Mission Review - Anchored on our Rock, Striving for Unity in Diversity: Ad Fontes

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Last Updated (Thursday, 29 April 2021 19:36)

Anchored on our Rock, Striving for Unity in Diversity: Ad Fontes

Yoon-Jae Chang

There is one of my favorite proverbs. "If you don't live as you think, you will think as you live." I do not know who said it, but that is true. If we think that obesity is bad for our body, we have to eat less and move a lot. If we think as we live, we translate the English word “diet” as “from tomorrow,” and rationalize the way we live today. "We must be a thinking people," said Ham Seok-heon, a great Christian thinker in Korea, whom we celebrate the 120th anniversary of his birth this year.

These words remind us of the importance of the human mind. Humans are thinking reeds. Humans live by will. Pure Korean calls the human mind as “Eol,” which also means the spirit. The Korean refers to place where there is a hole in and out of the “Eol” as “Eol-Gool.” It means the “face.” There is a difference between the “head” and the “face.” The head is the upper part of the human body or the front part of the body in animals. The face is a part of a person that we use to reckon or refer to a person. In the understanding of Koreans, the face, or “Eol-Gool,” is the place where the “Eol,” or spirit, comes in and out and forms a character. Therefore, when the “Eol” is lost, humans become like zombies. In Korean, “a person who lacks Eol” refers to a man or woman who is confused and stupid.


It seems that this story applies not only to one person. It seems like the same goes for families, groups, society, and country. A person who has no clear idea, of who he/she is, where he/she comes from, where he/she is going, and why he/she exists, is a person who has no “Eol.” In the same way, a family, group, society, or nation that has no “Eol,” no matter how large and old, becomes a being with a lack of “Eol.”

People say that the world situation is changing so rapidly, and that is why a crisis emerged. That is not true. The world, the situation always changes. Crisis does not come from changing circumstances. A crisis arises when you forget who you are. When you lose your identity, your uniqueness, and the reason for your existence, that is, your mind or “Eol,” the crisis has already begun. It is the same for individuals, families, groups, societies, and nations.

Yonsei University, from which I graduated, is one of the oldest universities in Korea. The name “Yonsei” is a combination of the first letter of “Yon-hee” University and the first letter of “Severance” Hospital. Yonsei University's Severance Hospital is a Christian hospital and is one of Korea's top five hospitals. This hospital changed its hospital identity in 1999, ahead of the 21st century millennium. Since “Gwang-hye-won,” Korea's first Western-style hospital in 1885, the Severance Hospital has emphasized the spirit of Christianity for a long time. Then, it wanted to emphasize the medical excellence that other hospitals do not have. To this end, the leadership paid a large amount of money to Samsung Planning Company, the best agency in Korea, and entrusted to it everything of Severance, to change it “from head to toe.” However, six months later, Korea’s top planning agency presented the concept of a 21st-century Hospital Identity to Severance Hospital, an image of a hospital that will be "Saving Humankind from Disease through the Love of God."

It was a shock because the hospital stakeholders had long emphasized the Christian spirit, and they wanted to get away from it. However, in the eyes of the outside experts, the spirit of Christian love marks the distinct uniqueness, and excellence of Severance Hospital from the other hospitals. An adage says that when a person is sick, he/she wants to catch a straw. Apart from Christians and non-Christians, anyone who suffers from disease would want to rely on the transcendent power: “God's love.” What a warm word! This word transcends religion and can gain universality and empathy for everyone. You can see that real power emanates when you demonstrate your unique identity, not in exclusivity and arrogance, but inclusiveness and humility. “Differentiate the beauty that only you have, the history, identity, and spirit that only you have.” This was the message from the planning agency to the Severance Hospital. Currently, the Severance Hospital has become the most profitable hospital in Korea. Net profit per year exceeds 500 million U.S. dollars.

The apostle Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for this Gospel is the power of God who gives salvation to all believers.” (Romans 1:16)

I am currently teaching theology at Ewha Womans University, just across from Yonsei University. I am also serving Korea YMCA as the chairperson of the Purpose and Project Committee, and as the vice-chairperson of the Board of Trustees. The mandate of the Purpose and Project Committee is to develop, share, and educate the “Eol” of the Korean YMCA. In 2014, when the Korea YMCA celebrated its 100th anniversary, I, as the chairperson of the Purpose and Project Committee, revised the purpose statement of the institution. Since then, I have been traveling all around the nation visiting 60 local YMCAs and giving a lecture on the newly revised purpose statement.

The education I do is, in simple terms, about the “C” of the Y.M.C.A, because it is the most important letter out of the four. Dr. David K. Suh, who is my predecessor in the Purpose and Project Committee, once traveled to a city in the United States. At sunset, as he was driving into the city, the neon signs started to brighten one by one. The neon signs of the YMCA in that city also started to light up. However, for some reasons, the letter “C” did not light up. Only Y.M. and A became visible in the darkness. Dr. Suh made a bitter smile saying, “This is the reality of the YMCAs in the US today.”

