“This is the first day of the rest of your life, ‘Cause even in the dark you can still see the light, It’s gonna be alright” – Matt Maher, Hold Us Together
Despite my rather busy schedule, I’ve been trying to force time in my day to read some interesting books. Today, at the dentist office, I was able to pick up The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan. Kang is a North Korean refugee who spent 10 years in a gulag. (The book was recommended to me by a coworker – thus far it is fantastic.)
While setting the stage, Kang describes the process whereby his paternal grandmother (an avid communist) and grandfather (not a communist, but in love with his grandmother) moved from Japan back to North Korea after WWII and the Korean War. He gives the following, chilling description of the family’s arrival in North Korea:
My third uncle later told me about the family’s arrival: “It was like the city was dead – the strangest atmosphere. The people all looked so shabby and aimless in their wandering. There was a feeling of deep sadness in the air, and no movement betrayed the slightest hint of spontaneity.” My uncle was frightened by these shadows, who were so at odds with the earthly paradise he had been led to expect. A sense of dull terror lent new weight to the warnings his family had received prior to its departure. But what reason had they to heed the reactionairies’ drivel? My uncle downplayed one incident that later came back to him like a boomerang: when the passengers descended down to the docks, several Koreans, who had arrived from Japan a few weeks earlier, took advantage of the general mayhem of family reuinions to whisper their astonishment at the new arrivals’ decision to immigrate.
One of them came up to my uncle. “What happened?” he asked. “We sent our friends and family letters warning people not to come! Why didn’t your family listen?” My uncle turned suddenly pale. My father stepped forward and answered in his place, asking the young man how long he’d been in the North. “A few months,” he answered, “but that’s long enough to understand.” My father insisted that the Chosen Soren [a Japanese-based pro-communist group] had hidden nothing of the difficulties and challenges involved in building the country. “But it’s just propaganda,” responded his interlocutor. “You’re not going to build a new life here; your parents will be stripped of all their belongings, then left to die. You’ll soon find out what these North Korean Communists are all about.”
The despair is striking. The utter sinking feeling after arrival. The uncle he talks about had not wanted to go – crying in despair at leaving Japan and even running away in an attempt to miss the boat. Then, upon arrival, the fears set in. The “earthly paradise” they had been told to expect evaporated. But it was too late.
I found it interesting, as I read it, how familiar it was. It reminded me of another story about “why did you come here?”. In Night, Elie Weisel gives an account of his time in the Nazi work camps during WWII. The SS had a knack for the “slow-boiling frog” trick. They convinced the Jews that the slow loss of property then freedom was all for the best, given the approaching war. That things would be better once they got to the safety of the camp (the Russians were coming after all). When they finally arrived at the camp in the cramped cattle cars, they got much the same treatment from the prisoners. “Why have you come here? Tell me, why?” “You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?”
As with the greeting party at the North Korean docks, the prisoners at Auschwitz were befuddled. How could the newcomers not have known the truth of what was in store for them? How could they have failed to see? Why didn’t they fight with everything they had to avoid the prison camp – the death camp?
To the Christian, this will all ring a clear yet harrowing tune. We will recall the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The rich man dies and lifts up his eyes in hell. Realizing the torment and what he should have done in life he casts about for a way of relief. When this isn’t forthcoming, he begs Abraham to send someone to his brothers so they won’t come into the same torment.
Why did you come here? Didn’t you know? How could you not have known? Weren’t you warned?
The socialists, fascists, communists – and even the devil himself – have no reason to tell you the truth. If you knew how horrible things would be once you had given up freedom to be subjugated in their systems, be they political or spiritual, you never would do it. You would never go willingly into the fire. So they will tell you every lie imaginable … why not? The communists will tell you that North Korea, or Russia, or Armenia is a paradise on earth just to get you in. Once you’re in, you will be stripped of freedom and property, of life itself, and never let out. The fascists will tell you that the trip to the “work camp” is for your own protection – only to slaughter indiscriminately. And any lie of false religion, or secular humanism, that the devil can get you to believe is well worth the investment. Because once you’ve been trapped, it’s game over.
This is not the way of freedom – whether political and economic freedom, or the true freedom offered by Christ. We will gladly tell you every truth our voice can carry. We will gladly tell you the costs. For political and economic freedom, people must remain vigilant against deceptive philosophies offering a “quick fix,” against emotional pleas to violate individual rights for sake of the whole. People have even been called on to fight for freedom (though we are certainly not there now).
As for Christ, he tells us quite clearly to “count the costs” (Luke 14:28). He also tells us that freedom comes from Him – and who He makes free is truly free (John 8:36). He tell us if we are His, then He must be Lord (Luke 6:46). And He tells us that we are more than conquerors, and that nobody can separate us from the love of God in Him (Romans 8:31-39). He promises life … more abundantly (John 10:10).
As for these pits of despair. Let us not go willingly into them. Cling to what is good. Cling to freedom, and hope, and joy, and love, and faith. Don’t follow the temptation of surrendering your rights and freedoms for some temporal gain. (The gain will vanish and the freedom won’t return without a fight.)
As for those still in darkness, still locked away in despair, let us remember them in our prayers. And let us be prepared against the day that they finally break free and will need our help.