton, ‘Johnny Are You Queer?’ Let’s re-familiarize ourselves with that tune, why don’t we?

Well, it’s there if you’d like to…

Anyway, in researching the reactions to this song[1], I found out some interesting stuff about various reactions to it:

  • One Christian radio network played the song at half-speed and claimed Josie Cotton was a gay man trying to encourage other men to embrace homosexuality (!!);

 

  • The Advocate accused her of being a homophobe and the The Village Voice posed a question on its cover, ‘Josie, Are You A Bitch?’;

 

  • It has been claimed that many people were able to come to terms with their sexuality as a result of the song, including at least one self-confessed ‘gay rocker’, Adam Block;

 

  • Controversy re-ignited when a new version was remixed by a gay rap duo called Elephant – Josie Cotton was invited to New York Pride in 2010, while one of the original songwriters claimed the song was homophobic.

 

Some things just tend to naturally attract controversy, I guess…

 

The reason I offer this as prologue is because of a trend I have noticed in Metropolitan Community Churches these days. A notable number of clergy and lay leaders within MCC have been calling for a renewed emphasis on MCC as a ‘queer movement’, with some saying/writing this was an intent of the original movement as begun by the Rev Eder Troy Perry which has not been focused on as it should be in recent times. I have been part of at least one conversation in one of the leadership fora on Facebook for MCC leaders where a leader has asserted that leaders and members of MCC should embrace the label ‘queer’, in some way, as part of their identity. There was a morning Bible study at the most recent MCC General Conference which had as its focus ‘Queering the Bible’. In the congratulations which were offered recently for the latest group of ordinands in MCC, many people felt the need to highlight the importance of these new pastors-to-be as ‘queer clergy’.

 

And I’ve been thinking, ‘Uh, is there some kind of subtle (or not-so-subtle), unintentional (or not-so-unintentional) message being communicated to non-SGM persons like me?’

 

Let me make some things clear. I’m not an expert in queer theology, but I am aware of it and of its roots in liberation theology. I have read at least one of the significant works of one of its major thought leaders, the late Marcella Althaus-Reid[2]. I know that queer theology is a challenge to the Christian church to break out of heteronormative restraints and embrace understandings of God, Jesus, the Scriptures, and theological doctrines that come from below, specifically from the experience of sexual and gender minorities. This is the natural outgrowth of any theology which genuinely sets to liberate.

I’m also aware that the word ‘queer’ has definite overtones of sexual identity and/or gender expression in the community we serve. For many from older generations, it still has the sting of an expletive, meant to demean and degrade. For younger persons, it is a word which is being reclaimed as a source of power and strength. Nonetheless, it is a word which is historically based in non-heterosexual, non-cisgender expressions and identities.

I’m also familiar with the notion of the ‘straight queer / queer heterosexual’[3]. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this means. I find it quite confusing. I can make some claim to being queer because I like to cook? There is some ‘queerness’ in my advocacy for sexual and gender minorities? I have expressed forms of friendly affection with a variety of persons on the sexual orientation and gender spectra – but does this require that I take on the ‘queer’ label?

Why should I have to take on ANY label to sufficiently ‘pass’ within my faith community? The only reason I can think of to do this is if Metropolitan Community Churches is going to make the transition from being a fellowship of Christian churches to being a type of ‘queer movement’, a phrase which I have heard in one form or other recently. It may very well be that MCC will transition into an ‘Association of Metropolitan Communities’. In such a reality, it may very well be that ‘queerness’ will be the identifying feature that binds all members together. But for now, we are still a fellowship of Christian churches. In that context, it’s my baptism which is my ultimate identifier. All other monikers which I may claim for myself, or which others would try to foist on me, are secondary:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)

I’ll do my best to speak for myself, but I believe it’s no more genuine for me to try to embrace the label ‘queer’ any more than it is for me as a white person to be singing in a black Gospel choir[4]. The African-American/black gospel/spiritual experience is rooted in the heritage of slavery and oppression, something which I as a white North American male have NEVER experienced – but it’s a situation which I see (sadly) many black Americans being dragged back into, through a combination of a lack of economic opportunities, police brutality, and an oppressive (in)justice system.

I believe Dora Mortimer is onto something when they write:

Queer means lots of things to lots of different people. Its definition defies any meaning that is pinned to it. For many, it is a political persuasion as well as a sexual one…(However), (f)or someone who is homosexual and queer, a straight person identifying as queer can feel like choosing to appropriate the good bits, the cultural and political cache, the clothes and the sound of gay culture, without the laugh riot of gay-bashing, teen shame, adult shame, shame-shame, and the internalized homophobia of lived gay experience.[5]

I am a cisgender, heterosexual man of European heritage, married to a woman. I have also walked down the streets of Wonju (my hometown in South Korea) hand-in-hand with my best Korean friend, another cisgender heterosexual man. In my friendships and my pastoral practice, I regularly share signs of affection with gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, polyamorous, and non-binary/genderfluid persons. What the hell does that make ME?!

