You look around the world today, and the powerful – they rule earth. The history of humanity is consisted of people trying to subjugate others into their control. Why? I asked this question to myself many times. Is this the fate of the world? Where the powerful rule while others suffer or do what they can just to get a piece of the crumbs? So when St. Paul says in today’s passage that for those of us being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God. What’s he talking about? I’d like to reflect on that today. Reverend Kim asked me to share a little bit too, about a trip to Cuba that Pastor Dave and I took recently. We had the privilege of going there as part of our study at Knox College, and it was a short trip – one week – but it was a trip that sparked so many thoughts and reflections that I’m still processing right now.
One thing I really learned about what mission is, is that a real mission is just an encounter. And through an encounter with something that’s different from what you’re familiar with, it actually sparks a lot of reflection on yourself. And through that process it makes you more humble and alive to what the world is more about. So that’s what happened. On the last day there we visited an art gallery, a local art gallery. And in the art gallery there were sculptures produced by this famous Cuban artist, his name is Osmany Betancourt Falcon, otherwise known as “Lolo”. I have a picture here. In the first sculpture we see the head of a man. He’s being stomped on by many boots, but if you look at his face, he’s still smiling.
Next sculpture, we see the head of this man – he’s being cut scene, squeezed, pressed from all sides. But if you look at his face closely, there’s still a smile on this face. So to me, art, without me having to articulate it, it really does epitomize quite vividly, I think, the experience of the Cuban people. Cubans, they’ve been through so much, they’ve endured so much. I don’t have time here to go through the entire history lesson. But yet through all this, they’ve come through it with a vibrancy in their souls that’s reflected in their music, in their rhythms, in their art and in their dancing. So for one thing, live bands are everywhere. For the first three nights we were in Havana and we stayed at a hotel there, and there was a live band in the lobby. We enjoyed the music with some drinks, and when the music got a little lively the local Cubans started dancing, and one night they came to us, these Canadian Knox students and pulled us up to start dancing. You could clearly tell who were the Canadians and who were the Cubans – we lack the hip mobility. But it was fun. I mean you know, that kind of hospitality and warmth.
One thing that really stood out is that you see art everywhere. There’s paintings, drawings, sculptures. It was a big contrast to here where I realized we don’t really see that much art. The art we see is the commercialized art for branding purposes, but not that free expression. But one observation I had was that I think there’s a struggle at this moment in their state or stage, where they’re trying to keep the human being at the center while trying to access more of the material benefits that capitalism can offer. I sensed that Cuba is at a transition point where choices have to be made about what direction they go. And some of the conversations I had, I think, illustrate some of these choices. So at the art gallery, I spoke to a young curator who shared with me a struggle that a lot of young people face in Cuba. They can choose a career through which they can help people because education is free there and you can become a professional and you can get a PhD for free and you can get into a helping profession, but you’ll make it very meager salary. Or you can go to one of those resorts, get a job there and make more money than you would have ever dreamed of with all the tourist money that comes in.
We met some seminary students there where we stayed, a few hours from Havana. Now these people impressed me. They’re young – they’re 19, 20 years old – they’re undergrads, but they studied full time during the week, Monday to Friday, and then on weekends they trek out to their various ministries across the island because there’s a big shortage of pastors in Cuba. Many have already left, emigrated to the United States, so there’s a shortage, so they are the ministers for their churches. But here’s the thing, hardly anyone has cars. There’s no credit system and so you need to pay a lump sum for cars and no one has a car. So they take the bus, they hitchhike, they go by any means necessary to their locales. So admirable. One of the students was sharing and his mother was a professional psychologist at a hospital in Havana. It’s a very educated and helping profession. She makes 30 US dollars a month. How can you afford anything? When we’re at the hotel lobby and we’re like, oh, $2 drinks, sweet. Right? So cheap. But after all this I realize, that’s a lot of money for Cubans. So what does the future hold for Cuba? Will they be able to maintain their vibrant humanity as capitalism keeps encroaching into their daily life? So I wonder, and I pray for the future of the country.
One aspect – it was a funny thing – being in Cuba, really made me think a lot about just our Korean history itself. I saw a lot of striking parallels, and I do hope to reflect more on that another day, another time.
If You Didn’t Know History…
In the era of the Roman Empire, Roman power was absolute. Once they decided to conquer an area, its aim was complete submission of that region. They would tolerate no dissent or absolutely no agitation for independence. They came up with a system devised to instill terror into the hearts of those who might even think of rebelling against this absolute power. This system was implemented to exert complete social control. This system was crucifixion. Crucifixion was meant to tell the defeated and subjugated group that resistance really was utterly futile and that they were powerless to resist. And if they been tried, terror would sweep upon them. So in other words, crucifixion was a message to the powerless group that this is your place and don’t try to be otherwise. This is how the Romans enforced their Pax Romana, Roman peace. Roman peace through force and subjugation and terror.
God came into this world, according to our Christian faith and tradition, God came into this world and suffered the ultimate form of powerlessness, and God was crushed by the power of this world. God was crucified. God chose to suffer, as the weak and crushed of this world suffer. God and Jesus did not choose the path of power and glory as the world understands it. And here’s the other thing that the Roman system of crucifixion did: it scared people from banding together and supporting others who are suffering. So the message was, okay, if you don’t want to love us, you don’t have to, but try to get together and do anything and you will be utterly crushed. For us today, I think we all know there is so much suffering and injustice that goes on in the world. And yeah, being there in Cuba, listening to different things, I realize in the broader world there’s so much injustice and suffering. We see things on the news all the time and yet, I think we find ourselves often very numb to it. Or we might have a momentary feeling compassion, but then we move on. It’s very difficult for us to be in true solidarity with those who do suffer. So why is this the case?
