Racism is evil. Racial prejudice is a cruel attitude that denies full humanness in others, and it is a grievous evil when embedded as a normal practice within society and perpetrated by institutions. Racism is also an important issue for us Koreans, given the pain of forced displacement and diaspora settlement engraved in our nation’s history. The book “A Flower Bud: We Are Chosun School Students” (2019) contains the last words of Ms. Kim Bok-dong, a victim of sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII: “Please protect our Korean children in Japan on my behalf.” Our people were taken as forced laborers throughout Japanese occupied territories in Asia including mainland Japan, and their descendants in Japan still face discrimination today. Also evil was the racial discrimination found in the history of U.S. immigration policies against Asians. Watching the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, I’m reminded time and again how important it is to keep up our efforts to eradicate racism.
Rev. Young-chuel Cho, a GBGM missionary serving in Russia, once said, “Within our Moscow UMC, I see how businesspeople and embassy employees from South Korea discriminate Koryo-saram (ethnic Korean in post-Soviet states). Koryo-saram, in turn, discriminate against Joseonjok, the ethnic Korean-Chinese who have come to find work in Russia. Joseonjok discriminate against North Korean refugees. It pains to see how divided we have become as Koreans and even within a church, despite our call to unity.” It’s a reflection of the problem seen in Korean society at large. Along with economic development, South Korea saw a large influx of foreign workers from Southeast Asia, as well as the rise in North Korean refugees and Joseonjok migrants. The prejudice, discrimination, and alienation they experience must come to an end within Korean society.
Ten people will say their membership vows and will be initiated into First UMC in Flushing today. Membership vow is brief, but the vow of the Baptismal Covenant has more details about what Christian living is about. One of the questions asked during baptism is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” After the baptismal candidate affirms, we follow with questions of belief, “Do you believe in God the Father?” and the same is asked regarding Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. United Methodists are the people who have said “I do” to the vows of our Baptismal Covenant. Discrimination against a person is a sin that breaches the promise we made in our baptism before God and the church.
I come across Christians who think of faith and spirituality as something detached and removed from day-to-day human living with all its complexities. But when we think about the kind of living that Jesus modeled for us, ‘spiritual faith’ is deeply integrated with fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission toward all nations in our everyday lives. When we look in the Book of Acts, the issue of Gentile inclusion caused controversy between the Apostles in Jerusalem and Paul, who was called to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. Because people couldn’t come down to a conclusion that would appease both parties, the Holy Spirit intervened by showing Peter a life-changing vision at the house of a Gentile named Cornelius. It was there that Peter heard the voice of God: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15). Without resolving the problem of discrimination against the Gentiles, the early church could not stretch beyond the limits of the Jewish group in Jerusalem. But church’s mission expanded and its doors opened to a wider world after Peter saw the vision of God and reconciled with Paul.
I have lived in the United States for almost five decades. But the need to eradicate racism is more urgent now than before. The motto of First UMC in Flushing is “Christ-centered, People-oriented Church.” But in order to be such a church, we must first eliminate our discriminatory thoughts and attitudes which can take so many different forms. We must first put away collective egoism, which is but a manifestation of selfishness. How can unfair and prejudicial treatment of people be ever possible, if we truly acknowledge that all human beings are beloved children of God, for whom God spilled the blood of Jesus Christ to save them by grace? If we have the joy of salvation by the grace of the Cross, it only naturally follows that we want others to taste and live by that same joy.
Currently, our denomination is facing potential separation over LGBTQ clergy ordination. While our Book of Discipline maintains, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” what comes before this statement is our declaration on the inclusiveness of the church, namely that “church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth.” The Book of Discipline also clearly acknowledges that “All persons, regardless of age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured to be protected against violence.” On whichever side our church will stand post-separation, what does not change is our belief that discrimination of a person is wrong and must not be tolerated in any form.
Discrimination destroys a person’s dignity and it kills lives. Those who believe in Jesus live by the gospel that saves people, not by the law that binds and hurts people. On top of hate crimes against Asians in the US, the recent death of a transgender young person in Korea felt very heavy on my heart. Life is precious. What suffocating feeling of dread could lead to such a tragic untimely death of young person? Couldn’t the church give space to breathe and offer help to see hope? The alienation, condemnation, hatred, and discrimination that drive people to death are sins against the life-giving grace of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in his Epistle to Romans 1:6, “And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” As people who belong to Jesus Christ, our job is to give hope, share love, and save lives.