I remember reading a review of the movie Boy Meets Girl, where Ricky, a transgender woman in small-town Kentucky, has a romantic encounter with Francesca, an almost stereotypical southern belle engaged to an American Marine on duty in Afghanistan. After their first moment together, Francesca tries to make sense of what this means to her. The review recounts the scene like this:

The sweet crux of the movie can be summed up in one back-and-forth between Francesca and Ricky after their first romantic encounter. Francesca wonders aloud if falling for a woman with a penis means she’s gay. “It has to make me something,” she says. Ricky doesn’t skip a beat: “Human?” she replies.[6]

It would be very easy to fall into a very facile, Tucker Carlson-esque ‘Everybody’s human’ or ‘All lives matter’ schtick. If we’re going to use those expressions, we need to very clear about who we’re including under ‘all lives’, and who is truly ‘human’. Talking about being ‘human’ or to talk about ‘lives that matter’ is worthless unless I’m willing to include the entire length and breadth of humanity. That includes racial diversity, including those of multiple ethnicities; everyone from rich to the poorest of the poor; and the entire rainbow of sexualities, gender identities and expressions, and relationship statuses. Anything less is without meaning.

With this in mind, I still must claim room for my voice, as a cisgender, heterosexual man of European heritage. It is only one voice among many, but it is A voice which still deserves to be heard, especially in a church context where all those who are part of the covenant community are equally important. And just because I express myself in ways which do not fit within a stereotypical ‘macho’ male style, that doesn’t mean I have to take on a label which simply doesn’t feel right to me.

In conclusion, then, to answer the question posed in the title, ‘Craig-ey, are you queer?’ I answer, ‘No, and I don’t need to be. I am a voice among the many voices which make up the rich tapestry of humankind. I know other many other voices, especially those from the margins, need to be listened to, and I am committed to making room for those voices, even if it means I need to be reminded to stand aside for a while. But there are also times when it’s right for me to speak my truth, and I’ll do it when the time and the occasion merit it.’

[1] In Fitzharris, D (2010, August 22) Catching Up With Josie Cotton. In Out [online], retrieved 24 August 2019 from https://www.out.com/entertainment/2010/08/22/catching-josie-cotton; and Rockwell, ‘Confessions of a Gay Rocker, in Cateforis, T, The Rock History Reader, (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 185-92.

[2] Althaus-Reid (2003). The Queer God. London: Routledge.

[3] One expression of this can be found in Smith, C (1997) ‘How I Became A Queer Heterosexual’, a paper presented at “Beyond Boundaries,” An International Conference on Sexuality, University of Amsterdam, July 29-Aug 1, 1997

[4] I have personally witnessed this in at least one case, in Nova Scotia, Canada.

[5] Mortimer, D (2016, 10 February). Can Straight People Be Queer? In Vice [online]. Retrieved 25 June 2019 from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/avy9vz/can-straight-people-be-queer-435.

[6] Merry, S (2015, February 12). ‘Boy Meets Girl’ movie review: A small-town transgender love story. The Washington Post [online]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/boy-meets-girl-movie-review-a-small-town-transgender-love-story/2015/02/11/d8ff2e1e-ae32-11e4-9c91-e9d2f9fde644_story.html?utm_term=.c9a4c568cf09.

 

Going Where We May Not Want To Go (A Letter to My Congregation)

A NOTE TO THE READER, ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE NOT A MEMBER OF OPEN DOORS MCC:

I usually don’t recycle sermons for this blog, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case. Many in my congregation have been away from church this past Sunday, and I thought I would adapt my sermon from last Sunday as a blog post here. It holds particular relevance for us who are awaiting the 2019 Seoul Queer Culture Festival, but if anyone else is reading this at a time when you’re not sure what you should be doing in a particular situation, especially where you may expect confrontation or somethings adversarial, you might find it hellpful. Happy Reading!

Dear fellow partners in ministry at Open Doors MCC,

As you know, I’ve posted concerning the death of Rachel Held Evans. This past week, we’ve also marked the death of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community in France, which became the L’Arche network of communities supporting those with developmental disabilities.  

He was the son of a decorated Canadian military officer from Quebec, Georges Vanier, who was appointed as only the second native-born and the first Quebecois governor general of Canada. Jean, his son, first sought purpose through military service in the Canadian Navy, and then through academia, when he earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught at St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto.

