As I anticipate retiring this June, I’ve begun to reflect on my thirty-five years of teaching – the past two decades in a graduate school of theology and ministry. The average age of that group of students has been north of forty. Mature adults. Coming alongside my students in their education, I believe I have learned as much about self and world and God from them as they have from me. Especially from those students whose life experience differs from mine. Women. Lots of women. All sorts of women. From conservative Roman Catholic laywomen who pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy to Unitarian Universalist ordination candidates with their humanism and earth-based rituals. But also students who are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, women and men. Black Church leaders, including Pentecostals. Increasingly, self-identified queer students. A few transgender folk. What a gift to have spent a career learning!
Here’s the thing. I learn more from people different from myself because their life experience jars my comfort and privilege and renders unfamiliar, things I thought so familiar and took for granted. Unfamiliarity forces me to stop and listen and go deeper. What a gift to see God and the world and myself through the eyes of others – as if for the first time!
A few weeks ago, one of my students taught me again about the indigenous
Korean notion of Han. While it’s tempting to try and translate Han simply as sin, there’s more to it than that. Traditional Western views focus on the moral agency of the individual sinner. Han addresses the relational consequences of sin – the pervasive reality of victims’ suffering and the scar left by the sins of others who have wronged them. If reconciliation with God and human beings is to occur, not only must personal sin be repented and guilt forgiven, but the Han of a community, an entire people who have been wounded, must be healed. In his own words, my student said: “As a Korean - American, I have always felt in my blood, in my soul, a deep longing, sorrow, anger over the injustice/suffering of this world, and a longing for love and intimacy. Over time,…I was able to put into words what I have been feeling inside. That word is Han – which is Korea’s collective grief, lament, sorrow [we] carry inside.” Something familiar (sin) becomes unfamiliar (Han), opening up deeper understanding.
What could be more familiar than the Ten Commandments? And what an
opportunity for deeper understanding we have this morning if they can be rendered a bit more unfamiliar!
To this day, our Jewish siblings call them the “Ten Words,” not the “Ten Commandments.” In the Godly Play curriculum the children of this parish engage, they’re the “Ten Best Ways to Live.” Some unfamiliarity beginning to creep in?
Back when I was a kid in old-fashioned Sunday School, I memorized the Ten
Commandments as a series of one-liners. We prayed them that way at the beginning of this worship service in our Penitential Order. And indeed that is how some of the Ten Words are presented in the full text of Exodus 20 we heard in our first reading: “You shall not murder.” “You shall not steal.” “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (13, 15-16). These are universally recognized best ways to live shared across the peoples of the world – maybe that’s why they can be stated as one-liners. But others emerge out of the particular history and experience of the people of Israel and involve elaboration beyond the one familiar line: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (2-3). They address public, communal matters; not just private and personal ones. Social/political/economic, even ecological. “Honor your father and mother,” of course; but the fifth word goes on: “so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (12). That’s worth deeper reflection and self-examination!
What if we ventured further into unfamiliarity by reading the Ten Commandments through the lens of Han and my student’s Korean immigrant experience? The Ten Words, the Ten Best Communal Ways to Live, seen instead as the “Ten Most Grievous Wounds” inflicted by injustice and oppression that need healing – not just in ancient Israel, but here and now in our own Han-ridden world.
Take the second word: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” (4-6). When a people, the powerful few of a people, an empire, makes an idol of their leader or party or economic interests or access to technology, when they set up their supposed racial or ethnic or social-political supremacy as objects of worship, then the true image of God always already placed in all human beings will be ignored, denied, assaulted and hurt – especially the image of God in the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized. The Han, the pain and bitterness caused by this idolatry, accumulates in its victims and gets passed down generation after generation. The wound festers and metastasizes like a communal cancer.
Or the fourth word. I wonder if you can hear the wounds of Han crying out for healing in it? “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath and consecrated it” (8-11). Sabbath rest, sabbath justice, sabbath inclusion for every member of God’s one people. Humans and animals. Men and women. Citizens and immigrants, even the undocumented. Those privileged to work from the safety of home this past year and those paid an unlive-able minimum wage while continuing to show up at work physically and exposing themselves to the life and death dangers of COVID-19. The word about the sabbath day represents no mere test of personal moral achievement, rewarded or punished. Rather, it – like all Ten Commandments – offers a lifeline for a community, an entire people. A gift from God. A kind of social/political/economic vaccine. “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” we prayed earlier in today’s collect. No power in ourselves to help ourselves, whether Israelite or Korean or American.
Now I’ve known a little bit about Han for years. What I learned for the first time from my student a few weeks ago, is that while Han is integral to the Korean experience, it is not the whole story. His words again: “What keeps us Koreans going despite the Han we carry? It is our Jeong (for which there is no English equivalent, just like there is no English equivalent for Han). Our Jeong (our bond, our deep commitment to one another, deep memories we formed, love that has been deepened over time and that has been deepened by Han). Our Jeong is what gives Korea hope, strength, resilience in the midst of our Han. It is our way of not losing hope, to stay resilient when faced with setbacks, persecution, and continual oppression by those in power. Han and Jeong. It is something we Koreans hold together in our lives.”
My student illustrated this in class by showing us a five-minute clip from a film entitled “Seopyeonje” (pronounced “sop-yawn-jay”). This movie had the kind of impact on Koreans in the 1990s that “Black Panther” has had recently for African Americans. “Seopyeonje” tells the story of a group of traditional pansori musicians: two singers, an older man and a woman in her thirties, along with a younger man who plays a drum. (Pansori has been likened to the early blues in America.) The three wander from village to village trying, without much success, to eke out a living in the modern world through a seemingly outdated art form. Han is on full display in almost every scene: three lifetimes of abandonment, betrayal, hunger, homelessness, drunkenness, violence, and abuse. But Jeong makes one show-stopping appearance. The three musicians trudge down a long, narrow path lined with stone walls toward the camera, which never moves. The singers carry battered suitcases, the percussionist his drum. Eventually, the woman starts singing an old song of lament. The man echoes each verse she sings with a refrain. Eventually, the path makes a sharp turn as it prepares to empty on to a larger, dirt road. As they turn the corner, the woman and the man begin to sing together in harmony. By the time they reach the road, the drummer accompanies the singing. And finally, just before they move off camera to the right, the three weave themselves into an intricate, joyous figure-eight shaped dance, smiling and laughing and kicking up clouds of dust on the road.
Out of Han, Jeong. For to borrow the Apostle Paul’s words: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Thanks to my student Jin Lee for being such a good teacher.
“Seopyeonje,” starring Oh Jeong-hae, Kim Myung-gon, and Kim Kyu-chul; directed by Im Kwon-taek (Taehung Pictures, 1993). The title refers to a regional style of pansori music (like the Delta blues). You can watch a restored version of the movie on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdjwD4jW4XY. The five-minute clip my student played in class begins at 44:21. And the old song the little group of musicians sings – bringing Jeong out of their Han – is called “Arirang.” Talk about unfamiliar, to my Western ears – the sound of this traditional Korean mode of singing!
Andrew S. Park’s book, The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Abingdon, 1993), was groundbreaking.