I have given lectures on this “C” while traveling all over Korea. YMCA's “C” is now a contentious “C.” YMCA folks think it is something good to have with us, but it would be okay without it. Yet, YMCA must remember this is letter explains the reason, identity, purpose, and spirit of our existence. It makes our movement distinct from all other movements, deeper and brighter. It is the power to create and to imagine the unimaginable. When we are not ashamed of this “C” as Paul said, it becomes God’s power to open the ways when there is no way.

This “C” has been shining brightly in the Korean YMCA's 127-character purpose statement. Let me read it: “The Korean YMCA is where young people learn and train together according to the gospel and life of Jesus Christ, cultivate a sense of historical responsibility and a sense of life, work for the realization of love, justice, and peace, improving the welfare of the people, peaceful reunification the country, and creating a new culture. It aims to make the kingdom of God come true on this earth.” This is the Korean YMCA's spirit, or “Eol.” The most important word in this statement of purpose is “the kingdom of God.” The reason for the existence of the Korean YMCA is "to make the kingdom of God come true on this earth." This is surprisingly the same as our “Paris Basis” that says:

“The Young Men's Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour, according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of his Kingdom amongst young men.”

It is crystal-clear. The reason for World YMCA's existence is “to extend the kingdom” among young people. Although the wording is slightly different, the purpose and mission of World YMCA and Korean YMCA are the same: “God's kingdom on earth.” I believe that this gospel of God’s kingdom on earth proclaimed by Jesus Christ is our rock on which we must anchor. I also believe that this very kingdom of God can show us the deepest meaning of what we usually call the “unity in diversity.”

The core of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth is the kingdom of God. He said, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel.”(Mark 1:15). What is the kingdom of God? According to the Scripture, God's kingdom is “God's sovereign rule.” In other words, the kingdom is realized when God rules the world. Jesus taught us to pray for this kingdom to be real here on this earth, not after our death. (Matthew 6:10) Just imagine. What kind of kingdom would it be if the God of love, justice, and life, not those world potentates, directly rule this world?

Jesus of Nazareth always explained the kingdom of God with an easy-to-understand living metaphor. Among his many parables, the “parable of mustard herb” in Mark 4:30-32 (or Matthew 13:31-32, Luke 13:18-19) is perhaps the most important of what he meant by the kingdom of God.

“He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’”(Mark 4:30-32)

People usually interpret this as something very grand, although the beginning of the kingdom of God is weak. However, 2,000 years ago, Jesus' “first audience” did not understand it that way. They would have probably laughed as they listened to this parable. Jesus, who was a carpenter, seemed to be unaware of farming. No bird in the air would ever dwell in the shade of a mustard herb field full of snakes. However, soon their faces must have turned white in shock because it is very dangerous to compare the kingdom of God that way. The kingdom of God is not a story that Jesus began anew. For a very long time, that was what the Jews have been waiting for. At that time, the Jews listened and heard about the kingdom lying on their grandmother's lap from an early age. Traditionally, however, the kingdom was represented by the image of a giant cedar tree in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel (17:22-23, 31:1-6), and Daniel (4:7-9, 19).

“Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel, I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” (Ezekiel 17:22-23)

The traditional imagery of the kingdom of God is cedar, a huge tree that grows up to 30 meters tall. It is so large that three or four adults must hold hands and surround it to determine the perimeter. This tree can shelter "birds of all sorts nest under it and live in the shade of its branches." The reason why this parable is certain of the mustard herb metaphor is that Jesus intentionally reminds us of the Ezekiel text, saying that, unlike actual botanical fact a mustard herb “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” You cannot miss it! A fragrant tree, cedar, was the finest wood used only to build temples and palaces, and it symbolized luxury and power. The Jews longed for in Jesus’ days and still long for today this kingdom of God. They longed for a kingdom characterized by the restoration of the glory of the Davidic dynasty, and Israel’s strong military and commercial power. It was a kingdom that suited noble people like the cedar tree.

Nonetheless, Jesus compares this noble kingdom of God to mustard, a herb, which is nothing more than a "weed." Mustard is not a perennial tree. It is an annual herb plant (Brassica family). Moreover, mustard is a plant that Israeli farmers avoided because it spreads rapidly over the land and destroys the soil microbiota. (Therefore, there is a metaphor for more in this. Once the kingdom of God begins, no one can stop it.) In some cases, this plant, which grows up to 3 meters, quickly spreads all over the place, impeding the growth of other plants. There is a similar herb in Korea, and it is mugwort or wormwood (Artemisia vulgaris, 艾草 in Chinese). It has a very strong vitality, so if you leave a little of it on land, it instantly turns into a “wormwood field.” If Jesus were born in Korea, he would have likened the kingdom to this field of mugwort. Now Jesus is overturning the image of the kingdom of God from cedar to mustard herb.