In 1964, he made a radical decision – he left his teaching position in Canada, moved to a village in France caled Trosly-Breuil, bought a house, and invited two men with developmental disabilities who had been living in institutions to live with him. Other formerly institutionalized persons joined him, other persons came to serve as assistants to them, and it became known as LArche, ‘The Ark’. L’Arche homes and communities are now found throughout the world. He received many honors throughout his life, including the Order of Canada, the Legion of Honor of France, and in 2015, the Templeton Prize. Negative evaluations of his work are rare – in my research for this sermon, I found only one.

The interesting thing to me is that Jean Vanier and Rachel Held Evans, although from different countries, living and dying in different situations and circumstances, gained the same expressions of love and grief. I’ve been thinking about why this is the case. It has to do with more than their fame, or Jean Vanier’s universal admiration, or Rachel Held Evans’ widowed husband and orphaned children.

I’d like to suggest that in both cases, they offered the prospect of relationships with other people. Jean Vanier founded a profoundly successful movement to create communities for disabled persons because its basis was not charity or doing for others – it was about being in community with them, that in assisting them that one could learn from them and find a new way of looking at the world and themselves. In her own way, when Rachel Held Evans was in debate or discussion with those with whom she disagreed, she held out the invitation to relationship, not to confrontation. As her friends and co-founders of the Evolving Faith conference, Sarah Bessey and Jeff Chu, wrote so eloquently in their tribute to her in the Washington Post, she should not be remembered as a rebel or a renegade, someone who was ‘against’ something. She was ‘for’ so much – for people, for expressing oneself, for giving, for honesty. As one ‘Bible teacher’ put it, ‘in an era of gross hypocrisy, she was alarmingly honest.’ Maybe that was how she was able to go into places and situations that many of us would avoid.

This ability to offer relationship instead of confrontation or judgment is what I see in two of the readings from last Sunday’s lectionary selections from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel According to John.

We commonly know these readings as ‘the conversion of Saul/Paul’ (Acts 9:1-20) and ‘the restoration of Peter’ (John 21). Well, in the light of the loss of these people who were beacons of the light of faith, I view these stories differently. One made the point that Jesus wasn’t offering Peter forgiveness or a restored position of leadership. He started by offering a renewed relationship – a meal, breakfast, which the risen Jesus prepares, and offers without conditions. As that meal is shared, the relationship is renewed with a simple question: ‘Do you love me?’ That love will lead Simon Peter, Cephas, into some dangerous situations, but it will ultimately allow him to make real the new life that is found in following Jesus.

Likewise, Saul’s calling (not really his conversion) also leads the disciple Ananias to into a situation which he views as dangerous: ‘God, you’re asking me to go to one of our mortal enemies?’ Yet, it is by going to that situation and being willing to engage Saul not as adversary, but as a potential new sibling, that leads to new life for this man who was once a persecutor of the people of the Way.

So, in the light of the examples of Rachel Held Evans (especially) and Jean Vanier, and as you’ve read in my previous post, I’ve decided that my place at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival is not on the festival grounds, but among those whom we would consider our adversaries, and who would consider us ‘enemies of the cross’ – not to denounce or deny, or to meet a fist with a fist, but simply to have conversations, to ask, to understand what it is that drives them to take the stands they take, to take the actions they take, to say the things they say.

Now, that’s where I believe I need to be this year. I won’t tell you where you should be in SQCF this year, but whatever you decide, try to be in the places where you can make or renew relationships, perhaps by helping out at the booth of another group, or by walking in the parade, or by talking to people about this gathering place. Be salt, be light, be yeast – be the presence that brings a new flavor, or illumination, or a new place of growth in people’s lives. That’s how we will be the most effective at SQCF this year, by engaging in relationship with others. That’s how we will bring the light of our Good News into the world.

Waiting for Brigadoon?

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I must sincerely apologize. I misread the list of groups given booth space at the SQCF Pride Parade day. The Dding Dong LGBT Youth Crisis Center HAS been granted booth space, and I have amended my original post to reflect this. Again, my apologies for any misunderstanding caused, and best wishes to Dding Dong this year.

That being corrected, please read on:

I’ve been dealing with a significant disappointment in the last few weeks.

Open Doors MCC’s application for a booth at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival (SQCF) Pride Parade Day was unsuccessful, and for the first time in our history, we will not be officially present there.

I was angry enough to spit nails at first, I readily admit that. My congregation was not in favor of issuing a statement indicating disappointment, so I didn’t – that was probably a good decision, since I was too close to my anger and hurt to be constructive. Some friends have tried to convince me that it was not a rejection of us; others have said ‘Saying anything will just make things worse’. I also understand that the Organizing Committee for SQCF has been on the receiving end of some real vitriol from people representing groups who have been part of the Parade Day in the past and are not this year.

