Guilt, Shame and corporate identity

“When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for many days.” This phrase could characterize many of the responses to the tragic news the shootings at Virginia Tech. It was and is a shock to the conscience that anyone could behave so brutally. The immediate reaction was one of shock and despair. How could this happen? Who is to blame?

When the news broke that the shooter was a Korean American, a layer of complexity was added for all Koreans and indeed for all Asian Americans. How could it be that one of our own did such a horrific act? A friend of mine commented that to him it makes perfect sense that the family would sequester themselves. How else could they respond to the intensity of shame that would inevitably result from having a child who would commit such an act? Others have commented on their own sense of pain and shame. Cognitive knowledge of one’s own innocence is no vaccine against the collectivist culture that is imbibed in one’s mother’s milk. The dishonorable act of one brings shame on all.

As I Black American I understand this in some small way. While not as deeply ingrained as my Asian brothers and sisters, there still remains some sense of corporate identification that causes me to rejoice when one of “us” does well and causes pain and shame when we do not.

There is another view that has been circulating lately which suggests that it is inappropriate for Koreans and Korean Americans to feel guilt or shame over the actions of one individual.

“The Korean claim to guilt and shame on behalf of Cho Seung Hui is well-intentioned but misguided. We are Americans first. While we share an affinity with Korea and appreciate and respect Korean culture, at the end of the day we are Americans. Our president is in the White House, not in the Blue House. And our response to this crisis should be as Americans, not as Koreans.”

There is much truth in this statement. Korean Americans, particularly those born in the United States are Americans. The primary language they speak, the realities they reference, and the lives they lead are American. And yet I find I must take exception to this statement as well.

As a Christian, my first reference for response to anything must be scripture, and not my culture. Indeed I must evaluate my culture, as well as everything else in my life, in light of scripture. And here, ironically, I believe that Koreans and Asians in general, get it more right than do Americans.

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for many days.” This quote, mentioned at the beginning of my post is one I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit as I prepare to teach from Nehemiah in just a few weeks. The irony is that such an ancient passage could have such contemporary and immediate relevance.

Nehemiah, the speaker, bears no immediate responsibility, guilt, or blame for the condition of Jerusalem. By all accounts, he has done what is right and kept covenant with God. He has been successful in his profession and he has risen to a position of prominence in the most powerful empire of his day. Yet when he hears the tragic news, he owns the responsibility of the broken covenant.

The parallel is not perfect of course, but there is a lesson here. As Christians we do well to remember that virtually nothing in scripture is addressed to individuals and that the people of God identify themselves corporately and are addressed that way by God. It is not that God is unaware or that we should be unaware of our individuality. Indeed it is in scripture that the principle is articulated that no one should be made to pay the penalty for another’s sin. But over and again the prevailing identity is not me, but we.

So then it is true that no one other than the Seung Hui Cho himself was ultimately responsible or guilty. But it is also true that he, like all of us, was not just an individual, but a part of a family, a community, an ethnos, and that his actions brought shame on all those who share in that identity because they do not represent who Koreans really are. To apologize for the actions of ones family member is not the same as admitting culpability or responsibility for their crimes. It is simply and acknowledgment of what we know to be true… we are connected.

This truth should be even more readily accessible for Christians, for we have been made members of one family and one nation. Not only that, but we are people who have not only had our guilt expiated by the punishment inflicted on the person of Jesus, we have also had our honor (as image bearers of God, whose image we dishonor all the time) restored by the reality of the resurrection. Jesus is the family member who “made it.” He is the elder brother who has succeeded when the rest of us fail. The victory he won is ours as well because we are connected to him.

What can I say?

I find myself emotionally overwhelmed by the news of recent events at Virginia Tech. I am not sure why I am so affected by this. Perhaps it is that I work on college campuses and know intimately how much brokenness lies just under the surface of people who are among the most privileged in the world and who churches routinely ignore except to consider what benefit they might derive from their attendance at services or their usefulness in tending to the younger children in the congregation.

What can I say to something that happened just across the border in a neighboring state, on a campus not terribly dissimilar to that on which I labored for so many years endeavouring to be salt and light and trying to pastor people like the kid who was the gunman.

How is it that I am so deeply affected when he is not from “my community” except that I have come to feel it is my community in some way. Having immersed myself in the Korean American context for nearly three years, I resent the fact that so much is made of his “resident alien” status as if that somehow explains it all. I cringe inwardly in much the same way I do when a Black person commits a crime and I know that all Black people somehow bear the stigma because we share the color. I don’t like the subtext, the subversive narrative that is developing which attempts to explain the inexplicable by implying that this is somehow connected to his “Asianness” and by implication the somehow intrinsic “foreignness” of any Asian person makes them automatically suspect. I wish they wouldn’t keep bringing up his ethnicity since it seems incidental. Others talk about this as well, better than I have.

