Does Korean society resemble the whitewashed sepulcher Jesus referred to when he criticized the scribes and Pharisees? Considering the recent tragic maritime disaster, the answer seems to be “Yes.”
One striking example is the condition of the lifeboats on the ill-fated sunken ferry Sewol. According to a newspaper report, most lifeboats on the ferry were useless because their safety pins were either rusted or stuck due to thick layers of white paint. The whitewashed lifeboats looked spic and span, like new, but during an emergency they were useless, stubbornly stuck to the deck.
The whitewashed lifeboats may be a good metaphor for contemporary Korean society, which is plagued by formalities and hypocrisy.
In the New Testament, Jesus laments the formalities and hypocrisy of scribes and Pharisees. He says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” On the surface, our society, too, may look fine and beautiful like a whitewashed tomb. Deep inside, however, it is full of unclean skeletons and bones. But no one seems to care about the contents in Korea; only flashy, lustrous surfaces matter.
Another famous whitewashing motif can be found in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” In this novel, Tom is made to paint a fence white as punishment for fighting. Tom shrewdly tricks his friends into doing it for him, and even collects small treasures from them for the privilege of doing his work. In this whitewash scene, Mark Twain illustrates the dark side of capitalism hidden beneath the whitewashed fence, including scams, bribery and exploitation. Behind the whitewashed lifeboats of the unfortunate ferry Sewol, too, we can detect the same corruption of capitalism, which has crippled our society. We have simply tried to cover up the dirty reality with fancy whitewashing. And the results have been disastrous.
In a society in which formalities and hypocrisy run rampant, common people are likely to be chained to formalistic rules and regulations. Those who have money and power can easily find a way out. It occurs to me that if those young students had taken a flight to Jejudo Island, perhaps they could have avoided the tragic disaster. Jesus excoriates the teachers of the law and Pharisees who enslave the Jewish people to petty rules and regulations under the pretense of following the truth. Thus Jesus exclaims, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
As a scholar of the humanities, I am ashamed of myself for not being able to play a part in preventing the ferry calamity from happening. At the core of the disaster lies the chronic problems of our society: materialism, selfishness and avarice. The owner of the ferry was interested in commercial profits at the expense of the passengers’ safety. The captain and his crew abandoned the ship and the passengers and fled. And the public officials in charge neglected to inspect the ferry and supervise the marine company. Perhaps scholars of the humanities like me should have tried much harder to spread the spirit of humanism and preach the value of humanity in our society.
Foreigners may find it odd that the victims’ families are blaming their government for a shipwreck. But it was not simply a shipwreck. Rather, it was a national disaster stemming from the chronic diseases and systematic problems of our society. Experts point out that the unlucky ferry was like a time bomb, bound to capsize and sink sooner or later. If so, the government’s supervising agencies must have neglected their duty to thoroughly inspect the ferry.
If people cannot trust their government, they will blame it whenever a catastrophe happens. In advanced countries, people have faith in their government. Unfortunately, Koreans do not seem to trust the government or the authorities. They say, “Our young students on the ferry died because they trusted and followed the announcement that they had to stay in the cabin.” A government should protect its people from all sorts of calamities. If not, it will lose the people’s faith and respect. In his inaugural speech, John F. Kennedy moved the American people with the famous words, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” After the tragic ferry disaster, the Korean people mutter rather cynically, “And so my dear government: ask not what your people can do for you, ask what you can do for your people.”
In memory of the victims of the ill-fated ferry Sewol, we should overhaul the whole system, alter our consciousness and reshuffle the public officials who are responsible. We should transform our country into a truly advanced one, so that such a disaster cannot happen ever again in our nation. Only then will our society be radically different from a whitewashed sepulcher.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.