I will have no part whatsoever in threats of violence or directionless rage – it’s pointless and makes a mockery of any genuine feelings of disappointment. However, the fact remains that, for reasons I am not privy to, the SQCF Organizing Committee did not deem it appropriate to grant ODMCC booth space. Now that my original anger has mostly subsided, I believe I’m in a space where I can take a critical look at what the net effect of all this is. I don’t mean just criticize, although I will be making some pointed observations concerning what has happened. I mean to take an evaluative look at the situation as I see it, in terms of how it affects me, my community of faith, and the SGM (sexual and gender minorities) communities of Korea, particularly Seoul.

What you about to read may upset you. Some of you may question my right to express any view: ‘Who are you, cisgender, white, heterosexual, married, European heritage, man, to say anything about this? Go back to your corner of privilege!’

I can’t and I won’t. I have invested too much energy and time advocating for SGM persons, not only through my church work, but also by attending countless events for assorted groups held by SGM communities, both in Seoul and in other cities. If I’ve known about it and been able to go, I’ve tried to be there! Participants in our faith community, past and present, have expressed their appreciation to me that we have provided a safe place for them to have a spiritual life. I witnessed on behalf of an inclusive faith in the presence of a so-called ‘Christian’ political party, where I was shouted at and had fingers pushed in my chest. I went to the opening event of SQCF 2015, when there was a debate going on in the community as to whether people should come, and some leaders in the community were saying, ‘Don’t come’. I’ve held my spiritual ground while people have yelled at me (in English, so I would get the point) that I’m going to hell. I’ve marched in every Pride Parade at every Queer Festival I’ve been part of. I’ve been there in fair weather and foul.

Last year I led ceremonies of blessing of relationships when, as far as I know, no other affirming faith community was doing it. By the way, I profoundly disagree with the journalist who suggested to me that this action wasn’t that important because we didn’t call them ‘weddings.’ Poppycock, say I! Last year I held back an anti-Parade protester who was attempting to deface a parade truck while I screamed at police, ‘Get this guy off the parade route!’ To use Bruce Cockburn’s words, ‘I’ve proven who I am so many times the magnetic strip’s worn thin.[1]

Now, what do I see happening with the SQCF Parade Day this year? Well, whether they realize it or not, the Organizing Committee have made choices about what will be highlighted in the SGM community in Seoul. Many people simply aren’t aware of other events considered part of the SQCF. For many people, what they see on Pride Parade Day will be all they experience. What has been highlighted in the selection of booths is predominately Korean-speaking. In terms of direct advocacy groups, I’m glad to see legal, transgender, and parents of SGM persons (PFLAG Korea) included this year, including Dding Dong, the support center for SGM teens. There are some religious organizations, and some international human rights organizations, but they’re all being channeled through a Korean lens. ‘Well, use Korean!’ I’ve heard people say. I understand where they’re coming from. However, even if I were perfectly bilingual (which I’m not), English would still be my first language to talk to God in, to discuss matters of Spirit, and to talk about rights. English is also the ‘lingua franca’ between most of the expat/migrant groups here.

This year, though, for English-speakers, who have been ardent and supportive allies of/accomplices with the SGM communities here, there are two groups which reflect them – a burlesque group and an English-speaking queer/trans group, led by a well-known activist who has done very important performance art and drag performances here. Now let me say clearly – burlesque, performance art, and drag are all important parts of a positive, sexuality-affirming, pro-SGM scene. But is it the whole scene? Call it ‘sour grapes’ if you wish, but as far as I’m concerned, what the Organizing Committee has constructed, intentionally or not, is incomplete.

A more interesting point about all this, though, was raised by a friend who expressed their shock over and disagreement with the Organizing Committee’s decision to not grant booth space to ODMCC. They raised the question, ‘What has the Parade Day become?’ This is from an SGM person who is a veteran attendee of several festivals, who has seen it grow to the levels it has reached of over 100,000 attendees.

Well what HAS it become? Let’s consider that. For safety reasons, the booths have to be in an enclosed space – fair enough, the security is needed. However, does this enclosed space create a situation where SGM people and those who support them wait for the one day of the year when they can be who they are? And do SGM persons end up thinking that’s the only day they have?

