In August of 2008, thanks to frequent flier miles, I was able to visit my graduate school roommate and his family in Korea.
One steamy Sunday, after Mass at Myundong Cathedral, we went to a section of Seoul that two hundred years ago was outside the city.
We drove up a rocky promontory called Choltu-san that overlooks the majestic Han river, which gives Koreans the name by which they know their country - Hangook.
At the top is a beautiful little Church to Our Lady that commemorates what occurred on that hill; for Choltu-san means Beheading Mountain.
From 1866 to 1872 the last of four periods of persecution of Catholics took place in Korea, and thousands of men, women, and children were tortured and beheaded on that rock; their headless corpses tossed over the cliff into the slow-moving water below.
The story of Catholicism in Korea is remarkable, and is told eloquently in that little shrine.
Since the 7th century, Korea has been profoundly influenced by Confucianism – a worldview based on subordination - sons to father, wife to husband, people to rulers.
It emphasizes proper rituals, ceremonies, conformity to decorum, and standards of correct conduct and the showing of respect, which included worship of ancestors.
My friend, whose name is Yun-kyung, is older than me.
As we got to know each other, he jokingly told me one day that I should refer to him as Yun-kyung-hyung, because “hyung” was the suffix of respect that one would add when addressing an older brother.
The rules of decorum demand formality, if for no other reason than to ensure better social relations.
In the 17th century, Korean Confucian scholars traveling in China brought back to Korea western books written in Chinese to study, including religious works by Matteo Ricci.
By 1783 scholarly debate and interest in the Catholic faith had grown into spiritual curiosity and religious seeking, and Beijing was visited by a couple of Koreans who returned to their country with the Scriptures and Catholic catechetical books.
One year later, Yi Seung-Hun traveled with his father to Beijing where he was baptized Peter.
He returned to Korea, where, as a lay man, he baptized several of the scholars who desired baptism themselves.
Within a year, the new Christians found themselves the victims of persecution.
The radical claim of Jesus, that doing the will of his Father supersedes the will of a husband, or a father, or a king was correctly recognized as destabilizing traditional relationships.
The egalitarian nature of relationships rooted in Jesus, in whom St. Paul said were neither Jew, nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, was astounding and dangerous.
Just as it surely seemed outrageous and destabilizing to the culture of Jesus’ listeners.
The first severe persecution of Catholic Christians began in 1801, yet when the first formal missionary endeavor began in 1836, the priests discovered some 4,000 baptized Catholics praying and worshipping God together every seven days.
Korean families and individuals had chosen to live according to the will of a God revealed in scriptures that although foreign, promised a life they recognized as divinely inspired and redeeming of the human condition.
A persecution in 1846 took the life of 25 year-old Andrew Kim Taegon, just one year after his ordination, and seven years after his father had been martyred for sending him away to become a priest.
The lay catechist Paul Chong Hasang, became one of some 10,000 lay Catholics martyred in Korea.
It is too easy for us, as Westerners, to think of our faith as forming our culture.
Surely it has been influential, but hardly transformative.
Our history of wars, of slavery, of Christian disunity and suspicion should be enough evidence to convince us that we seldom hear the Word of God and even less seldom act on it.
True conversion of heart is, sadly, rare.
It doesn’t happen by accident, or by culture.
In fact, as our Korean brothers and sisters show us, following Jesus – in every culture – means standing radically at odds with culture.
Perhaps we’re fortunate that America is becoming more secular.
It removes the comfort from being nominally Christian, and makes the choice of discipleship a bit more clear.
The exiles from Jerusalem maintained their faith and distinctive lifestyle, and it was that distinction which made it possible for king Darius to return them to Jerusalem as a people.
But let’s be clear – Christian living is more than just a distinctive lifestyle adopted because of tradition, or in reaction to a dominant culture.
Faith is rooted in the encounter with Jesus in grace, and a conscious response to that grace each day.
It leads to a paradoxical life which turns the expression, “blood is thicker than water” on its head.
The bonds forged by discipleship and the waters of baptism are stronger than blood kinship, and thick enough to transcend culture, history, place and time.
May we be worthy of being called mother and brother to Jesus, with the Korean martyrs.