December 24, 2017
It is perhaps one of the most hackneyed sermons that is regularly delivered by ministers on Christmas and it starts out with the words “what would Jesus say?” The sermon typically enumerates the sins of materialism and superficiality and demonstrates how they have reduced Christmas to a celebration of the senses and an indulgence of the ego. Most church-goers are entirely capable of listening to the sermon, nodding in agreement and then going out into a world of the most radical materialistic ideology without batting an eyebrow.
I never wanted to be a preacher, and I approach this topic with trepidation. But this year I feel oddly compelled by the deeply unhealthy trends I see in Korea, and in the societies of many nations, to suggest that this time it is not enough to talk about these problems in the abstract. This time we must take the first step in the right direction by confronting the truth.
I am afraid these days to walk in Gwanghwamun because I will encounter numerous people ringing bells for Salvation Army and looking at me with imploring eyes that demand that I make a donation. Or there are young people asking me to sign up for some program to give a fixed amount of money every month for some worthy cause or another.
I have given money on several occasions to these groups, but I have reached the limit.
No, it is not the limit. Nor is it the many articles that touch on the serious question of how much of the money given to “save the polar bears” campaigns actually goes beyond the bureaucracy.
The problem is a profound one. It is not merely that I do not always have spare change, or that I regret having to disappoint the young people who are out trying to raise money for good causes. Rather I am bothered by this feeling that if I made more money, if I could make a large donation of cash, I could do more good.
Such an assumption that having more money means we can do more good, however, is completely out of line with the teachings of Jesus. Nowhere in his sayings does he ever suggest that having more money will make one a more virtuous being. If anything, Jesus is best known for his statement that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
There is so much that one can do to help other people, but the only option that is offered to us is the chance to give money to some organization with which we have no connection.
I have asked many of these groups about what I can do to contribute and invariably I am told that a monetary contribution is the only path. Like the indulgence in expensive presents and pricy Christmas vacations, such modern practices are distant from what we actually see in the teachings of Jesus which I naively associate with Christmas.
I was invited to give a talk for a Christian youth group recently at a fancy church in Seoul recently. The church, with its marble and soaring staircase reminded me of the Hyatt Hotel. The event was enjoyable and I was impressed by the ideas that some of the students expressed about how they would devote themselves to service. But at the same time, I heard a voice in my head demanding that I ask them why their church had to be so lavish, and why they had to attend such elite colleges.
Of course, to say something like that would be a condemnation of myself –which was no doubt the intention of that voice. I grew up in a family which had the financial means, and which provided me with the intellectual environment, necessary to attend excellent schools. Ultimately, the criticisms of what I saw all pointed back to me.
The next day, I stopped at Seoul Citizen’s Hall, the open space in the basement beneath the new Seoul City hall, for a few hours to finish my grading. I sat down on one of the padded benches towards the back that are open to the public. When the Citizen’s Hall opened five years ago, these innovative spaces were quite popular with young people who would hang out on the foam mattresses and converse.
I was startled to find this time that the space is now full of homeless people seeking shelter from the cold.
Let us be honest: the radical concentration of wealth is not just something happening far away in other countries, but is directly impacting Korean society as well — granted the media does not touch much on the plight of the poor. That gross inequity, which is only getting worse, should be the focus of our concerns for Christmas, and yet we spend our time pretending it does not exist.
I had a chance to speak with some of the homeless who gathered to keep warm in the Citizen’s Hall and I came away convinced that they were people who would not have been there a few years ago. You have to ask how long it will be before we will be joining them. I do not pose that question facetiously.
If Jesus were wandering around in Seoul, where do you think he would be?
Would he attending a luxurious Gangnam Church, drinking a café latte in the lounge?
I doubt he would be allowed in.
Would he be buying perfume, or designer handbags, at a glimmering department store?
He would have neither the money nor the interest.
Jesus spent his time with beggars, outcasts and prostitutes, and he was shunned by the well-to-do in his time.
He would most likely have been on one of the back benches at the Citizen’s Hall, talking with the middle-aged woman with a sleeping bag and a bag full of assorted items who tried to sleep there, but was repeatedly asked to get up by a security guard.
It seems unlikely we can make any progress in addressing the increasing fragmentation of our society by giving bits of change to charity groups on the street.
Nor can we expect large grants from billionaires to solve our torments.
The world will start to change only when we are ready to engage and work with those who form the invisible classes around us, only when we say thank you to the people who make our food and clean our offices, and treat them as our equals; only when we show concern for the futures of the young people working in coffee shops. Only when we realize that the position in society that those others have has nothing to do with their merits or their qualities. Only when we think of them like family, like friends, only then will change come.
Might we be able to see people in a manner that is not monetary? Will we be willing to recognize that for all its convenience and thrills, the market economy has reduced people to things, products for consumption and disposal?
I would suggest that it will not be too many Christmases in the future that we will face an even bleaker reality if we do not face it now.