That’s why I use the legend of Brigadoon, the legend of a Scottish village which appears only once every 100 years, as a metaphor. I’ve been an ardent defender of the ‘safe space’ concept. I’ve said in the past: ‘Most people in the SGM communities of Korea spend the other 364 days of the year in fear – fear of being fired from their jobs, shunned by their families and friends, evicted from their homes, excommunicated from their faith communities, and kicked out of their schools. Thank goodness they have this one day to celebrate and be comfortable being who they are, as social, spiritual, political, and sexual beings.’ I still accept that as being a good thing. But if this becomes the only day of the year when that happens, does the Festival Ground become a type of unreal place where for a few hours people can dress up in costume, celebrate being themselves, meet up with similar people, and then go back to their hiding places for the rest of the year? If that is happening to any degree, the SQCF is in danger of becoming a queer version of Brigadoon. If that IS happening, we need to ask what the Parade Day should be accomplishing.

Well, what SHOULD it accomplish? I would hope it can be a place where that safe environment empowers people, so that they are able to ‘come out’, even if it is to one trusted person, and say, ‘Here I am. This is me.’ I would hope it’s a place where people are empowered by networking with others to act and pressure government and organizations to increase the safety and legal standing of SGM persons throughout this country. I would hope this happens in many places at the festival. I would also hope that this can be a place where we act in ways which challenge those who would marginalize the SGM community – that’s what I think we at ODMCC did last year with the blessing ceremonies we held. If these things aren’t happening, the Pride Parade Day of SQCF is in danger of fulfilling the dictionary definition of Brigadoon: ‘a place that is idyllic, unaffected by time, or remote from reality.[2]

I am also aware that the Organizing Committee has organized a ‘Pink Dot’ event for the night before, modeled after similar events in Singapore, offering groups that weren’t accepted at the main festival a chance to have a booth at a pre-event. I suppose there might be a purpose to this, but it should also be remembered that in Singapore, ‘Pink Dot’ is THE LGBT+ event of the year. In other places that have held ‘Pink Dots’, my research indicates they have been single events in larger festivals or ‘Pride Months’. To me, ‘Pink Dot Seoul’ was not presented this way. It appeared to be marketed like a ‘consolation prize’ or even an ‘afterthought’ – ‘well, we don’t think you fit in the main festival, but you can have a guaranteed spot in the “pre-event.”’ It reminds me of what Sir Bobby Robson used to call the UEFA Cup in European football, a competition for clubs that weren’t league champions – ‘the Losers’ Cup’.

People are free to disagree with me, and we can discuss/debate/dialogue concerning the issues which the organization of this year’s SQCF raises. Maybe improvements will be made for next year, or maybe we’ll have the same or worse problems this year. Nonetheless, I raise these questions so that people will think about them and talk about them. Yet, I’m still left with a question: what should I do this year?

If my ministry is not meant to be in the Festival Grounds this year, maybe a better place for me might be outside the gates, meeting with people, especially with those who would consider me an enemy, and inviting them to actually have a conversation about what concerns them and what concerns me. This has been on my mind a lot as I mourn the loss of Rachel Held Evans, the American Christian writer who was unafraid to engage the defenders – ‘the white dudes’, as she called them – of the traditional American evangelical scene she was raised in and eventually needed to leave behind (she was also pro-LGBT+).

Maybe my place is in that much riskier, perhaps more dangerous, place. Perhaps I and the people I hope to talk to won’t agree on much, and I might even need to find a police officer to ensure my safety. However, my response might be the response of the Buddhist monk in Seven Psychopaths when he is told, just as he is about to set himself on fire, ‘This won’t improve our situation.’ He answers, ‘It might.’

[1] From ‘Pacing the Cage’, on the album The Charity of Night (True North/Rounder, 1996).

[2] In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary [online]. Accessed 30 April 2019 at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Brigadoon.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I must sincerely apologize. I misread the list of groups given booth space at the SQCF Pride Parade day. The Dding Dong LGBT Youth Crisis Center HAS been granted booth space, and I have amended my original post to reflect this. Again, my apologies for any misunderstanding caused, and best wishes to Dding Dong this year.

Loss, Part 1

Over the last couple of weeks, the SGM[1] community in Korea has been mourning the loss of an ally (I’ve come to dislike this word – but that’s another column!) who worked tirelessly on its behalf…

and I didn’t have good relationship with her.

She did a lot of good work, supported a lot of people, contributed to many causes, and worked really hard to make sure that people were not isolated or alone. In the university where she worked, she advocated tirelessly and endlessly for greater inclusion of sexual and gender minorities through its human rights committee; this extended to the professional organization for English teachers that she belonged to. She also suffered from depression, and in a period where the depths of despair appeared to be too much for her, she took her own life.

And I can hear you asking ‘What’s your problem?! This person sounds like a veritable saint! Why couldn’t you get along with her?’

Well, why don’t oil and water mix?

