Pastor Theologian consultation Theological Reflection
By Hardy Kim
This theological reflection was prepared for the Pastor Theologian consultation held in October 20-22, 2010, Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship. This particular consultation invited 13 Korean American pastors representing generations and gender. The theological engagement focused on the event at the 219th General Assembly held in Minneapolis that led to the defeat of the motion to create another Korean language presbytery.
Hardy Hyoung Nyun Kim was born in 1974 in Seoul, Korea. When he was 10 months old his parents decided to move Canada, and they settled in the naturally beautiful and culturally diverse city of Vancouver. When Hardy was 10 years old his father received a job offer in Michigan and so he, along with his parents and his younger brother, moved to the suburbs of Detroit. There he grew up in a relatively wealthy community with good schools, but one that also had a deep-rooted history of segregation and discrimination. At the same time, Hardy and his family attended a Korean American Presbyterian church a few towns over, and his experience of faith there was radically transformed when the church called its first-ever woman pastor to lead its English ministry. Hardy attended Harvard University, where he studied political philosophy. After completing his degree he entered law school at the University of Michigan. Struggling with his sense of vocation, Hardy took a break from legal study to serve as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Mission in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After returning from his YAV year, Hardy continued to struggle between his sense of call to a life in law or in church ministry for a couple of years, and eventually left law school for McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. While in seminary Hardy also served for 3 years as director of youth and English ministry at Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Wheeling, IL. Since then Hardy has served as a Lily Pastoral Resident at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago. He currently serves as Associate Pastor for Church Growth at First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA. He lives in Decatur, GA with his wife Hyunjung and their two children—Jonah (4 years) and Haeil (2 months).
1 Kings 3:16-28
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, "Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman's son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne." 22 But the other woman said, "No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours." The first said, "No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine." So they argued before the king. 23 Then the king said, "The one says, 'This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead'; while the other says, 'Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'" 24 So the king said, "Bring me a sword," and they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, "Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other." 26 But the woman whose son was alive said to the king-- because compassion for her son burned within her-- "Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!" The other said, "It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it." 27 Then the king responded: "Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother." 28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
I think many people know this story from the Bible—even those who aren’t Christian. It has powerful images of women in conflict, a king sitting in judgment, and a baby’s life at risk. The elements of intrigue and injustice, the emotional tides of jealously and motherly love—all of these things serve to draw us into the tale. Known to many as the “Judgment of Solomon,” this story has a cultural power that goes beyond many other passages in the Bible. I, myself, remember being shocked and struck by the story as a child. It was in my children’s Bible, complete with a picture of a soldier holding a screaming infant in one hand, and a menacing sword in the other.
As many resources inform us, this story is meant to reveal to us the surpassing wisdom of Solomon, the king who sits in judgment. However, I think that those of us who are at the margins of the institutions we operate in (like Korean American Christians in a 92% white denomination) cannot afford to simply be satisfied with a reading of the text that privileges the centers of power. There are many other perspectives present in the story, and I believe that by understanding the dynamics of the story for those in positions of relative powerlessness we might gain a message from God’s word that is more applicable to our own situations.
Have you ever wondered about the women in the story? The prostitutes? If you’re like me, then your usual church upbringing didn’t lead you to pay much attention to them. They weren’t really the point of the story, after all. Our focus is on the king. And even if we think about them, they simply serve as characters in a plot that unfolds to reveal how great the king is: one is a bitter and conniving villain; the other is a suffering and sacrificing mother. But what if we took these two prostitutes seriously? What if we thought about what life might have been like for them? What brought them to this situation? I’m not the first one, by any means, to have attempted to read this story through the lens of their experience. Scholars like Avaren Ipsen and Gabriela Silva Leite have already explored the layers of the story that emerge when we take seriously the identity of the two women as prostitutes, when we understand the reality of a context that puts women in the difficult position of being dependent on oppressive structures for their daily survival. My point in this reflection is not to try and delve into all the scholarly details of this kind of contextualized reading.
I simply want to ask the question, “Should we not, as Korean American Christians serving in an overwhelmingly culturally and racially White-European denomination, be attentive to how structures of power and control can create conflict for those with relatively little power, for the benefit of those with much power?” In the story from 1 Kings, it is clear that the women (prostitutes and mothers) are not in a position to control their own situation, and they are not even presented as agents who can resolve their own conflict. All the power lies with the king and his agents. In the process of settling the dispute, the king doesn’t even seem to treat the two women with much compassion or respect. Instead of trying to reason with the women (deal with them as capable actors) he devises a scheme to expose one of them as uncaring and evil. In the process of seeking his own “truth” the king even does severe psychological harm to the real mother (the one who is so afraid that her child might die that she relinquishes her claim of motherhood). And let us not forget the child! Is the life of this child to be so casually offered up? What if neither woman had wavered in her claims? The important end result to all of this trauma for the two women and the child (according to the dominant narrative) is not even that the mother-child relationship is restored—it is that the wisdom of the king is revealed.
In reviewing the discussion that took place at General Assembly around Item 04-08, I cannot ignore the sense I have that we are, in our own community, living out struggles around power without being sufficiently critical of the dominant structures that bring us to the points of conflict in the first place. I think about the hurts that were experienced in the aftermath of the debate—and I think about the congratulations expressed (much of it self-directed) by those in the position of deciding the fate of others. I am increasingly concerned about the place of the Korean American community in the PC(USA). Yes, it is an important community of growth in the church and it is an important witness to the work of God’s Spirit in the world. Yet, how long will it continue to serve, in the dominant narrative, as simply a means to working out the goodness and faithfulness of an overseeing, power-wielding other?
When will the judge take seriously a deeper and more fully human view of the two women? When will the king be self-reflective and begin to reconsider the systems of power that lead the two prostitutes into dangerous and painful conflict? When will the king, and everyone else in the halls of power, start to value to life of the child and the potential the child brings? When these things happen, then perhaps the two women can seek to support and comfort one another, rather than to plot against one another and to steal. When these things happen, maybe the child will grow up to reveal a life given from God, beautiful and powerful enough to enlighten all around, and to revitalize the whole kingdom. In that day, I believe the ministry being birthed by Korean American Presbyterians—of all generations, genders, language-abilities, and cultural affiliations—will have the power to bring growth and grace to the whole denomination, and through it, to the church worldwide.
 Samples of their work addressing this passage can be accessed online at: http://publications.epress.monash.edu/doi/pdf/10.2104/bc070002; http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-19156808.html.