A Peninsula Divided

A theology student from Montreal visits the Korean DMZ with students from the Asian Pacific region to call for peace.

This blog post was first published on the United Church of Canada’s Website by People in Partnership on November 14, 2018.

In 2009, at the age of 19, my mother passed away from breast cancer.

I think, when we’re faced with profound injustice that we can’t comprehend fully, we are often brought back to experiences of our own where the piercing sensation of unfairness has touched us. That’s what I was thinking as I stood in Imjingak, Paju, Korea looking at the remembrance wall where South Korean families bring messages for their loved ones on the other side of the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

The boundary that separates my mom from me is not some manufactured liminal space. It is concrete. It cannot be crossed or reversed. Standing there and looking at the messages left by families, and the messages of peace and reunification, I couldn’t help but think of the legacy of sadness this place represented. I had met numerous people that week, in Seoul, who told me about family (immediate and extended) who they couldn’t see, or know, because of the 1945 division of the Korean Peninsula by Russia and the United States. I kept thinking how much my heart would ache if I knew my mom was just there—out of reach.

A group of students hold a banner calling for peace at the Korean DMZ.
Delegates from the conference outside the Mariest Education Center, Seoul, Korea.

I was in South Korea this past August as a member of a delegation with the World Student Christian Federation for the “The Prophetic Calling for Peace: Ecumenical Students and Youth for Sustainable Peace in Korean Peninsula” peace conference. I was the only North American among members from Asia Pacific. We were invited to come to the peninsula to learn about peacemaking from Korean students, theologians, church leaders, and the profoundly inspiring women’s movement. The Korean Student Christian Federation hosted us for a week, teaching us about the history and possibilities for the future of the peninsula. Part of this included our trip to the DMZ in Paju.

For that week I learned about how the U.S. military industrial complex still maintains incredible power in the peninsula, contravening the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953. I learned how soldiers of not just Japan, but the U.S., used and abused the “comfort women” of South Korea, and these “grandmothers’” continued struggle for recognition and a formal apology. I learned how the South Korean military, controlled by a U.S. army general, shapes the formative years of every able-bodied young man through mandatory conscription. I learned that denuclearization of the North makes little sense when no peace treaty has been signed, and other global powers use their own nuclear weapons as a constant threat—whole world denuclearization is the only reasonable option.

During a visit to the Korean DMZ, students gathered before a large colourful sign made up of the letters, "DMZ".
Delegates at the DMZ’s “fourth tunnel”, Paju, Korea.

I was also deeply inspired by the other young people I met, from across Korea and Asia Pacific, who cared fiercely about justice and peace issues. Together, we formed a circle of global prophetic voices calling for peace everywhere, not just on the Korean Peninsula. In our communiqué for WSCF Global we wrote that peacemaking “calls on the life-giving power of truth, love, and unity in diversity. It resists the destructive powers of anxiety, fear, control and greed. Peacebuilding comes from a place of ‘inner peace’, which for us, as Christians and ecumenical partners, is derived from a life of faith and the inspiring story of the radical Jesus Christ.” Noting that we each were taking a seed of peace, gifted to us by our Korean siblings, we returned back to our own homes emboldened to work together for peace.

Selina Mullin is a student at the United Theological College and participated as a Pilgrim in Mission in A Prophetic Calling for Peace: Ecumenical Students and Youth for Sustainable Peace in Korean Peninsula, hosted by Mission & Service partner the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in August 2018.

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More Guilt? Yes, Please! How Our Church Has Co-Opted Shame and Disguised It as Guilt

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on May 21, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “near-enemy” used before? No? Well, a near-enemy is when two things look very similar but are intrinsically different. I first read the phrase in a Louise Penny book, where she wrote about a woman who appeared compassionate and caring, but in fact wanted others to be totally helpless so they would need her. The woman seemed to have good intentions, but she was, in fact, hurting others so that she could receive gratitude from them. A near-enemy appears to be one thing while in reality it is another; it masquerades as a more noble version of itself.

Shame, in my opinion, is the near-enemy of guilt. Shame is a debilitating sense of humiliation or sadness; it immobilizes us and disintegrates our confidence. Guilt, on the other hand, is a pro-social reaction to how our actions affect others. Guilt helps us make our way through the world — it is the internal compass of our decision making.

Our churches have co-opted shame and parade it as guilt.

Here is an example. When I was little, I was told that to have a sexual thought in my mind was just as bad as if I committed the act (see Purity Culture). That’s an idea with a biblical basis (see Matt. 5:28). So, every time I had an even remotely sexual thought, I felt ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body, of my mind, and genuinely believed I was a bad person because of it.

Logically, this idea is absolutely ridiculous! Natural responses to stimuli from the world around us shouldn’t be morally policed. I developed depression as an adolescent and I believe this type of thinking played a large part in that, because it extended into so many areas of my life. No matter how hard I tried, I saw myself as a “bad person,” because all I could do was fail the impossible standards the church set for me. I was trapped in a body that, I felt, kept betraying me. I could never achieve the behaviour that I thought God wanted from me; which, apparently, was a totally sexless, emotionally unaffected, and endlessly generous saint — a goal I’ve since given up.

No wonder I was depressed! I’m lucky to have had some amazing counselors and fellow people of faith who’ve been able to speak into my life and start to put an end to that horrible way of thinking. I know I still have so much damage to undo, and more shame to deconstruct and put to rest.

Shame is a self-destructive cycle; guilt is a pro-social feeling.

