International flights always provide the opportunity to gaze through an airplane’s window, lost in thought.
Given this past week’s events of Dennis Rodman’s widely publicized trip to North Korea, I am hoping that as he wings his way home he will take considerable time to think.
For Mr. Rodman, the necessary apologies have been made, and for the duration of his flight he is away from scrutiny. However, he returns home facing a new patina of tarnish on his reputation; once he lands, he must confront the ramifications of playing a modern-day “Marilyn Monroe” to Kim Jong Un’s “John F. Kennedy”.
If I were Rodman gazing out of that window, I would no doubt marvel at my ability to travel to distant lands, and stand among the leaders of nations; as African Americans, this was not always so easy for us to do.
If I were Mr. Rodman, these words penned by Frederick Douglas would drown out the airplane’s hum:
I suffered bodily as well as mentally. I had neither sufficient time in which to eat, or to sleep, except on Sundays. The overwork, and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought – “I am a slave – and a slave for life – a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom” – rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.[i]
What better and more ironic descriptive for the plight of North Koreans, as we understand it to be?
If I were Rodman, I would consider the irony that the route to escape from North Korea is called the “Underground Railroad.” I could not ignore its similarities to my own people’s underground to freedom, with its conductors who operated at times out of compassion and at other times in the interest of financial gain, but always at great risk to life and property. Our people’s stories of peril and flight to freedom all-too-closely parallel the accounts documented extensively by those who survived escape from the “Democratic Republic” of North Korea.
If I were in his shoes, I would begin to see the connection between notions such as “goin’ North”, and the similar freedom that lies for North Koreans just south of the 38th parallel, and in similar places of refuge. For the one who is captive, “freedom” is something never before experienced; it is only known conceptually. It holds meaning only in antithesis to what is already painfully familiar.
To the captive, this thing called “freedom” that lay “up North” or anywhere else, though unknown, had to be better than the status quo; enough to risk life and recapture to grasp at it, the way one who is suffocating gasps for air.
My thoughts would wander to the underground Church in North Korea. Like my own people hundreds of years before, to worship they must “Steal Away” … sometimes to church, sometimes to Jesus, sometimes to the aforementioned freedom “up North.” I would imagine the open-air churches where plantation slaves found respite and, by the grace of God, could hear the true Gospel that corrected the abused, redacted one that supported their captivity. I would then be forced to consider that for the twelfth year in a row, the international Christian community has declared North Korea the greatest persecutor of Christians.
I could not help but see the political “repatriation” of escaped North Koreans as an act of “re-enslavement,” and see the interchangeability of the roles of secret police and slave-catcher.
If I were Rodman flying effortlessly through the air, I would take note that I am free to come and go as I choose – and more importantly, free to choose where I go.
I would begin to understand why the caged bird sings:
… The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own;
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing… [ii]
Rodman’s escapades hold a cautionary tale for all who understand suffering and value freedom. Those of us who have insight into suffering should carry special concern for those who likewise suffer in recognizable ways. This is true empathy – to share in the suffering of another. Empathy is perhaps most comforting when it says, “I have been where you are, I am with you now; let me show you hope, let us hope together.”
Further, how much more so for those who bear the name of Jesus Christ, who believe in a sovereign God capable of redemption? Our Savior’s suffering on our behalf was both identificational and total; we are called to model him in all things. And though it is mystery to us, somehow in God’s economy, as we identify with others in their suffering, we find our own oppression redeemed.
Mysterious dynamics, indeed.
The Christian is able to see that there are recognizable patterns among the world’s systems of oppression, particularly as they violate the image of God. This should not surprise us; God is unlimited in his creativity, and He has limited Satan in his. Though the political, economic, and social landscapes that birthed these two systems of oppression may be vastly different, the methods of subjugation remain startlingly the same.
As we look at the repeating patterns of oppression throughout global history, Satan’s effectiveness at violating the image of God in persons lies not in creativity, but rather in re-packaging the same degrading patterns, peddled with skillful “marketing techniques.”
Believers in Christ are able to empathize and hope as no one else can. Our concern for our own immediate issues needn’t be shelved to make room for our brothers and sisters suffering globally. Simultaneously holding our own day-to-day struggles, along with those of the global church, need not be ‘either/or’; rather they must become a ‘both/and’ proposition.
But what shall we say of Rodman?
As an American with a rich and yet complicated history, he either ignores or remains blissfully unaware of his historical point of connection with those who suffer under the North Korean totalitarian regime. Sadly, he continues to assume that his wisdom and knowledge are greater than those who have lived there, and greater than numerous international human rights organizations combined.
I suppose we could surmise that his friendship with Kim is understandable, however temporary it may be; for friendships with dictators tend to rest on unstable platforms. On the surface, it would seem that the two men have much in common. They both fancy themselves as statesmen, while popular rhetoric persuades them of demigod status. Yet both Rodman and Kim Jong Un fail miserably in their roles, and it seems that their commonality trumps Rodman’s shared history with North Korea’s oppressed.
If I were Rodman, my inevitable in-flight soul-searching would no doubt include the vast darkness of this new public low, a survey of my own place in the American narrative that I have ignored, and the living North Korean souls on which I trample so carelessly.
But that’s just me.
It will be a long flight home, and I am not on that plane.
I am not Dennis Rodman.
I can only think, and wish…
For stories of life inside of North Korea from the mouths of her refugees, watch the short documentary Kimjongilia, the Official Selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. This artfully produced movie is available on Netflix.
[i] Douglas, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglas (N.Y., 1941, Pathway Press), pp 139-41.
[ii] Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (N.Y., 1994, Random House Publishing Group),pp. 194-195.