I wanted to have a good relationship. We corresponded on Facebook, I went to a couple of events at the university where she taught, I became part of a group for SGM teachers. However, when I made certain comments which lampooned the current American president, or used a term which referred to an aspect of fascist government I thought to be parallel to the actions of the current government, she reacted quite negatively.

I consider questions of ‘who was right/wrong’ to be unhelpful. I honestly can’t see how the comments I made were inappropriate, given the nature of the current American administration. I accept that she didn’t hear or view them in this way. However (and I know there are those who will disagree with me violently), I’ve concluded that what I experienced in these run-ins was someone taking herself too seriously. And in my experience, the worst thing you can do in many situations is take yourself too seriously!

It got to the point where I felt the need to keep this person at a distance, so I un-followed her on Facebook. I didn’t banish her completely from my social network circle, but I needed to keep her at arms’ length. I wasn’t alone. I have heard of at least one additional person who had a falling out with her. Regardless, what precious few of us knew was of her struggle with depression. And fewer of us knew the depths to which her last downward trajectory would go. I realize there is some debate around whether Winston Churchill suffered from mental illness[2], but there is little doubt that he would be wary of the visits of his downward mood swings which he termed ‘the black dog’, apparently so much so that he would be wary of where he stood on train platforms:

‘I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.'[3]

This person’s death has hit a lot of people hard, especially one person who has had a terrible start to their year. They’ve endured loss and trauma (I mean, trauma) in the past twelve months. Coming out as non-binary has led to their being excluded and discriminated by many people, especially the SGM community in Seoul, that they hardly get involved anymore. They were looking forward to having a friend in whom to confide when they moved at the beginning of this year – and that friend is around no more.

These and other stories make it clear that there’s a good reason we don’t speak ill of the dearly departed. Whatever issues I may have had, and no matter how justified I may have been in keeping this person at a distance, that doesn’t matter. What’s more important is honoring the work she did and the lives she touched, as well as caring for those who are affected by her loss whenever and wherever I can.

More importantly, I can follow her example, an example I never really appreciated until now. It seems to me that her work for expat English teachers and for SGMs was endless and public. When it came to the debate around SGM issues in Korea, there was no mistaking which side she was on! It reminded me of a point made by Brittany Ware, the 2018 Ware Lecturer at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly:

‘(An) ally tends to be a self- congratulating, temporary presence, that makes a sometimes effort for something they sometimes care about. Sometimes an ally shows up, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes an ally listens, sometimes they paternalize. Sometimes an ally takes action, sometimes an ally just talks about taking action. Accomplices, on the other hand, choose the risk even though they don’t have to. They’re willing to lay their bodies and reputations and security on the line because they know that’s the only way to properly leverage their privilege. Accomplices stick around. Accomplices are in it for the long haul…’[4]

I think it’s time for me to take a look at my own activism, or lack of it, and ask, ‘Have I been an accomplice? If supporting the SGM community were a crime, would there be enough evidence in my own life that my only option would be to say, “By God, I’m guilty!”?’

I pray that I may have the grace to live a life and exhibit a witness worthy of being an accomplice!

[1] As I’ve written before, the acronym SGMs (Sexual and Gender Minorities) seems much more manageable than the LGBBTTQQIAA, etc, etc acronym that seems to have no end!
[2] Compare, for example, Ghaemi,M (2015, 24 January) Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’ of greatness, in The Conversation [online] (accessed 6 February 2019 at http://theconversation.com/winston-churchill-and-his-black-dog-of-greatness-36570) and Breckenridge, C (2012) The Myth of the “Black Dog”, Finest Hour: the Journal of Winston Churchill 155, pp. 28-31.
[3] Alluded to in Breckenridge (2012) and quoted from Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran, in Ghaemi (2015)
[4] Unitarian Universalist Association (2018-19), WARE LECTURE BY BRITTANY PACKNETT, GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2018, in Unitarian Universalist Association [online]. Accessed 28 August 2018 at https://www.uua.org/ga/past/2018/ware.

Will Jesus Come Out To Play?

I’m a big fan of Jethro Tull, so I’ll just get this out of my system:

When I think of this song, I also think of one of the lasting images from last year’s Korea (now Seoul) Queer Culture Festival (our Pride Festival and Parade):

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/07/177_233308.html

This guy named Robert Evans had the stereotypical ‘western Jesus look’ that he could carry off, so he came to the Festival in stereotypical ‘Jesus garb’. Just before the Pride Parade got going, he stood in front of a group of CCF (conservative Christian forces) protesters who were set up in front of the cluster of office buildings and hotels to the south of Seoul Square. An enterprising photographer took the picture, and Mr Evans & the protesters had their 15 minutes (actually, a few days) of fame.

