Forgiving the Dead

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By Hatty Lee
Mar 25, 2020 | 7 min read
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I’ve been summoned

It’s past midnight in Korea Standard Time on a Tuesday, and I’m up writing with no rush to get up early tomorrow, as I only teach two days of the week. This nocturnal rhythm is quite normal for many English instructors in Seoul. A year ago, such a life would have sounded unimaginable, but I am here to settle what has plagued me all my years of living abroad, even before my parents immigrated to the States. The reason I’m here, alive, with a blue passport and an eagle seal, landing a “native English speaker” teaching job without any experience or credentials in Daechi-dong, the mecca of Seoul’s private education industry, is because I am a product of the war.

In Korea, when you say “the war”, you can really only mean the Korean War that has torn the peninsula in two. This year marks the 69th anniversary of Yook-i-o, the invasion of the South by the North on June 25, 1950. We have come a long way since the Cold War generation when the word “red” marked you as Communist and could get you killed, land you in jail, or make you disappear altogether. In recent times, Trump shook hands with Kim Jung Un at the DMZ, and there were the denuclearization talks and a historic visit to Pyongyang by the current South Korean President Moon, but I know I’m not the only one skeptical.

Korea has seen many peace talks fizzle out before, ones that start with hopeful expectations, only for whatever policies to break down and no meaningful steps toward real reunification taken. I think about what my grandpa would always say. He was beyond skepticism and carried a deep sense of being wronged, often giving my brother and I an earful, railing against North Koreans — the ones he shot at to kill, the ones who took away his family and pushed him down south. “How the hell could these bastards talk about forgetting the past and becoming ‘reconciled?’ Those Commies, they must pay first! Reunification? Over my dead body!” he’d say.

The question I’ve been asking — of how to reconcile Korea’s bloodsoaked past with my personal present and future — is a task at once impossible yet unavoidable. Faithfulness to Jesus requires one to live an integrated life, or at least try goddamn hard to pull the pieces together. No unsurrendered parts or irrelevant relationships can exist as lone fragments forgotten under the rug; sooner or later, God’s going to pull on that rug, dig up those skeletons, and make you acknowledge your fears and allegiances.

Forgiving the Dead

So I had to come back to Korea as both a Korean and an American, to recount family stories and figure out how to be here in this particular moment in history. This is my attempt of dealing with the fact that my people still bleed from the war that has technically never ended by re-remembering what has happened, and doing my part (however small and seemingly insignificant) to close the eyes of our collective dead.

Define forgiveness

What does it mean to be reconciled? Do we “move on” and act like the wrong done to us or what we’ve done no longer matters? Does forgiving and letting go of the past lead us back to “the way things were”? But you cannot undo the things you have done. There is no going back.

The Old Testament often talks about the forgiveness of sins as tied to the physical healing of persons, an entire landscape, and even people groups. And almost always, forgiveness — and healing as an outward sign of that inward reality — happens when the one in need of both repents. That is, to turn away from whatever was wrong and toward YHWH. The gracious YHWH unfailingly forgives, turning away from the consequences that are due, and restores. This story repeats itself so much that we get bored until the New Testament.

It’s easy to miss, though, that repentance is a costly business involving much blood of prophets, peasant revolts, and monarchical campaigns. Its communal nature and the requirement of tangible actions get lost on those of us who have been raised on the “by faith alone” value of the Reformation. Specifically, North American evangelicalism prefers to paint Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross as an instantaneous moment of removing personal guilt. We didn’t have to do anything, and because of what Christ has done, our relationship with God and with people are restored right then and there. Taken to the extreme, the sin is never remembered, the cross has been eclipsed by the empty tomb, and Jesus turns up alive and just fine.

I’m all for forgiveness of sins, and I will not refute the Scriptures. What I’m trying to get at is this: Jesus comes back from the dead, yes, but his body — his glorious, resurrected, forever-exalted-in-heaven body — bears the scars from his death. His scars tell me that we are going to remember that we have sinned and needed forgiveness. We are not going back to Eden before the Fall to “the way things were”. His scars demand that we remember.

The complication of intergenerational trauma

Trauma is a type of memory, one that can be triggered by a certain stimulus and set off reactions in the body and mind. Our cells respond with chemicals and neurons, and even more remarkably, the brain’s activities can be replicated in others who listen to a person retelling an experience.(1) If this is true, what are the implications of one generation that has experienced war expressing their trauma in the telling of their stories, the passing of laws addressing it, and the production of cultural works that commemorate the event? The next generation growing up in that environment will also develop something similar, both in a collective ethos and personal translation, in response to the trauma that they themselves have not experienced. So the memory lives on. And whatever was wrong — the pain, the sins, the violence — has now passed onto a new group of people.