Again, being in Cuba and seeing the transitions they’re going through and the choices they have to make, it made me realize something. Being in a different context just made me realize how much, in North America, we’re utterly captive to the power of capitalism. Without even knowing it, the values of capitalism have pervaded every aspect of our daily living. What it does is, it keeps us focused on ourselves and prevents us from banding together in true solidarity with others who might be suffering.
The Romans had a slogan that they used: peace and security. This is the slogan that they used to justify their domination. So there’s a quote from a biblical scholar, “Everywhere that Rome makes an appearance, the provision of peace and security is made to justify the loss of autonomy and more than compensate for all the initial terrors.” This was a strategy that Rome used.
I reflected on this quote and it started to make me think about our context today. So what I did was I replaced the word Rome with capitalism. And I replaced a few words… “Everywhere that capitalism makes an appearance, the provision of peace and security – I replaced it with the provision of financial and material well-being – is made to justify the loss of autonomy and more than compensated for all the initial terrors.” I kept those other two words and I’ll explain why. Financial material well-being justifies the loss of our autonomy. Let’s ask ourselves an honest question… if you did not have to really do your job to make money, would you be doing it? I think there’s maybe a few who would say, “Yes, I love what I do and this is me,” and that’s great, but I know for many people the answer is no.
We are, if you think about it, in bondage to the jobs that provide the financial and material well-being. And what do I mean by compensate for all the initial terrors? What I mean by that is – when I, you know, in my ministry with young people too – during the course of trying to figure out what we’re going to do, we have to often make radical changes in ourselves and who we are so that we fit into the system. As an example, I remember in middle school I moved to a brand new area. This was a very affluent area and I came from a very different area. I felt like a fish out of water. I mean, I had to learn how they talk, how they walk, literally, you know, and it was, it’s like a violent change within yourself that you have to make to adjust psychologically. Same with when you get into the professional world – there were norms, social norms, behavioral norms, things like that. You just, you have to learn and pick things up even if it doesn’t feel natural or in your skin, you have to make that adjustment. And often these are internally violent changes in yourself. I mean, I use a funny example once, you know, I see some young Koreans kicking it back at a soju-bang, you know, and they’re themselves! They’re laughing, drinking, talking, and then they go to karaoke sing songs, and that’s them. But then flip it the next day a professional function for like Bay Street people and it’s an entirely different person, do you know what I mean? These are the kind of internal violent changes that we have to make. But we justified these initial terrorists with the financial material well-being. “Because that is what I need to do, that’s what I got to do, and I justify it.”
So what it is, this system, it keeps us captive I think, it makes us numb to the suffering of others and it keeps us focused on ourselves and our immediate families and our communities. And this is what I’ve realized. I think we’re, just as in Roman times there were visible victims of that system, we too are victims in many ways of the system. I talk to our young people weekly, and the same struggles; “I need to study hard. I need to do this in order to succeed. I don’t want to be a failure.” The system, it’s just less visible. There’s no visible, explicit oppression, but there is something that holds us captive. I realized that cross that was a symbol of terror in Roman times, you know what that cross is today? The cross can appear as having no job, no money, not being able to afford the things that you need, not being useful. So where’s the hope? Do we run away from this system or do we try to topple it? I don’t think either is the solution.
See when Jesus died on the cross, nothing about the raw power of the Roman empire changed. It was just as powerful as before, if not even more. But something else changed. No longer did the ways and values of the empire have any hold on Jesus. Jesus resurrected. And with the resurrection, Jesus announced the coming of a new age. This wasn’t – this would be an age when love, self-giving, humility and justice would reign.
This age was not here yet, nor is it here yet. But that resurrection, it points to the ultimate destination of God’s creation. That’s the hope. But why does there have to be such enormous suffering in the meantime before God’s reign comes? Honestly, I don’t know, and I do ask myself that all the time. To me, the suffering in the world demonstrates the reality of sin in this world, and to ignore human sin I think, is to be naive about it.
But the good news is that – even though we have suffered this violence in our souls of trying to adapt and survive – you know what the goods news is? Tomorrow can be a better day. That is the hope of the resurrection. This system, it crushes our souls but yet, with Christ, we rise up for a better day. No longer do we let the system suck life out of our souls, but with Christ we rise up into a new life of joy, abundance and fullness.
We live in this world, but we no longer buy into the values of it like self centered-ness. Instead, we now live by God’s values of love, justice, and solidarity with others who are weak like us. God chose to side with those who are weak. God takes on the powerlessness of those who suffer great injustices. God takes on our helplessness in this capitalistic system we live in. God forms us together in communities based on new values, and that is what the church is. The church is an alternative community where the core principles of love, self giving and solidarity with the weak are paramount.
Even though in the world the powerful seem more powerful than ever, we press on with the hope that God will have the final triumph. And so, while life is challenging in its day-to-day, we can endure. St. Paul said this in 2 Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed. Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
I pray for the future of Cuba. I pray for this world, especially those who suffer at the hands of the powerful. And I also pray for all those of us who are victims of the system and suffer from stress or low self confidence of trying to succeed in it. God will be victorious in the end. In the meantime, we strive with every ounce of our being to work toward the world that God envisioned. Let us all together imagine this new world and work toward it with God’s power.