I’m glad he was there. He provided a moment of combined levity with a serious underlying challenge to all the CCFs who have made it their business to make their presence known at all the QCF/Pride Festivals and parades occurring through the country. What’s more, he pulled off the Jesus look a lot better than me. Our church decided to have a ‘Rainbow Last Supper’ mode where festival goers could have their picture taken with me in a Jesus costume at hourly intervals.

I couldn’t convey the Jesus look like Robert Evans did. I just ended up looking like a red-headed Howard Stern in drag! I’m too embarrassed to publish the picture!

However, as I reflect on last year’s experience and prepare for this year’s proceedings, it’s worth asking, for those of us who think this is important: where was the presence of Jesus at Pride 2017? Where do we hope it will be this year?

I remember the booth next to us, run by the Korean-language affirming churches. There were always clergy on duty, offering personal blessings and prayer with those who wanted them. They were all wearing stoles, signs of the priestly/pastoral office, many of them made from rainbow-style tapestries. They invited people to touch the hem of their stoles as a sign of blessing. Many who came to them were in need of assurance that they are blessed. For most queer Christians in this country, they must live a daily struggle against family, faith communities, workplaces, landlords, and so-called friends who view their lives, if not their very existence, with anywhere from suspicion to outright condemnation. In order to ‘get by’ in their daily lives, some of them actually have to condone or actively participate in the condemnation, condemning themselves in the process.

There were tears shed by both those being blessed and those blessing. While we were trying to add a light moment, I guess trying to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’, our neighbors were taking the time to ‘weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15). It became apparent to me that Pride in this country is still not only a time to celebrate and rejoice, but also a time to lament and give voice to pain. The presence that my ecumenical colleagues provided was much needed, and a very real reminder of the presence of Jesus.

So, where will Jesus be this year?

I don’t know if Robert Evans or another Jesus-type figure will emerge this year, but I will  welcome it. The presence of pastors who will give people the emotional space to shed their tears and speak their pain will be needed, too. As for us, I’m NOT going to try to look like Jesus again. I do hope, through, that we’ll get at least one people who will take us up on our offer to bless relationships at our booth.

To be honest, in the days and hours leading up to the Festival, I think about our presence in our booth and I get anxious and become plagued with doubt – Do people really care if ODMCC is there at all? Are we really effective in reaching out to people? Are we really meeting people where they are? Are people really going to notice us? This year, there’s a little bit of fear, too. It seems that protesters at the Daegu QCF this year disrupted the parade, and were happy to get into shouting matches with paraders. Are we going to have to worry about similar things in Seoul this year?

In the end, I need to remind myself that being present – just being present – is perhaps the greatest ministry we offer. Simply letting people know that those who are outside the Festival gates, preaching against us, are not the only ‘Christian’ expression. In all our actions – celebrating, blessing, comforting, or providing a symbolic challenge – we all do what we can to make the presence of the Jesus we know a real part of this Festival.

Happy Pride to all at Seoul Queer Culture Festival 2018!

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

‘How easily things can get broken…’

*from Mass (1971), Leonard Bernstein

I had planned to do a wonderful Pride Sunday meditation on David and Jonathan on June 24th, and why not? It was one of the options for reading in the lectionary for that Sunday – fancy that! But then…

‘…how easily things can get broken’.

I’d seen the headlines about children and parents being separated at the border; I’d seen the justification by American government officials, including usage of the Bible and ‘Biblical principles’; I’d seen all the outrage expressed by journalists. Then, on Wednesday morning, I saw this:

Then, on Thursday morning, I saw this (play from about 4:25 to 9:10)

After seeing that second one, I spent a half-hour in front of my notebook, sobbing.

Since then, I have posted on the Korea and Daejeon LGBT+ Facebook groups, indicating about how bothered I am about this, and openly questioning if the presence of the US Embassy at our local Pride festivals is really appropriate. In response, I have had some very tough conversations with some people. I have preached on this in my congregation, and one attendee asked, ‘Why are you interested in this, all of a sudden?’

That’s a fair question….

As part of a university course I taught recently, I taught intersectionality, the kind of critical analysis which looks at how injustice in the world can occur on many different levels. As a result of doing this, I think (at least I hope) I’ve become more sensitive to looking at how all the factors which make us us – political, sexual, gender, class, ethnicity, etc. – have to come into play when we’re considering the issues we consider to be important. I’m proud to be a pastor in a denomination (Metropolitan Community Churches) which tries to take intersectional analysis seriously. Even when we fall short of the mark, there are still those among us who keep pushing us to consider all the factors which lead to injustice, and who remind us that we don’t really address injustice until we face all those factors.

