Eugene Cho

“one of our own…”

With permission, I am posting an article submitted to a publication of Seattle Pacific University.  This thought provoking article is written by Dr. Bo Lim, Old Testament Professor at SPU.  He also attends Quest with his family and to prove how small the world has become, is a high school friend from Lowell High School in San Fran.  Feel free to share your thoughts here and Bo will respond directly to any dialogue.

_________________________

           Because race is probably among the topics which produce the most misunderstanding, allow me to provide some initial remarks. First, I want to acknowledge that I am not a victim of the VA Tech massacre. The community of Blacksburg is the victim.  Those who were shot or are the loved ones of such people, they are the victims. So focus should be placed on supporting this community during their tragic loss. But because of the speed of the media, questions are already being raised in regard to school security, gun control, and mental illness. Yet oddly the topic of Cho’s race seems to be largely unexplored. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that many lack the skills necessary to engage such a sensitive topic in public discourse. People don’t want to say anything that might possibly offend so they avoid the topic all together. It is precisely because of these reasons I do write – so that we as a Christian community might gain the knowledge and empathy required to “engage the culture, transform the world.”
          Race is unavoidably an issue in this tragedy. As soon as Cho’s identity was released, the media attention turned to the South Korean President’s reaction to this news and the possibility of strained relations between the U.S. and South Korea. Every time his name is spoken and his photo is shown we are reminded once again that he is not whom we expected to be. Just the other day while sitting in a café someone asked me, “Are Koreans more violent than other people?”
          When I found out that the murderer was Korean my wife and I responded with what I suspect to be the same reaction of most Asians in the U.S. – shock, shame, and anxiety. We were already mourning a horrific tragedy. The last thing we wanted was to fear the possibility of discrimination or prejudice toward ourselves or our children. Whether the threat was real or not, many of us felt a little uneasy venturing out of our homes the next day. A Korean-American SPU student shared with me that her father, the day after Cho’s identity was released, was accosted by another man while going to a bank in Tacoma. The man asked, “Hey, are you Korean?” He then advanced toward him menacingly and yelling racial slurs including, “Go back to Korea!” Now I suspect that such an encounter will likely be labeled an “isolated incident” and the actions of “wackos and idiots.” But even if they are rare and the actions of the town dolt, they are still painful and leave a lasting impression not only upon an individual but on a whole community.
          Asian cultures oftentimes possess a strong communal identity in contrast to Americans who emphasize the individual. So I can understand why a Korean woman would profusely apologize for the actions of Cho at length (40 minutes!) while she cut the hair one of my colleagues. I suspect most, like this professor, would probably respond, “You don’t need to apologize, you have nothing to do with Cho.” This is absolutely true. Yet in a sense we feel a connection to Cho. In communal cultures, every individual’s actions are interpreted to reflect the values of his/her community. Christine De Leon in More Than Serving Tea recalls how she identified with Michelle Kwan during the 2002 Olympics. She writes, “When we see Asian Americans get promoted, we cheer. When they fall on the ice, we cry with them. Our Asian value of being a communal culture allows us to share both their successes and their failures.” So this Korean woman is expressing to my colleague her identification with Cho. That is, she is telling him that one of her own did this terrible thing.
          As a Korean-American, I empathize with both the murderer’s family as well as the families of the victims. My wife’s parents like Cho’s also owned a dry cleaning business. She has repeatedly said, “I wonder how they’re doing. I feel so bad for them.” At the same time, I have come to tears upon hearing the stories of the survivors – their pain, their loss. I’m a proud UCLA alum, and yet even I felt like chanting, “Hokies! Hokies! Hokies!” along with the students of VA Tech even though I haven’t the faintest idea what a Hokie is.
          I appreciated Robert Siegel’s commentary on Apr 18th edition of NPR’s All Things Considered. After reading Cho’s disturbing and violent script for a play Siegel comments, “I didn’t get the impression that his preoccupations were especially exotic or in any way Korean. Pedophilia, Michael Jackson, Catholic priests – this is the stuff of our news pages and culture, not some foreign country’s. His ability to buy a gun reflects an American interpretation of liberty – an idea which if not unique to us, is certainly no Asian import.” He then goes on to cite the previous day’s description of Cho in the Washington Post. They described him as a “local, a Centerville Virginia student. Like the kids who murdered at Columbine, Seung Hui Cho killed and died as one of us.”
          I suspect Siegel’s intentions were to diffuse any racial profiling of Asians and for that I am grateful. He characterized Cho not as a foreigner but as an American and described in detail how VA Tech has a large, vibrant Asian student population as to imply that Cho should have felt welcome there. Yet this is only part of the story. Perhaps at VA Tech he was not discriminated against, but we are now finding out that he may have been teased and bullied throughout middle and high school. An Apr 20th story in Yahoo! News reads, “Once, in English class at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., when the teacher had the students read aloud, Cho looked down when it was his turn, said Chris Davids, a Virginia Tech senior and high school classmate. After the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho began reading in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said. “The whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, `Go back to China,'” Davids said.”
          The media is quick to seek biological or psychological reasons to answer the question, “Why did he do it?” Was he psychotic? Did he have brain damage? Certainly important questions. But let us not neglect social reasons as well. I recognize that people of all races are bullied and teased. But they’re not necessarily treated as foreigners, aliens, or outsiders and told to leave. I agree with Siegel that he killed and died as an American. Yet although he lived in the United States, did he feel welcome as an American? My hope is that as this tragedy spawns a reexamination of issues like gun control, school security, and mental illness, we would not neglect to ask ourselves the following questions: “How do we treat those different than us?” “What does it mean to be an American?” “From whom did these high school students learn their racist behavior?” “What effect does experiencing racism have on an individual’s psyche?” My prayer is that we would not only probe deep into the mind of a murderer but also gaze deep into the soul of a nation. Seung Hui Cho is after all, one of our own.