A complication arises: the unilateral action of a military dictator impacting thousands of people challenges Western Christianity’s framework of an individualized, interpersonal forgiveness. But now the wrong to be forgiven by one generation has mutated in the next generation, with little details of this offense yet an inheritance of all the emotional, socioeconomic, and spiritual baggage of that initial wrong. Then the dictator, along with his generation, dies. So, who forgives whom? Who reconciles with whom? How do you turn the other cheek here?

My paternal grandfather was born in HwangHae Province, most of which has been claimed by North Korea. Grandpa in his teenage years got drafted into the army to fight the Korean War alongside the Americans, and not too long after, he was sent to fight in Vietnam, rising to the rank of a four-star general with multiple presidential medals. He had lived through the Japanese occupation and never forgot to remind his grandchildren of the rations, the trenches, and the hard labor of our poor people. My brother and I would get annoyed with his old-fashioned backwards ways, worlds apart from our sunny Californian high school concerns. I didn’t know yet that behind all the dysfunction and alcohol-induced violence, my grandpa might hold some answers to my future questions on how to live in a divided peninsula.

I wanted nothing to do with any wars. We would shake our heads at irrational adults like him when they hissed at any news about Japan but still drove Hondas and Toyotas. I held the same attitude toward my peers interested in the popular LINK club (Liberation for North Korea) when none of them had families in or would ever go see the North. At the same time, it was undeniable that these were markers of identity, some kind of a badge for those “in touch with their cultures”. It had not occurred to the 16-year-old me that all of us — my grandpa, my parents, my brother and I, every Korean kid I ever met at church — were drinking from the same trauma, living with a massive case of PTSD. None of us had escaped the war; the dead were still among us.

My grandpa, too, is dead, and I have a slow, piecemeal search ahead on my own. I asked myself at my grandpa’s funeral, now almost 10 years ago, “How do you forgive the dead?”

Living with the past

It continues to be a painful journey, for any illusion of “things turning out so much better for the next generation” has been shattered. As a Korean, I have survived in a relatively secure environment of the postwar South Korean economy, with two parents whose limbs and minds were intact, when so many of their peers in the student protests against military dictatorship in the ‘70s and ‘80s did not make it out alive. As an American, I have even thrived while some of the friends I made in college grappled with their families and homeland bombed to pieces by the U.S. military to whom my grandpa swore his allegiance, as I also would, eventually, at my naturalization interview.

The circumstances of my life feel so arbitrary and yet they’ve generated the complex intersections of my identities: immigrant and repatriate, a gyopo (overseas Korean) and a native, a postwar child and a millennial. I feel a survivor’s guilt, for the more I read up on Korea’s postcolonial history and interview my living relatives and peers, the more I find on my hands blood that is not mine.

I don’t know how much it matters who emerges victim or perpetrator in the history books. As violence gets passed on in one form or another, the conventional categories of those who have wronged and those who need to forgive seem as arbitrary as my survival. I’m seeing how faithfulness to Jesus here demands not so much a reconciling between the living and the dead, but holding both well by remembering, not letting trauma dictate which memories I carry and which I bury. We remember the weight of their memories — of the war and the loss — and add our own stories — of diaspora and homecomings. We remember Japanese war crimes and Korean ones, too. I remind my privileged English learning students that history does not have to reflect only the perspective of “winners”. In the spirit of Old Testament repentance, I am paying my dues. I cannot forgive my grandpa, any more than he can forgive “the Commies”. But I can teach my children to remember them.

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(1) “Brain coupling,” “mind meld,” “neural coupling” are a few popular concepts of late in psychology. I have only listened to one TEDTalk by Uri Hasson on the result of his study of matching brainwaves between a speaker and her/his audience.

Hatty Lee

Hatty Lee (she/her) is currently wrestling with the Hebrew Bible, contemplating a second Master's (thanks to the steep Ancient Near Eastern language requirement for doctorate programs), repotting house plants and cooking Mexican food while staying put in Koreatown, Los Angeles, where folks are good about keeping their masks on. She believes in expanding voting rights, hosting Zoom communions and Suheir Hammad. You can find her blogging at callmemehetabel.wordpress.com.

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