Therefore, this parable was a great shock to the traditional order and thinking of the Jews at that time. The kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus is not an empire supported by military violence and economic exploitation. Rather, it is a kingdom where the nameless and powerless poor of this land, like the weeds, are blessed. Indeed, Jesus said: “Blessed are you poor people. The kingdom of God is yours.” (Luke 6:20) God gives this kingdom of mercy, justice, and grace especially to the poor who were branded as “sinners” by the Jewish purity code at that time.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish society was a society based on so-called the “purity code.” It was a society based on a thorough dichotomy of “the clean vs. the dirty,” “the holy vs. the worldly,” and “the righteous vs. sinner.” Historically, this purity code stemmed from the efforts to preserve the “purity” of the nation in the face of the crisis of maintaining a nation, after the release of the Israelites from captivity in Babylon. However, by the time of Jesus, this purity code was systematically labeling and mass-producing thousands of people as “sinners” every day. The “sinner” in Jesus’ time is different from the sinners we speak of today. Most of the sinners at that time were poor people. They were those who could not keep all the requirements of the law to make a living. The Sabbath was the best example.

On the Sabbath, the Jews do nothing and rest. On this day, walking a lot, making food, and even “cutting the ears of wheat and rubbing them with your hands” (Luke 6:1) were considered “work” and were forbidden. Of course, those who could afford it were able to keep the Sabbath day holy without working. However, the poor had to beg on the Sabbath to feed their hungry and crying children. The Jewish purity code stigmatized them as “sinners.” The Jewish purity code had lumped as “sinners” the people who were poor, blind, lame, cripple, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and the demon-possessed. They were not people of a noble status like cedar, so to speak, but people like the mustard, that is, like weeds. Have you ever felt your life like a weed?

Jesus of Nazareth ate and drank with these “sinners” despite all the accusations and threats of the leaders at that time. As he was happy, he had fellowship with them in the “open table” community. However, Jesus’ practice was socially and religiously taboo. The same is true now. Cultural anthropologists have a term called “commensality.” This recognizes people do not eat simply to solve the pangs of hunger. According to scholars, “the law of the table” exists as a miniature version of social order. For example, in the United States in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement of African-American people started, some young black men entered a white-designated restaurant; however, the restaurant staff sacked these young men when they ordered sandwiches and cola. Even in the so-called modernized, enlightened, and democratic 20th-century American society, the “law of the table” did exist. At that time, a “racially segregated dining table” was a miniature version of the entire American society. However, its opposite image, the “open table,” is the kingdom of God of Jesus Christ. The kingdom was a place where people who are not be treated as humans due to political alienation, economic injustice, social exclusion, and cultural discrimination could enjoy life, peace, joy, and fellowship by eating and drinking together. That is possible when God rules.

Political and religious leaders, however, considered the gospel and life of Jesus Christ as a revolt against social order and religious law. So, Jesus' adversaries criticized him as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” (Matthew 11:19) However, Jesus' answer to this accusation was simple and clear. “I did not come to call [the so-called] the righteous but [the so-called] sinners.”(Mark 2:17). He declared that those “sinners” had the same right and dignity as noble human beings. This is the kingdom of God. That is what happens when God rules the world. The World YMCA, Asia-Pacific YMCA, and Korea YMCA are the movements of Christian young people aiming to “make this kingdom come true” and “extend” this kingdom on earth.

Times have changed, but we ask, what is the modern version of the Jewish purity code that works visibly or invisibly around and among us now? Today, we also discriminate, exclude, hate, and drive people to the periphery, visibly or invisibly, intentionally or unconsciously. We perpetuate the dichotomy of the “clean vs. dirty,” “holy vs. worldly,” and “righteous vs. sinner.” Who are the new "sinners" in our culture, politics, religion, and customs today? Even though times have changed, our human thinking of discriminating differences, our intolerance of differences, and thinking of diversity as a shame, not as a gift, has not changed. The apostle Paul declared, “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 3:28) Based on the gospel of Jesus Christ, he is creating a new way of life, a new way of being family where there is no longer discrimination and exclusion. The “ecclesia” was a form of a new community where, in Letty Russell’s word, “a just hospitality” is the new rule, based on “God’s welcome.” We must understand our slogan of "Unity in Diversity" as the fulfillment of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God. This unity goes beyond simple multiculturalism to heal this world deeply and fatally divided by race, class, gender, and religion to achieve peace of Shalom based on justice. We must anchor the unity in the diversity that we are striving for today on the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the rock, source, and foundation of our faith.

The Renaissance was a cultural movement that took place in Europe in the 14th to 16th centuries. It was a movement to revitalize the learning and knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. The slogan of this movement was “Ad Fontes” in Latin. In English, it is “Back to the sources.” The slogan of the Reformation was also “Ad Fontes.” Martin Luther's Reformation took place when Erasmus returned to the Bible, the source of Christianity, especially to the New Testament, and re-translated it back into the original language of Greek. When Christianity fell and became corrupt, they returned to the very source. To begin anew, therefore, we also have to go back to our sources and start all over. Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom of God is the source we must return to start over. The YMCAs must listen to the call to “extend” or “to make the kingdom of God come true on this earth." This is the “Eol” or spirit of the YMCA, without which the YMCA would be like a dinosaur with a large body and small brain or no brain at all. We must lay our anchor deeply into the gospel of the kingdom of God of Jesus Christ, who is our rock, source, and salvation. “If you don’t live as you think, you will think as you live.”

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for this Gospel is the power of God who gives salvation to all believers.”(Romans 1:16) Amen.