Filed under: asian-american, culture

7 Responses

  1. […] “one of our own…”. He is citing an article by Seattle Pacific University’s Dr. Bo Lim, an Old Testament […]

  2. djchuang says:

    There are so many contributing factors and complexities, and I think there are 3 that stand out the most to me: (1) mental illness, (2) marginalization in American society, (3) Asian immigrant family context. If any of these 3, or actually all 3 of these could have been addressed, I think the outcome would have been very different in his life.

    I dream of a day when church would be a safe place for people who struggle with whatever issue to find grace and help, instead of shame and judgment.

  3. e cho says:

    dj or others: i haven’t really been watching the news too much so i don’t know if there’s some info released or not. do we know the extent of seung’s involvement with christianity/church?

  4. chad says:

    thank you for this post…
    i’ve had conversations with adolescents about this tragic event and their responses varied from, “Who cares, i don’t know them,” to “it makes me think of the strange, messed up kids at school.” i’m shocked and glad that in my somewhat racist and small-minded community the issue of Cho’s race has not surfaced…
    again, thank you for your comments…i look forward to reading more!

  5. djchuang says:

    I searched high and wide for media coverage on the religious and spiritual aspects of this tragedy, especially who the media chose/found to quote to represent the Korean/ Asian church community — in the comment of my post “Where is our Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson?” and I realized that we do not have that representative voice in mainstream media.

    From Peter Cha’s sermon, he cites his source as indicating that Seung’s family do have a church connection, and from Seung’s own ranting, he has some exposure to Christianity, albeit disturbingly distorted, perhaps mostly due to mental illness.

  6. […] Pacific University, where I am a professor in the School of Theology.  You can also find it on Eugene Cho’s blog.  For those of you who know me, you know this is not my field of expertise.  I’m a Bible […]

  7. Bo says:

    I appreciate all the comments. I’m especially fascinated by Neil’s observations within his context of work. This event has compelled me to start a blog of my own (as you can see from the previous comment – not my doing). Eugene, I appreciate your letter in the PI today esp how you handled this sensitive topic in the public square – a place where we desperately need to be esp in times like this although I like you felt this week desirous to stay cooped up in my office. Note my letter is within a different context – a Christian University committed to the task of reconciliation. This week some of us staff and faculty will host a forum with the Asian American student population to discuss this topic.

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Collaboration.

col·lab·o·ra·tion
kəˌlabəˈrāSH(ə)n/
noun

the action of working with someone or a group of others  to produce or create something.

May we hold our logos, egos, and tribalism have their place. May we hold them loosely for they too shall pass. May we collaborate for the sake of the greater Kingdom of God ... which endures forever. As we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., don't forget the God behind the man. The one true God who deposited this dream into MLK is still speaking to us today. Are we listening?

Be courageous. Be brave.

Being invited by the King Family to speak at the MLK worship service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2016 remains one of the most unexpected honors of my life. On the right is his daughter, Dr. Bernice King and his sister, Dr. Christine King Farris. Walking throughstreet markets in different parts of the world is the best. Soaking in the culture. Listening to the local language and music. Enjoying the amazing cuisine. Meeting new friends. Praying for the Gospel to penetrate. #ChiangRai Blessed be the local, indigenous leaders for it is they who live in the very communities they seek to love. For it is they who understand their context and culture...better than a Westerner ever will. For it is they who will continue to tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love when visitors like me leave.

Yes, blessed be the local, indigenous leaders. What an honor and privilege to celebrate with the on-the-ground local @thefreedomstory team to celebrate the recent opening of their Education and Resource Center for the local youth in Chiang Rai, Thailanf. This was made possible through a partnership and matching grant by @onedayswages and The Freedom Story.

While it was an honor to be there to cut the cord and say a few words, this is an example of collaboration. Much love to the Freedom Story team including their co-founders Tawee Donchai and @Rachel Goble, to their staff who live in the community, who understand their context and culture, and who tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love. And of course, much love to the students themselves for they each matter. Finally, to each person that donated to @onedayswages to make this grant possible.

May hundreds and even thousands of youth be impacted, encouraged, and mentored. May they capture a glimpse of God's love for them.

Photo: @benjaminedwards Part 2 on my wrestling with the complex issue of human trafficking. In part, documenting my trip to Thailand for @onedayswages...to listen, learn, and visit one of our partner orgs @thefreedomstory. More to come.

There's such painful and poignant irony in pursuing justice...unjustly. One way we do this is when we reduce people into projects...and thus, propagating the dangerous power dynamic of US as heroes and THEM as helpless and exclusively as victims. So dangerous.

Human trafficking is not just an issue. It’s ultimately, about people. Depending on the sources of statistics, there are anywhere from 29-40 million people in some form of forced labor and slavery, including sex trafficking.

And one thing I’ve learned, personally, is how easy it is easy to reduce people into projects which is why mutuality, reciprocity, and dignity are so vital. These are critical because God never intended people to be reduced into projects.

We forget this and we indirectly foster a culture and system of victimization or worse, the pornification of the poor or in this case, "the trafficked." And when you start dehumanizing the poor or trafficked, you have no genuine desire to build relationships with them. You believe or build stereotypes in broad strokes, singular, black and white narratives that have been told about them. You believe the lie that they have nothing to teach us and are incapable of contributing to the larger society.

Lord, break our hearts for the things that break your heart. Give us eyes to see others through your eyes. Give us humility so that we acknowledge our own need to learn and grow. (Photo via @thefreedomstory)

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