“How are you?” “I am NOT okay because…”
A hand-written message entitled “How are you?” was posted on a South Korean university campus by a male student on December 10, 2013. In his posting, the student asked if anyone can truly be okay under the current social, political, and economic situation in South Korea: no apology over the National Intelligence Service’s interference with last year’s presidential election; the likelihood of privatization of the national railway and the removal of thousands of railway workers from their positions; and the ongoing controversy over the electronic transmission tower in Miryang in a southern province.
Since then, similarly hand-written messages have been posted on various university campuses protesting against the current regime under which the decay of hard-won democracy has become evident. The “How are you?” movement has reached the Korean diasporic communities in England, Germany, France, Canada, and the United States, where people with their hand-written posters join the protestors in solidarity.
The hand-written “How are you?” (“ahn-nyong-ha-sim-ni-ka” in Korean) posters
Viewed as a revitalization of an old method of protesting on college campuses against corrupt, unjust, and authoritarian governments, the “How are you?” phenomenon has encouraged the younger generations, in solidarity with others who are also struggling to survive on a daily basis, to candidly express why they are not okay. This new movement, like wildfire, is rapidly spreading to various sectors where people –college students, unemployed people, laid-off workers, temporary workers, sex workers, high school students, teachers, and housewives– find that they cannot be okay when others also suffer under the unjust, unfair, and unruly social conditions.
“How are you?”
If you ask me how I am doing nowadays, my answer is “I am not okay.”
I am not okay, because on December 20, 2013, the Protestant Right organizations, pastors, and other church leaders issued a statement, signed by about 7,800 Protestant pastors and elders along with other citizens, refuting various protests against the current government by citizens in Korea. The statement urged “patriotic” citizens to stand up for the stabilization and development of the nation against those who are “agitating” the nation. The Protestant Right pastors who issued the statement have also supported aggressive anti-LGBTQ campaigns and have advocated for the political Right agendas over the years in Korea.
On December 17, 2013, a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, honoring him as a “disciple of peace in the global village,” was held at the National Assembly Hall in South Korea attended by politicians, former cabinet members, megachurch pastors, and foreign luminaries. In his eulogy, Woo-yea Hwang, leader of the ruling Saenuri Party and the chairperson of the National Assembly Breakfast Prayer Meeting, highlighted Mandela’s strength to forgive and reconcile. The senior pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, known as the world’s single largest church, also delivered the sermon entitled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” He is one of the Protestant Right pastors who issued the statement mentioned above in support of the Park Geun-hye’s regime. Illustrating how Mandela took the integration of South Africa as his primary goal not the revenge against the White South Africans, the pastor emphasized the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in Korean society, where regional, class, and ideological conflicts have become serious.
Provided that “cheap grace” –“forgive without holding perpetrators to take accountability”– has been one of the hallmarks of the Protestant Right messages, it is not surprising that both the sermon and the eulogy stressed Mandela’s greatness to forgive and reconcile with his oppressors, while conveniently leaving out his legacy of fighting for justice, freedom, and equality for all, not just a few privileged groups.
For those who selectively commemorate Mandela, his legacy is relevant and celebratory only when it does not challenge their own “well-being.” Hence, his commitments to advancing gender equality along with ending racism and poverty are not eulogized. Rarely mentioned and remembered is his legacy of fighting against injustice, including discrimination against LGBTQ persons, gender oppression, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
I am not okay, because on December 19, 2013, authorities of the United Methodist Church (UMC) defrocked pastor Frank Schaefer for officiating a same-sex wedding for his son. On the one hand, the UMC has recognized Mandela’s connections to Methodism, and the World Methodist Council granted him the 2000 peace award, calling him a “symbol of freedom, justice and peace.” Yet the UMC has also chosen to forget that this same Mandela was also an ardent ally and supporter of the LGBTQ rights. South Africa passed the Civil Union Bill recognizing same-sax partnerships and marriage, of which “processes and results,” according to South African LGBT activist Phumi Mtetwa, “attributable to Mandela’s vision of South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’.” I hope this legacy of Mandela is also remembered and honored by all members of the UMC and other churches that have condemned homosexuality and refused to grant equal rights to LGBTQ individuals, for Mandela’s legacy is not something that can be selectively commemorated only to conveniently suit one’s agenda.
The “How are you?” movement is a wake-up call that my/our comfort cannot be maintained at the expense of somebody else’s. I hope that this movement will continue in pluriform until all can respond with positive “I am okay” across national borders. So, today I ask, “How are you doing?”