'To the least of these'
A few months ago, a friend and I went bowling. On the way back, we walked down a subway and on the stairs of cold concrete, an old man was kneeling prostrate, his face on the dirty floor, begging for money. We gave him a few thousand won. The well-fed business men walking behind us scornfully laughed at the beggar, and said, ``He needs to work.”
Korea is a little over 40 percent Christian. America is over 90 percent Christian. Yet, in both countries, poverty is an ever-growing social problem, and the gap between the wealthy and everyone else has widened, exacerbated by the global financial crisis of 2008.
I mention Christianity because American politics, consumed by the presidential campaign, often touches on religiosity. That is, what presidential candidate is the most ``Christian.” What the question really means, especially for conservative Christians, is what are your theological convictions? On abortion, gay rights, the nuclear family, and so on.
As I’ve written before, these questions are important for people’s private lives. Religion, after all, is constructed not simply to negotiate a relationship with the divine, but also to teach us how to conduct ourselves in our daily lives.
Jesus, and Buddha, for that matter, never spoke about women’s reproductive rights, gun rights, corporate tax breaks, homosexuality, or the kind of suit or dress to wear to church. Jesus did, according to scriptures, repeatedly focus on the socially marginalized amongst us: the widow, the woman of ill-repute, the racial minority, and most often, the poor. In fact, Jesus’ prescription to enter heaven was very simple, and the wealthy may have a hard time getting there.
My disappointment with Christians has been the same for many years. Societies that claim to be the most Christian have very poor records on aiding the socially marginalized. Koreans, like Americans, see poverty as a sin of the individual.
In fact, poverty is the sin of the society. That we allow so many to live in economically precarious conditions, not knowing where their daily bread will come from, working two and sometimes three jobs without making a living wage, is a testament to Christian hypocrisy, a hypocrisy espoused by Korean Christians, who too often go out into the streets and proselytize, but do very little to help the neediest. They are preoccupied with the ``spirit,” while the corporeal self, the physical body, the very flesh in which they believe an eternal soul is housed, goes wanting, distressed, and dying.
Poor wages, very little support for mothers before and after childbirth, lax corporate regulations, lower and lower taxes for the richest amongst us…these policies are not “pro-family,” quite the opposite. At least in Korea, this idea of social Darwinism, where wealth and success is seen more as a present-day re-enactment of The hunger games, where the weak, poor, and disadvantaged are seen as human detritus, not human life, haven’t been fully embraced by Korean society. Let’s hope they never do.
Yet, in practice, the hyper-competition in Korea, the lack of adequate social programs for the poor, the elderly, the newly-born, the very young, the orphaned, the sexual and racial minorities, even the thinly-veiled disdain for these aforementioned groups, is evident to anyone with eyes to see.
The well-fed businessmen who laughed and mocked the poor man begging on an almost-cold evening in the middle of Seoul were Christian. I know because we heard them speaking of their future church activities.
Luckily morality, like cruelty, malice, love and empathy, are intrinsic within the human condition. One needs not be of any faith to care for others. But those businessmen, who knew, and most probably will only know, of warm beds and plates of plenty, should be ashamed. Their faith, like with so many others, is pretense and little else.
Finally, according to Matthew 25:40, of the King James Bible, Jesus commented, ``And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
The writer holds a master's degree in English literature and literary theory and is currently an English professor outside of Seoul. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.