May 12, 2019 – What it Means to Be Human

Text:  Revelation 7:9-17

Once my grandmother told me to become human before I became a minister. As a minister’s wife, as well as a daughter-in-law of a minister, she had probably seen all the aspects of the life of the church – the good, the bad and the ugly. Undoubtedly she had seen how the minister was affected by what’s going on in the church. I didn’t ask what she meant when she said “be human.” I thought I knew it. Twenty years later I am still figuring it out. Everybody has their own understanding of what it means to be human. My definition doesn’t necessarily resonate with your definition, and that is an important thing to remember.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a Black Clergy gathering in Winnipeg. More than twenty ministers, who are serving various communities of faith in the United Church across the country, came together for a three day conference. I went there with two reasons. I was seeking friendship with my black colleagues in ministry, and the theme – decolonizing mind and ministry – spoke to me. Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto talked about how to own a real freedom through the practice of embodied spirituality and the support and fellowship of an intentional community.

One insight resonated with me, reminding me of my grandmother’s words. He talked about different understandings of what it means to be human across cultures, and the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table.

Indigenous peoples in Canada understand what it means to be human based on relationship. Humans exist in relation with everything else; we humans are inseparable from trees, plants, birds, animals, fish, the land and the river. Everything is related to everything else. Such understanding is dramatically different from what came with colonialism, which is based on a hierarchical model; one is superior to another based on gender, race, sexual orientation and physical ability. It’s easy to feel inadequate or insufficient in this narrow definition of what it means to be human.
Tema Okun, author of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know, summarizes some of the characteristics of white culture: individualism, binary thinking and the right to profit. In Canada, this particular understanding was played out as the way things were supported by the violent system. The residential school, for example, was built to civilize and to Christianize those who were deemed to be not enough human. Whether the church used the government or the government used the church in cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples is not the point. The point is that they both shared the same value based on a hierarchical model.

Consequently the Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island have been suffering as they have been disconnected from their way of living. Their land-based and relationship oriented lifestyle were not recognized as such. Losing the land for Indigenous peoples never meant losing resources; it meant the incapability to thrive as human.

Black people in Canada also have a different understanding of what it means to be human. It’s not individualistic, binary thinking like the dominant culture. It can’t be a land-based model as many black people who are African descent don’t know where their mother land is. The traumatic experiences that came with the legacy of transatlantic slave trade require a different understanding and practice of what it means to be human through the embodiment of spirit.

Such insight got me thinking about what it means to be human for me. The biggest influence on my cultural upbringing was Confucianism. Britannica defines it as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living that entails ancestor reverence and a profound human-centred religiousness. Although I never experienced ancestor worship, I grew up with a sense of reverence for my grandparents. Showing respect with a deep bow on special occasions was a big part of my life. Confucianism became a major system in Korea based on a hierarchical and patriarchal model. I think that’s one of the reasons why Christianity became the major religion in Korea: The Father and the Son model from a conservative theological point of view made sense to those who were brought up in a patriarchal culture.

Of course, my understanding of what it means to be human didn’t stop there. It has evolved over the last twenty years, and it will continue to evolve as I continue to grow and mature. For me, becoming human is a life-long journey. The more I interact with others, the more I allow what I think is normal to be challenged by other perspectives. I can only become human as long as I strive for the well-being of all of humanity, and of the whole creation, being saved by beauty even in the midst of brokenness and pain. I am glad that my grandmother didn’t explain what she meant. I think she was wise enough to leave it as an open-ended search. It inspires me to learn more about different understandings of what it means to be human across cultures and identities.
That’s how we can become an intercultural church. Understanding each other on a deeper level beyond what can be seen or felt like the skin colour, clothing, food, music, or different physical or mental ability. The intercultural vision involves a power analysis – who has power and who has not in our social, economic, and political context, and who is perceived to be powerful and who is perceived to be powerless? We must distribute power equally so no one is left out. It breaks the binary thinking of an insider welcomes an outsider, the dominant group includes a marginalized group. It invites all of us to challenge the normality, and to find a new “we” through mutual transformation. An intercultural ministry begins with knowing where we came from, and why we do what we do. Where two or three are gathered there is a possibility for us to grow in intercultural ministries, because we all have different understandings of what it means to be human.
The intercultural vision is spoken by a prophet in the book of Revelation. There is not much information about the author, except that Greek style suggests that the author was a Palestinian Christian who emigrated to Asia. The pastoral letter filled with apocalyptic content was written from the island of Patmos, about 60 miles southwest of the mainland of Asia Minor. (Modern-day Turkey) The letter was addressed both to the suffering Christians who were going through persecution under the Roman Empire, as well as to those who were complacent because they were not aware of the critical situation and the changing circumstance. Listen to this profound vision of an intercultural church: “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages crying out ‘Salvation belongs to God’ and singing ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever!’” Then they receive assurance from God: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that first there is a vision of a multitude from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages, then followed by the promise of healing, life-giving water. The diverse group of people bring their diverse stories and different understandings of what it means to be human. The abundance of perspectives and the celebration of diversity inevitably bring about the healing of humanity, the restoration of the whole creation.