Shin Dong-hyuk: Lessons about radical gospel freedom, from Camp 14

Shin Dong-hyuk: Lessons about radical gospel freedom, from Camp 14 June 3, 2013


now he advocates for human rights issues and freedom

Shin Dong-hyuk is the only person known to have escaped from Camp 14, a horrific concentration camp in North Korea where the prisoners are incarcerated, not as individuals, but as families;  parents, grandparents, siblings, and children, are all arrested in an attempt to wipe out the scourge of rebellion.  They will work long hours on starvation rations and, if they’re obedient, generally die by the age of 45.  Children are born inside the camp and live their entire lives there.  Nobody leaves.  Ever. Until Shin Dong-hyuk escaped.  His amazing tale is told in this book, and a brief interview of him can be seen on 60-minutes.  It’s worth 15 minutes of your time, not only in order to understand the human rights issues at stake, but because his journey is instructive for all of us who are seeking to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words:  “So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed” -watching his story unearthed several important observations about freedom in Christ.

1.  The extent of our freedom is unimaginable.  When Shin was asked about life in the camp he noted that the starvation rations, horrific labor, public executions, separation of families, brutal heat and cold were all, for him, absolutely normal.  He literally couldn’t imagine life being any other way, this being his only reference point.  Of course, it’s largely the same for family dysfunction.  Whatever the sickness in the system, it’s normal to those born and raised in it.  We who work with people all know this, know that pathology isn’t viewed as pathology, because there’s no other imaginable way of living.  “Of course our drunk father beats us, sleeps with us, gambles away his check each week, in utterly unpredictable…whatever.”

We get it, this systemic saturation of dysfunction, when it comes to family systems.  But what if all of us are enslaved in a giant matrix of oppression, dysfunction, destruction – and what if we’re in it so deep that we don’t even know we’re in it.  We’ve been born into it, will live in, die in it, maybe without ever realizing that there’s something better.  Could that be the way things are?

Indeed, if Jesus speaks truth, that IS the way things are.  In John 8, he talks about slavery and freedom, and when he says, “if you continue in my word… you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  The tragic response of those listening?  “We are Abraham’s children and have never been enslaved to anyone.” (in spite of their history of enslavement to Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Greeks, and Romans)  The most insidious slavery hides it’s abuse and control from it’s victims, leaving them with an illusion of freedom, or the least, a feeling of “that’s just the way it is…”  This was Shin.  This was Israel.

This is us?

2. Hints of the outside beckon.  Shin met a prisoner from the outside.  Outside (and remember, this is still in the confines of a totalitarian regime), families lived together, not apart.  People had free time.  But what was most stunning to Shin was the notion that there were food choices beyond cabbage gruel and the occasional rat or insect.  The notion that would could reach a point of not being hungry was new to him, but once embraced, became to motivation for escape.

We, all of us, need an outsider to show us the possibilities of real freedom.  Jesus did that and his freedoms revealed the possibility of something greater.  He was free to cross social divides, showing the possibilities of one vast human family to a world enslaved by class, race, and political divides.  He was free to choose simplicity (“the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”), showing the possibilities of contentment to people enslaved by the lie the consuming more and owning more is the key to happiness.  He was free serve in a world enslaved to the notion that a power manifesting itself in lording it over others was the great goal.  Free to know contentment, service, simplicity, generosity, love of enemies?  Free from addictions and phobias?  Free from the social mores and taboos that divide us?  Free in every way?  Yes.

As I’ve written and said elsewhere:  Eating poison is not normal.  Killing babies while still in the womb is not normal.  The kind of hyper-individualism that leaves millions of children hungry is not normal.  Destroying the topsoil and depleting the water tables are not normal.  Covert racism, economic imperialism, resource wars, child soldiers, human trafficking, school shootings, terror, leaving in fear, are not normal.  When they become normal, “the world forces of darkness” have won.

3. We must leave, risk, go.  Once Shin knew the possibility of different way, he made plans to leave, and eventually did.  He knew that leaving could get him killed.  His partner in escape did, in fact, die – toasted on the electric fence.  Shin knew the risk, but had decided that the possibility of freedom was worth risking his so called “life”.

I wonder if this is part of what Jesus means when he says, “He who seeks to save his life will lose it”  If I’ve learned that there’s a freedom available, but it only comes at the cost of letting go of my prison life, I might well choose the safety of incarceration.  Predictable, secure, slow starvation.  At least it’s a known entity.

Yes – just like upward mobility, and job security, and the kind of raw capitalism that rapes the environment for short term growth in order to sustain itself, and hyper-mobility, and the kind of hyper-connectivity that insulates us from the real world by turning our minds and eyes towards tiny screens so that we no longer notice (very often) sunsets, and blossoms, and bird songs, let alone encounter the wild.   But hey… it beats the risk of the unknown right?

Not for those who are hungry!  The woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery, the man born blind, the soldier tired of imperialism, the tax collector tired of greed.  All of them saw freedom in Jesus and it ignited something in them.  They were never the same – in any way at all.

The freedom of Jesus bled into virtually every area of their lives.  Sexuality.  Economics.  Social and class relations.  Vocation.  Everything changed towards freedom from the prevailing systems of the world.  That can still happen today, but only if we expand our definition of freedom in Christ to become the total, life altering freedom it’s supposed to be.

I pray we’ll keep seeking this total freedom in Christ, rather than accepted the confinement of our cultures (both Christian and Western), which have sought to redefine freedom, and so numb us into complacent obedience.  “It was for freedom that Christ died” Paul said, and I intend to spend the rest of my days living into that freedom with greater and greater fulness.


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