I feel sick in my stomach for the parents who, if they are like most Koreans, probably go to church even if they aren’t Christians and undoubtedly feel intense pain at the loss of their son coupled with overwhelming shame that their son would do this. I cannot imagine what it must be like.

I am angry and ashamed of my desire, when I hear things like this, for it not to be a minority. I am angry that when a White kid does these horrible things, the story is always of his or her typical normal upbringing and even thought peopel wonder why, they never wonder if it has anything to do with their race.

I think of my students, many of whom are 2nd or 1.5 generation Korean Americans, and I think of the ones who suffer from depression, who just can’t seem to get it together academically, who struggle to be at home at the university and so seek solace with other Korean Americans. I think of how they must feel, or even if they feel anything at all or even allow themselves to. I can’t imagine what I would say in that situation. DJChuang has much more to say on this.

Perhaps I have come to own this people as my people, so that I am hurt with them though I cannot even fully enter into that hurt.

Securing our lives

There is a bird nest outside my back door located atop a drainage spout. I did not notice it until perhaps a week or two ago, but only today has it affected me in any way.

Every time I go outside, or even open my back door, the bird leaves her nest and flies around chirping in the most annoying way. From the safety of the glass security door I observe this watchful creature. She observes me as well from a perch hardly half a meter above my head. Her feathers are ruffled and she chirps threateningly. Despite our comparative sizes she seems utterly unintimidated by me or perhaps she is bold because I am such a large threat to her offspring. If I open the door and venture out, she will commence to chirping even louder and flying about in warning.

The efforts of this small bird to secure her safety or rather the safety of her precious offspring are comic in some ways, but only because I know how little she could do to harm me. But then again how must I appear: diligently setting my alarm whenever I leave home, being careful to purchase good locks for my doors, thinking about what can be seen of my home from the street. All of these are efforts to secure my life.

Since I read David’s post the other day I’ve been reminded of a question asked by a ministry colleague while we were in South Africa studying apartheid and its effects on the people. He asked a question that strikes right to the heart of both mine and the bird’s efforts to secure our existence: What’s wrong with me doing what is best for me and my family?

On the surface the answer is simply: nothing. But he asked that question in the context of studying a system that radically privileged one group of people over another. Why would any White South African choose to put himself and his family at risk? Or in the U.S., why shouldn’t I choose to live as far away as possible from crime, poverty, and ignorance so that I and my family can dwell in safety?

As a follower of Jesus who believes that we ought to be concerned and involved in the tragedies of injustice and oppression in our world, I can give all the right answers to these challenges while making every effort to personally secure my life; to protect myself from having to deal with any real injustice or oppression. David said it well:

“I know how to respond to the environment, racism, and poverty but this was altogether new for me — this was senseless and yet calculating evil. This is what some people live with all the time, I thought. And suddenly, I realized what an idol security had become. Everything suddenly looked unbelievably fragile to me and a sense of worry and low-grade panic seemed to set in. Even though I could acknowledge that every day, week, month, year that we had lived there in safety was God’s providence, I couldn’t help but to be overwhelmed by fear.””

It is an understandable response and a worthy one given what has happened in his neighborhood. I am amazed at how readily I and we allow security, safety, and prosperity to become idols. These are idols that remain happily unchallenged in our churches. Oh yes, we preach about confronting these evils and we take missions trips into difficult areas, but mostly we do it from the safety of our suburban existence. Because when it comes right down to it, we only like sharing in the sufferings of the poor and oppressed as long as we retain the option of escape. And so when tragedy strikes, we are caught off guard. Things like that are not supposed to happen in places like this.

As difficult as it sounds, these moments are graces. Not in the trite way that people spout about the sovereignty of God as if rape and burglary somehow contribute to his glory. It is a grace rather that the palpable nature of evil is exposed and our flimsy and idolatrous efforts to secure our lives: by living in the right place, going to the right schools, entering the right profession, eating the right foods, all of these things are exposed for what they are. We will have as much success in securing our lives as the bird outside my doorway. If I chose, I could devour both the bird and her offspring with hardly any effort, and all her flying about and frantic chirping would be in vain.

In a bird, such a search for security is funny at best and annoying at worst. But in us, it is a stark and sad reminder of how far we are from Eden; that our only really safety lies not in security systems or gated suburbs, but in crying out to God for protection and help. Our security is in recognition of just how fragile and small our bird’s nests are, but knowing that though we will face evil and we will suffer and we will die, our God carries us through. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but let us hope to trust only in the name of the Lord our God.