Wanted: A Spiritual pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke.
When I was a child, my vision of heaven was riddled with roller coasters and populated by Disney characters. Let me explain.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, the American “mainland” to our north was for me a dreamland of sorts. You could catch a glimpse of it on television show depicting Main Streets lined with impressive trees. And of course, there was Disney World. As a five-year old visiting Florida for the first time, I imagined that the rest of the country was just like that particular corner of Orlando that we tourists saw.
That was heaven on earth for the five-year-old version of me. Heaven was earthly and joyful and fun and sweet. But as we all know Disney is no paradise. I don’t expect long lines, lots of sweat, and expensive but mediocre food in heaven.
When I was five, Disney was my vision of heaven. As I grew up in the church, my vision turned upward. Heaven was an eternal destination deferred until the moment after you die. Heaven was a place of reward and eternity. Heaven was an ethereal experience, something so otherworldly that the best we could do was speak in metaphors and images about it. Heaven, in short, had very little to do with the world as we knew it.
Neither vision gets it quite right.
Today marks Korean-American Christian missionary Kenneth Bae’s 500th day in a North Korean prison. Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tourist group. State-run media reported that he was convicted of attempting to lead a religious anti-North Korean religious coup. He has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Bae is a reminder to all of us that Korea remains divided. Brothers and sisters are separated and friends are divided between the 38th parallel.
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. My mother and father were children during the Korean War, and my mother told me a few stories of how they had to flee during the war. She was a young child, one of eight. My grandmother would gather the children and walk for miles and miles making their way down into southern Korea. As they were fleeing one day, a bullet went through my grandmother’s thigh and created permanent damage to her leg. As a young child, I thought it was a wonderful war story of heroism and courage. I didn’t realize then the agony, fear, and suffering that my parents or my grandparents went through to keep safe and keep alive.
As the Korean War lingered on, it ended with the division of Korea at the 38th parallel. That division is a stark reminder of how a beautiful, lovely country can be filled with pain, sorrow, animosity, and suffering. The 38th parallel has kept family members and loved ones apart for almost 60 years. Many divided families are unable to reunite or unable to know if their relatives are still living and doing well. The heartbreak of living apart in their own country has brought lots of anger, tension, loss, and suffering.
In Korea, people have a term for such suffering: han. Han is a difficult word to translate into the English language. The best way to do so may be through ‘unjust suffering’ or ‘piercing of the heart.’
In his New York Times column, “ Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.
So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:
There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.
Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.