Now I’ve had my markers of privilege waved in front of me at times (heterosexual, white, male, among others), and it has sometimes felt as if those who were naming those markers have done so to silence me – as if to say, ‘Know your role, go in the corner, and be quiet’. Well, I don’t think the case of the current President of the United States is something to be quiet about. Donald John Trump is acting as if he is, to use the old Scottish term, ‘laird o’ the manor’. He has no trouble attacking the free press (does the term ‘fake news’ sound familiar?) and he has made economic threats against the citizens – the citizens – of an ally country (don’t believe me? watch this).  He is wreaking havoc in the United States with every order he issues – interesting how he has trouble passing legislation, isn’t it? He has spearheaded efforts to marginalize LGBT+ citizens in the US, and at times it is only the courts which have held him and his cabinet back. He is troubling his own house, not to mention the rest of the world, and seems to enjoy inheriting the wind. I, as a citizen of the world, reserve the right to criticize him when and as I please, including through the use of sarcasm.

I also think it’s still fair for the sexual and gender minorities of Korea and associated allies to ask, ‘Do we really want to have the presence of a diplomatic corps representing a country which appears to relish bringing harm to people of any identifiable minority group?’ I remember a newspaper opinion column during the time of apartheid about whether sanctions and boycotts are really effective. The columnist told a personal story of his visit to a store where he saw the manager treating his staff inappropriately. The gist of the columnist’s comments were this: ‘I know that my decision to not shop at that store again won’t make much difference to the store, its manager, or its revenues. That’s not the point. I don’t like the way that manager treated his staff, and I won’t give my money to a place where people are allowed to treat other people like that.’ I don’t see much difference between that situation and this.

In the midst of this, I made this situation the subject of a sermon I preached at my church. As always, I’m grateful for the ‘extra eyes’ provided by my congregation. They reminded me that, as awful as the situation is in the United States for migrants and refugee claimants, it’s not the only place where it is happening. In Europe, for example, we’ve seen the debacle of multiple ships being turned away by nations like Italy and Malta (as in this case and this case).

Moreover, we have the ever-increasing tension within the Republic of Korea, as we see the negative reaction from certain citizens to a group of refugees from the Yemeni civil war. Thankfully, theirs are not the only voices being raised. The entertainer Jung Woo-sung, goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke in favor of welcoming these refugees at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, even as he has been criticized for doing so. I was also heartened to read the clear instruction of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Jeju in his pastoral letter of July 1 (please note – the original text of the letter is in Korean). My own rough translation of the conclusion of his letter is as follows, but I believe his teaching is unambiguous:

‘The rejection and refusal of refugees is a crime which rejects the minimum standard of human decency and is unacceptable for Christians.’

The National Council of Churches in Korea have also spoken out in support of the refugees, and criticized those Christians who have been part of the anti-refugee wave.

 

I’m heartened by these responses. I truly believe that this is a defining moment for Korean society. I understand the many invasions, the colonization, and the oppression that Korea has been over the centuries. What I find unfortunate, though, is that the deep sadness and unresolved need for righting wrongs that lie deep in the Korean soul (often encapsulated in the term ‘han’ (한)) have not been transformed into a tool whereby Korea can empathize with the suffering of others. It has taken time for Koreans to develop a consciousness of the world around them, and many are still not in that mental place. Yet, this is a moment when Korea as a nation can enlarge its vision. In providing an official welcome to these refugees, Korea could demonstrate its place as a ‘global citizen’ type of nation. It could demonstrate that justice is not about ‘JUST US’.

I hope the sexual and gender minority communities will be part of this moment, too. One of the veteran leaders of the LGBT+ plus movement in Korea told me something very interesting. The first time the Rainbow Flag flew in Korea was not at a pro-LGBT rally – it at a demonstration about workers’ rights. The Rainbow Flag also flew high and proud at the candlelight vigils calling for the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye. There’s a precedent here. That tells me that at a very basic level, the LGBT+ communities of Korea know that their freedom is also bound with other issues of justice. I’d say this is another time when the LGBT+ communities should declare which side they’re on.

So, the US Embassy is scheduled to be at the Seoul Queer Culture Festival, although I must give credit to the organizing committee for acknowledging my concerns, as will the diplomatic missions of the European Union, Australia, and other countries whose records on issues of justice may leave a bit to be desired. What to do, then? Well, I know that when I’m at the Embassy booths this year, I’ll be looking to ask some questions from staff who are there: ‘It’s good that you’re here, but…’ I also hope that some of those who go to the festival will also ask a few questions while they’re getting some free gifts. I’ll also look to see what I can do for the aliens who reside in my midst, and encouraging the LGBT+ communities of Seoul to join me.

Thinking globally, acting locally – it’s the least I can do.