Shame is a feeling of humiliation, of hopelessness, that can become chronic. It can poison us and erode any sense of our own goodness. Guilt, however, helps us to learn from our mistakes; it invites us to reflect on how we treat others, their feelings and needs (hence it is “pro-social”). Guilt also motivates us to apologize, and experiencing it allows us to forgive more easily. When we understand what it means to be on the offending side, to experience guilt, we also come to understand what it means to be repentant.

Let’s return to our example. If I had been sexually active at the time, the questions I should have asked include: How do my actions affect others? What are my intentions? Am I honouring myself and my sexual partner? Am I respecting them, their body, and their autonomy? Do I see them as a whole person or just a sexual object?

If I had indeed been harming others with my actions, then my concern would have been warranted. But that wasn’t the case, instead I was immobilized by shame, which prevented me from honouring myself the way God made me — a sexual being.

There is no repentance without guilt.

Nowadays, we see folks leaving the churches of their childhood, saying, “I can’t stand the guilt.” A church in Calgary even has a sign outside it that says “We don’t do guilt!” Theoretically, I love that, but I wish I could cross out the word “guilt” and pencil overtop the word “shame.”

I hope I’ve convinced you that guilt isn’t a bad thing. It’s a big part of living in community and doing justice work. In both instances, we invite people to reflect on their actions, and, if necessary, repent. We can never be truly repentant if we don’t have guilt. If we repent because we’re terrified of an eternity of pain, then we’re only paying lip service to a God who controls us with fear. Guilt is about wanting to be in good relation with the world around us — our neighbours, our God, the earth — making amends, and choosing a better path.

So, let’s put the guilt back in church!

I want to hear folks shouting like the biblical prophets at people who put their greed over the lives of their human family. I want to see folks feeling convicted (i.e. guilty) because they’ve helped to propagate white supremacy, which harms racialized people in countless ways. I want men to feel the pang of guilt when they realize the ways they’ve contributed to misogyny in their lives. Then, I want all of us to do something about it. Shame festers and immobilizes, whereas guilt calls us to new ways of life and relationship. Honestly, that sounds a lot like the Gospel.

A theology of ‘chosen family’ liberates us from toxic relationships

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on April 2, 2018

Does Jesus call us to forgive, accept, and maintain toxic relationships with family? Does Jesus want us to honour abusive parents?

For too long the church has preached a message that calls victims of abuse, both physical and emotional, to keep open painful and dangerous family connections for the sake of “Christian family values.” This kind of thinking always infuriated me, and I asked myself, is this how Jesus wanted us to live our lives? But, after turning to the Gospel of Mark, my answer to that question is now an emphatic hell no!

In Mark 3:19b-35, we read a strange story of Jesus rejecting his family. At the beginning of the chapter he goes home, and arriving there is swarmed by a crowd. His family hears about this and goes to investigate. Apparently, his behaviour post-Baptism and desert experience is radically different from before. Frankly, his mom and siblings are not happy about it. He’s just so different than we remember, maybe it’s who he’s been hanging out with? Maybe it’s a phase?

They try to intervene and a discussion ensues as to whether he has been overcome with an evil spirit. Sound familiar to any of my queer friends? Of course, little do they know he has been “overshadowed” by a spirit–but one of divine origins.

Fast forward a bit … in Mark 3:31-35 I think it is no coincidence that Jesus’s family is outside the gathered crowd of believers and followers; they are both physically and socially outside his circle. When the crowd tells him that his family is calling him, he responds with a question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33 NRSV)

Cold, right? Well, who are these people who tried to shut him up, tried to stop him from being who he is? Jesus makes a clear distinction between those within his circle and those outside of it—despite biology, it is faith and obedience that determine kinship for him. “And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (3:34-35 NRSV).

This promise of a new kinship is especially interesting in light of later developments in Mark. In Mark 10:29-31, Jesus says:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV, emphasis added)

With this new kinship comes a rejection of the old, but it appears to me that Jesus is not merely calling his followers to reject their families. This rejection serves a purpose: to better allow them to serve God and live out their faith. Jesus’s family attempted to hinder him in his work, from living out who he was after his transformative experience, so he rejects them. So, too, his followers might need to reject their own families if they try and prevent them from being who God calls them to be.

The Christian witness begins with a counter-cultural message that focuses on constructed kinship over biological ties, as seen in both Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters. There are many similarities between the two, including the idea of faith and obedience as the key indicators of kinship in Christian community (Galatians 3, Romans 4). Paul’s communities are ruled, above all, by love, which has no place for toxicity (1 Corinthians 13 for the win!).

However, a shift takes place over the next few centuries of Christian thought, and we begin to see the biological family emphasized as a microcosm of Christian community (such as in later texts like Colossian, Ephesians, Titus, 1 Peter and 1 Timothy)—i.e. it became institutionalized. This shift led to what many contemporary Christians now view as the idealized “Christian family values.”

Yet, there is space within the biblical text for the idea of “chosen family”—for families we create for ourselves with or without biological connections. Jesus’s new kinship is based not on biology but on faithfulness, and prioritizes healthy community-based in mutual love and respect.

Jesus encourages his followers to disconnect from harmful relationships that hinder their faith journey, and I believe a modern parallel can be drawn with the LGBTQ2IA+ community’s emphasis on “chosen family.” For those who have been abused or rejected by their family, Christian community at its best offers a new family that honours each person as they are. Jesus, the liberator, frees us from the power of sin, death, and toxicity.