Over the course of last year, a number of students and faculty engaged with speakers in events and meetings across campus concerning race, culture, and ethnicity. On April 4th, 2018, Covenant invited Dr. Jiewon Baek, Assistant Professor of Foreign Language at Covenant College, to speak in the “Reformed for What?” faculty lecture series. In her customarily reserved yet arresting manner, Baek stood at the podium, took a deep breath, and began to stir up questions surrounding a new topic: identity.
Dr. Baek was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Virginia and Minneapolis. Though America is her home, she’s “spent most of [her] life immersing herself in all things French.”
“When in France, I manage to pass as American until people see my face and call me Chinese,” says Baek. “The only country that I can step foot in as a national is the country where I feel most foreign: South Korea.” She feels most at home in France, but only has a foreign passport and has not acquired French citizenship.
When asked, “Where are you from?” Dr. Baek, like so many who share such multiracial, multiethnic upbringings, does not always know how to give a short answer.
At a recent event discussing the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide, she felt this acutely. To Armenians at the event, she was an outsider, and those attending were taken aback by her unusual background and experience.
Baek left the event feeling disappointed that those in attendance, likely her brothers and sisters in Christ, could not see past her skin. She believes that the church, the body of Christ, the very body here at Covenant College, “makes known the wisdom that unites those who were formally strangers into one people.... So, the church has work to do.”
“The bloodline of Christ is the bloodline through which we are united,” Baek says. Christ broke down the dividing wall of hostility. “Living out this truth, the church at the cosmic level makes known, now, the manifold wisdom of God.”
She further admitted that, “part of living out this truth has meant deep repentance on my part. Why was I filled with such shame and anger when I was mistaken for my identity? Why, when walking to the post office one day, a homeless man looked at me and yelled, malevolently, ‘Japonais!’ Why did my heart internally boil over with rage but also curl up in shame?”
Baek repents of the pride in her that refuses to believe that the “equivocal” Asian-self God created in her is worth something. Through encounters with others, Baek’s eyes have been opened to her own heart, once hardened towards accepting God’s creation as good and complete in His own eyes.
Baek shares that Abraham’s decision in the Bible to follow God into a new homeland alienated him from the childhood homeland in which he had based his identity. She quotes verses from Ephesians 2, emphasizing the church as one new people, Jews and Gentiles brought together, aliens and non-aliens. She explained that, like Abraham, we as a church body are temporary residents, “aliens” in a land that is not our own. However, it is not enough to say this and move on.
Millions of people today face increasingly complex and varied cultural and ethnic identity struggles. In order to begin sorting through the tangled mess of these conflicts, Dr. Baek suggests reading and listening to what others have to say about their own cultural and ethnic standing.
“How can we answer to the calling that is our very own, and at the same time be divested of what is our own?” she asks. “This is the mystery of God’s wisdom, revealed, yet still a mystery.”
Ultimately, Baek draws us back to Ephesians 2:12-13, 19-22, reminding the student body that we can have surety in our status as children of the Kingdom: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ... you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Before praying, Baek concluded: “LORD, let your church make known your manifold wisdom.”