Originally posted on “From the Desert, Under Constantine”, my blog on religion and spirituality
A year ago, In Soo Chun, a Korean-American custodian at the University of Washington poured gasoline over his body and lit himself on fire in front of the office of the university’s president. Several students rushed to try to put out the fire in vain. In Soo Chun soon passed away.
The media dismissed him as deeply troubled, following the lead of UW public relations rep Norm Arkans. There was no effort to ask why he chose such a public way to die. There was no effort to ask whether it had to do with the poor working conditions many UW custodians face. There was no effort to ask whether In Soo Chun was attempting to carry on a tradition of self-immolation that has been a central part of the Korean labor movement.
I work closely with an organization called International Workers and Students for Justice, a group of rank and file UW custodians and tradespeople. IWSJ held a memorial on the one year anniversary of In Soo Chun’s death at which they asked these difficult questions. A video of the memorial can be found here. A publication of workers’ writings dedicated to In Soo Chun’s memory can be found here and here.
This memorial came soon before All Souls Day and the beginning of November, a month of remembrance for the dead in the Christian tradition. Sitting here on a dark and brooding Sunday afternoon in Seattle, and thinking about In Soo Chun, I’m flooded with memories of past encounters with death and resurrection.
In the fall of 2006 , my grandfather passed away in New Jersey. I remember flying into New York for the funeral and feeling like he was present, alongside all of my ancestors whose blood and sweat went into building the gray buildings and gritty streets. I remember feeling like their faith was a narrow opening, a crack like a small stained glass window in a dark cathedral, shining the perpetual light of God’s remembrance into this ancient city of exhausted hearts and bodies. I remember writing and reciting the Prayers of the Faithful for the funeral, reminding my family that my grandfather would live on because God will re-member him in the Kingdom, because God never forgets his creations. I said we need to come together in remembrance so that he can rise again with us in the Church.
Over the years, I have practiced this month of remembrance by attending the School of the Americas protest at the gates of Fort Benning in Georgia where we remember those who have been killed in Latin America by counterinsurgency forces trained at the US Army School of the Americas. This protest involves a very powerful act of mourning and resistance where the names of all those killed are read out and the crowd raises white crosses and chants “Presente”, Spanish for “I am here.” This embodies the spirit of Oscar Romero, a liberation theologian and social movement leader in El Salvador. He said: “I have frequently been threatened with death. I must tell you that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
Last year after a young Black man named Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a cop in Oakland, CA, people took to the streets chanting “we are all Oscar Grant.”
Last year at a protest against budget cuts, shift changes, and overwork, custodians started chanting In Soo Chun’s name. At the memorial this fall, referencing that event and the Oscar Grant protests, we chanted “we are all In Soo Chun; we will struggle together as one.”
Will In Soo Chun rise again in the Church, or among his coworkers, or among youth in streets, like I am sure my grandfather, Oscar Romero, and Oscar Grant have already?
The difference is that he took his own life, he was not murdered and he did not die of natural causes. He was a devout Christian. Why would a Christian choose an act of suicide, which is considered a mortal sin in the Christian tradition?
My Christian friend Shin Gu has a great reflection on this over on Exile from Pyongyang blog. He writes:
“Evaluating the meaning of In Soo Chun’s actions is not exactly an easy thing to do. As the UW Daily pointed out, ritual suicide is a fairly common practice in Korean labor and was also a big part of the democracy movements during the 70s and 80s. The act of self immolation publicly also has a political history about it, rooting with Chun Tae-Il’s self immolation back in 1970. Chun Tae-il quickly became a martyr for both the labor and democracy movements and many activists chose similar routes during their lifetimes.
The question remains is exactly HOW this act became so rampant throughout the movement. Unlike Japan, there isn’t any sort of tradition ritual suicide in Korean history. To make things even more complicated many people who committed political suicide were also devoted Christians (Chun Tae-il was as devout as you can get) which condemns suicide as murder and a one-way ticket to hell. By Christian logic, Chun Tae-il paid the ultimate price with his soul for his sacrifice. Prof. Nam at the University of Washington told her class that there seems to be no known source for Chun’s actions. None of his writings warn about this and he did not seem well aware of the Buddhists in Vietnam who performed self immolation to protest the Diem government.
Is the action just a symbolic “FU” as one commenter posted? Is it just an example of how the human mind and soul can only be pushed too far? Or is there something we are all missing? Its stuff like these that make mankind a creature of great mystery no matter how hard we try to “rationalize” things.”
One of the custodians who spoke at the memorial for In Soo Chun is a devout Christian and a good friend of mine. He shed light on the situation when he said: “In Soo Chun did not want to DIE here, but was trying to send a message which the people in the building behind me did not want to hear.” Was In Soo Chun crying out in desperation, and in hope that someone would stop him and spare his life? Was he hoping to continue his life seared by fire but living to see positive changes in working conditions for his coworkers?
A year after his death some workers were afraid to come out to his memorial because of management harassment and retaliation. One manager scheduled a mandatory meeting during the middle of the memorial (which was planned during the day shift break) preventing many from attending. Some union officials almost divided the workforce by calling their own separate memorial because they were worried that asking difficult questions about In Soo Chun’s death might anger management. When only about 10 people showed up they walked over and joined us anyway. My Christian friend told me he prayed and prayed over the course of the week that the memorial would bring folks together. When many workers came despite these challenges, he told me that he is sure In Soo Chun was watching over us from heaven.
I am certainly not advocating ritual suicide. God’s creation is a beautiful thing and our bodies ultimately belong to the Creator, not to ourselves, so we ought not to sacrifice them. I think ritual suicide is a tragic way to protest and I want workers to live on and enjoy the fruits of their resistance. But I also do not think it is helpful to conclude that In Soo Chun is therefore a sinner and that he will never rise again. In Soo Chun’s act was not a selfish one, it was not an act of isolating pride. You can judge a tree by its fruits, and the fruits of his action, a year after the fact, are a greater sense of solidarity, compassion, and courage where many workers are now willing to take risks and to stand up for their coworkers, families, and communities in his memory.
The core message of In Soo Chun’s memorial was that never again should a worker feel so isolated that he resorts to such drastic measures. We must come together and struggle collectively to make sure that we are all In Soo Chun. Only then will he be able to rise again among the people.
In Soo Chun: may perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.