February 19, 2015

What Seth Rogen Can Teach the United Methodist Church about Social Justice and Human Rights

Now that “The Interview,” the provocative comedy about an absurd CIA plot to take out North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at the hands of the two least qualified assassins in the world, has raked in $55 million it is worth giving credit to some of its accomplishments.

I am not interested here in adding more ink to the debates over what Sony should have done in the face of North Korean threats, or the related conspiracy theories.

But when it comes to addressing the ongoing human rights crisis in this real-life, 1984-esque dictatorship, co-director and co-star Seth Rogen and his team have displayed a level of moral seriousness that I wish I saw a lot more of among leaders who have led the social-justice and human rights advocacy of my denomination, the United Methodist Church. And these are things that can be observed and appreciated even if you don’t end up seeing the movie.

(Disclaimer: when it comes to my personal entertainment, I am not a fan of stoner comedy or of crass rhetoric trying to pass itself off as “humor.”)

First of all, Rogen and company demonstrated sincere, deep intellectual curiosity. He explained that before making the movie, they made a point to do their homework: “We read as much as we could that was available on the subject. We talked to the guys from Vice who actually went to North Korea and met Kim Jong-un. We talked to people in the government whose job it is to associate with North Korea, or be experts on it.” Rogen concluded that North Korea is “an unlimited supply of craziness.” Indeed, as Rogen has repeatedly acknowledged, the line you have probably seen in the movie trailer about government propaganda claiming that Kim Jong Un does not urinate or defecate was based on propaganda the North Korean government actually promoted about Kim’s predecessor and father.

Secondly, they demonstrated concern for being sure to get their facts straight before moving forward with action. The script was reportedly reviewed by a senior State Department expert.

Thirdly, they very directly, succinctly, and accessibly have told the horrible truth about the Communist dictatorship to a wide audience. The movie explicitly refers to that hermit kingdom’s “concentration camps, famine, and firing squads.” It is worth taking some time to read this New Yorker piece by North Korea expert Barbara Demick, who has documented the hellish realities faced daily by North Koreans, on how, “behind the silliness and the smut … the filmmakers get a lot right about North Korea” with key examples of the regime’s craziness portrayed on screen closely paralleling the actual truth. In interviews promoting the film, Rogen has further called serious attention to the evils of the rogue government. The infamous hacking and threats from the thin-skinned regime in response to the provocative film served to make the world much more widely aware of the dictatorship’s out-of-control belligerence.

Fourthly, the film-makers have provoked a huge new amount of attention to the problem of North Korea, and the need for practical advocacy efforts against the regime’s abuses. Some North Korean defectors are even threatening to send DVDs of the film into the closed nation via balloon. Apparently, the hope is that the idolatrous personality cult controlling North Korean minds will be punctured the more residents illegally view the dictator-mocking film.

I am sad to say that all of this stands in stark contrast to the political pronouncements, rhetoric, and advocacy of many leaders of the United Methodist Church on North Korea. To be clear, I am speaking here only about the official denomination-wide hierarchy, particularly those parts of the hierarchy charged with social-justice advocacy on behalf of the entire church (although much of what I say below would apply just as much to leaders of other “oldline” U.S. Protestant denominations). I am not addressing things that may have been said and done locally and individually by members of the United Methodist Church, or by Senators and other political leaders who are also United Methodist. (The chasm often separating our denominational leadership from the people in the pews is another topic for another day.)

I got my first rude awakening to my denominational leadership’s astoundingly willful ignorance on North Korea around this time of year in 2004, while attending “Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice,” co-sponsored by a bunch of UMC-affiliated and lefty church groups.

A workshop there was led by the Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist minister and former Democratic Congressman who had recently been part of an “ecumenical delegation” to visit North Korea. Edgar had gone in his role as CEO of the National Council of Churches (NCC), which is heavily (and rather disproportionately) funded by apportioned United Methodist offering-plate dollars. The delegation also included leaders of the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the Church of the Brethren.

It was amazing to see this prominent leader for “social justice,” at an event supposedly designed to promote “global peace with justice,” speak at length at North Korea while avoiding ANY hint of acknowledgment of the totalitarian regime’s human rights abuses. Just as unsettling was the utter lack of evident curiosity on the part of Ecumenical Advocacy Days officials in learning the full truth about North Korea. Even on his trip there, Edgar apparently did not pay enough attention to notice any evidence of human rights abuses he thought were worth mentioning in his workshop.

If only more United Methodist leaders had Seth Rogen’s level of intellectual curiosity about the political issues they address!

Sadly, the tendency among too many United Methodist leaders has been, in contrast to Mr. Rogen, to rush to action without first taking care to make sure they have not misunderstood the situation at hand. This is part of a wider problem of how some of my church’s leaders have an embarrassing habit of rushing through strongly worded political pronouncements after only the most cursory, incomplete, and woefully unbalanced discussion of the issue. For many, this urgent drive to “hurry up and speak out NOW” seems to be driven by an essentially humanist worldview of church folk who are much more confidently convinced of the world’s need for themselves than of the world’s need for Jesus Christ.

