|Protecting Ourselves is The Most Dangerous Course of Action
by the Rev. Eric FoleyIf Koreans follow the recent example of how the Amish responded to a shooting tragedy, we can change Americans’ opinions of Koreans.
Mrs. Foley and I met last month in Korea with our good friend, Elder Chun, one of the leaders of the Holy Club movement. He told us that he would be leading an April meeting of 100 Korean church pastors and leaders in Las Vegas to answer the question, “How can Korean people overcome the negative opinion that many Americans have of Koreans in the United States?”
That question has become even more important this week now that the news media has revealed that the gunman responsible for the largest shooting in modern American history was a Korean immigrant. Here are some of the comments Americans made to newspapers around the country after they discovered the ethnic identity of the shooter:
“As in 9/11, another immigrant allowed into this country to kill Americans. I’ll bet he received a U.S. government grant to pay his tuition; and he senselessly killed 32 of our own children.”
“Anybody who eats dogs is highly suspect.”
“No Asian immigration and this tragic incident would not have occurred.”
These comments certainly do not reflect the feelings of most Americans; however, another American point of view was shared much more frequently in USA Today and other newspapers. In response to articles that reported a South Korean official’s comments that South Korea hoped the tragedy would not “stir up racial prejudice or confrontation,” and in response to the news that South Korean students at Virginia Tech were gathering in groups on the campus because they said “it could be dangerous,” several Americans wrote comments like this:
“It is interesting to me that as soon as the killer was identified, South Koreans everywhere, especially the U.S, started worrying about racial prejudice and profiling.”
When some Koreans responded to the shooting by saying, “We express our extreme sadness for the families of the victims, but we hope no one will respond in anger against Koreans,” what Americans heard was, “We hope no one will respond in anger against Koreans.” In other words, Americans sensed that the main concern of Korean people was protecting themselves.
It is understandable that Koreans in the United States feel the need to protect themselves at this tense moment. It is understandable that the Korean students at Virginia Tech would gather together in groups. It is understandable that the Korean government would issue a statement calling on Americans to respond without racial prejudice.
The problem is, these kinds of words and actions reinforce the suspicion that some Americans have that Koreans are more concerned about protecting themselves than they are about mourning with other Americans and finding ways to reach out to families and students directly affected by the shooting.
Because I spend so much of my time with Korean people, I know that these suspicions are not true. I know that Korean people care deeply about the students and families who were affected by the shooting. But as an American, I also know the saying that Americans like to quote: “Actions speak louder than words.”
Americans will not evaluate Koreans by the words Koreans speak in response to this tragedy. They will evaluate Koreans by the actions Koreans take to aid those who have suffered. Americans are watching closely now to see what the Korean community does. How will we respond? Will Koreans only express sorrow with words, or will we show Americans through our actions that we care more about others than we do about our own protection?
On October 2, 2006, another gunman, Charles Roberts, entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse and killed five young Amish girls by shooting them in the head. How did the Amish people respond? This is an important question, because the Amish people, like the Korean people, are often misunderstood by Americans. Before this shooting in 2006, Amish people had the same kind of reputation as Korean people have now: Americans had always believed that Amish people were more focused on protecting themselves than on anything else.
But the Amish surprised everyone with their response to this terrible tragedy — the worst tragedy in their modern history. Although the Amish people were deeply shocked and saddened by the murder of their own children, they refused to focus on themselves. On the day of the murder, the grandfather of one of the girls who had been killed said, “We must not think evil of this man.” On the day of the murder, Amish people went to the home of the murderer’s wife to forgive her and comfort her. Nearly 30 Amish people attended the murderer’s funeral so that they could reach out with love and forgiveness to the murderer’s family members.
Even though their own children had been shot, the Amish people responded by loving those who harmed them. They did this not only with their words, but also with their actions.
Now, Korean people are facing a situation where one of our children has caused great harm to many others. Now is not the time to worry about ourselves. Focusing on ourselves will only increase the risk of danger. Now is the time to respond courageously with actions — not words — by taking every opportunity to show care to those who have been harmed.
When the Amish responded to the 2006 shooting by focusing on others, Americans changed their opinions about the Amish. Now Americans hold them up as a great example.
Koreans must now choose how to respond. Americans will make new opinions of the Korean people based on how Koreans respond to this terrible tragedy. Will we spend our time meeting privately and then making public statements? Or will we attend the funerals of those who have died and comfort their family members? Will we encourage our Korean students at Virginia Tech to focus on aiding American students who are frightened and confused? Will we send our own flowers to be added to the memorials that are appearing all over the Virginia Tech campus?
The Amish people responded with more than words immediately after their own children were slaughtered. Several days have passed. Are we responding with more than words yet?
Caring for others is dangerous work; however, history shows that caring only for ourselves is always the most dangerous course of action.