This has especially been the case with North Korea. Edgar’s delegation came back with a glowing report of how wonderful it was to pray in an alleged Protestant church in Pyongyang, with a group of purported North Korean Christians, arranged by the NCC’s “long-standing ecumenical partner,” the Korean Christian Federation (KCF). Currently, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who was elected by her fellow bishops to one of the top leadership positions in the global United Methodist Council of Bishops, is using her position to lobby not on behalf of the oppressed North Korean people, but rather on behalf of the North Korean government by working to have Kim Jong Un’s puppet KCF admitted as a member of the World Council of Churches.

Before rushing to portray KCF as a legitimate Christian group, or giving reports that leave the impression of Christian churches freely, regularly operating in North Korea, these liberal United Methodist leaders should have first taken time to learn about the former being run by agents of the Communist government and evidence that some North Korean churches may not regularly operate when they cannot be shown off to foreigners.

Last year, both the national organization of United Methodist Women and the UMC’s official social-justice agency, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), endorsed a resolution on North Korea that even some liberal GBCS directors decried for being “overly simplistic” and ignoring North Korean wrongdoing, with little evidence that those rushing through the resolution had first seriously taken the time to try to learn the ugly truth about North Korea.

What would Seth Rogen do?

Thirdly, again and again, in contrast to Rogen and company, United Methodist leaders choose to avoid actually informing people about North Korea, even when they claim to be doing so. The way the UMW/GBCS resolution and Edgar avoided any mention of the tyrannical Communist regime’s wrongdoings is often very characteristic of the advocacy around North Korea officially supported by my denomination’s hierarchy. A UMC-sponsored event last summer supposedly promoting Korean “peace” avoided any mention of the North’s human-rights abuses. But as one of the speakers, Bishop Swenson shamefully took things much further, actually defending North Korea against alleged “demonizing and propaganda.”

For many years, Swenson and other liberal UMC officials have offered a great amount of North-Korea-related political pronouncements and political advocacy finding all kinds of fault and calling for all kinds of policy changes on the part of the United States and its allies, while largely giving North Korea a free pass. They typically completely avoid even mentioning such realities as the estimated 70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned for their faith in North Korea, how simply owning a Bible can get you executed there, and reports cited by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom of how in North Korea, “religious prisoners are typically treated worse than other inmates,” usually being forced to do “the most dangerous tasks in the labor camps” and suffering “constant abuse to force them to renounce their faith.”

Some may offer the excuse that such liberal UMC officials see no need to educate people about these realities because “everybody already knows this.” But for many such liberal UMC officials, I have yet to see any evidence, beyond baselessly optimistic wishful thinking on my part, that they are even aware of such facts. And polls have shown that surprisingly large portions of Americans do not know such “everybody knows” facts as the year in which the 9/11 attacks happened or the location of the Pacific Ocean. So leaders of UMC social-justice efforts would at least do no harm by making sure to inform their audiences of the brutal realities of the Kim dynasty, if they really believe these are important concerns.

Finally, it is probably objectively true that Seth Rogen has done far more for the cause of human rights and social justice in the Korean peninsula than the cumulative efforts of my denomination’s hierarchy for quite a number of years. Yes, there have been a few very brief and scattered acknowledgments of some of North Korea’s wrongdoing. But these have been overwhelmed by so many embarrassing examples (only a few representative ones being noted above) of willful ignorance, political miseducation, and unbalanced advocacy that have, regardless of intention, served the ends of enabling and covering for the world’s most brutal dictatorship.

I do give credit to some recent positive developments in official UMC human-rights advocacy, including a GBCS article last month acknowledging North Korea’s brutal persecution of Christians.

But a far more dramatic, sustained change in direction is needed.

One day, I pray that this will include official denominational “acts of repentance” for my church’s shamefully tainted record on North Korea, similar to the “acts of repentance” we have had for historic mistreatment of African Americans and Native Americans.

4 Responses to What Seth Rogen Can Teach the United Methodist Church about Social Justice and Human Rights

  1. Pudentiana says:

    As I was reading Scripture this week I think I discovered the first instance of liberal Christianity. It was when Judas complained that “all that ointment” was worth a lot of money and could be sold for the poor. Of course he kept the money purse and would have himself made the decision as to where it should be “allocated”. I am happy to say that Jesus did not support him in his social activism, but reminded him of the importance of honoring and ministering to the Lord. I regret that folks at GBCS have yet to understand that the Lord is in the Body of Believers suffering in N. Korea and not in the halls of governments across the world.

  2. Greg says:

    The director of the UMC’s GBCS social justice division tweeted out a picture of himself standing on the sidelines at this year’s March for Life, with the mocking caption, “I march for things I believe in…sandwiches.”

    That ought to tell you all you need to know about the UMC’s understanding of justice and peace.

  3. Arbuthnaught says:

    If the Wesley brothers were to come forward in time to today, they would fire everyone in the building where the UMC’s GBCS “Human Rights Division” is and pad lock the doors.

  4. bigriver00 says:

    Shocking that a group of pagans that endorse gay marriage would find themselves to be Lil’ Kim’s useful idiots…

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