by John Seel, Ph.D.
I grew up in South Korea, the son of medical missionaries who served there for 35 years. I arrived as an infant on January 1, 1954. The Korean War had ended; nonetheless we traveled to Jeonju, the home of Jesus Hospital, by U.S. military escort across a war-ravaged countryside. Today, South Korea stands as a symbol of democracy, an economic superpower, and a bastion of faith. If China is to be the strategic center of the next century, Korea will be its catalyst.
But there was a time when Korea’s future hung in the balance – about 30 days to be precise. Retreating to the 145-mile-long Pusan Perimeter by an advancing North Korean People’s Army, the UN Forces held on by their fingernails. The Korean peninsula was outside the U.S.’s agreed to line of defense, which ran through a chain of islands fringing the Asian coast. It was an afterthought. It is only hindsight that warranted its significance. American historian William Manchester writes,
Not only is it easy to be wise after the event; it is, for military historians, almost irresistible. The strategic value of Gibraltar, Gettysburg, and the Dardanelles was obvious once they had been won or lost, and the eyes of any veteran of the Korean War, if confronted with a map of the Pacific, will instantly dart to the peninsula where he fought. It is incredible to him that the nation’s leaders did not see it there before the first shots were fired.
Where some predicted defeat, General Douglas Macarthur saw opportunity. With limited resources and wavering support, he mounted a decisive and daring invasion of the port city of Incheon and there established a beachhead. It was the turning point in the conflict. Today the modern city of Incheon is home to Korea’s International Airport and is the main hub of Korean Airline and Asiana Airlines, and Polar Air Cargo. It’s a gateway to East Asia.
The term “beachhead” was first used in World War II. It’s a foothold or an area on a hostile shore occupied to secure further landing of troops and supplies. It’s strategically located because of its tactical significance, often surrounded by a hostile army or alien culture, where there is a high concentration of effort and visible presence.
Cultural renew demands tactical beachheads. In contrast to frontal assaults that rarely rise above bellicose rhetoric, far more effective are concentrated efforts where human flourishing is illustrated and institutionalized… whether in business, media, art, entertainment, or philanthropy. The goal is realized shalom: the renewal, restoration, and reordering of all aspects culture-making that reaches to every nook and cranny of creation. Its goal is human life as it was meant to be. It is for this end that we are made in God’s image and in this task that we most exhibit God’s glory.
We’d be wise to abandon the language of cultural warrior with its victimizing rhetoric of resentment. We must no longer frame the cultural task in we/they polarities. We are responsible for the flourishing of our neighbor (Jeremiah 29). If the culture lacks genuine human flourishing, who is to blame? Who holds the sources of renewal… Peter’s “To whom else shall we go?” Who is given the explicit mission to be sources of vitality (salt) and beacons of goodness (light)? If there are fingers to point, they point back to the church, to you and me. Cultural decline is the consequence of our failure, and confession and humility are the only meaningful response.
We must also think more clearly about the need to develop overlapping networks that connect thought to action, academics to practitioners, ideas to institutions. We must stop playing it alone. We need each other, but particularly those who are able to take ideas and embody them in books, films, music, art, and experiences that speak to our imagination. We need to taste and see that the Lord is good, for there are many other offerings of tasting and seeing.
We must not rest until an accurate assessment of human nature and reality are taken seriously by cultural gatekeepers and the institutions they lead. If we limit our message so that it is only comprehensible to our own tribe or club, if our goal is not genuinely the common good, then we will not be taken seriously by those most in need of shalom… and rightfully so.
No one is removed from the task. Everyone has his or her own sphere of influence… even if it is limited to what one wears or eats. Clothes and food speak powerfully about the renewed life that is available in Christ. But in the scope of your influence, whether at home or work or school, you should prayerfully consider the strategic beachheads that you and your network of friends can tackle in the New Year. Some may be called to start a band, run for mayor, or move cities. Our callings will be varied. But we must use our limited time and resources wisely for the sake of God and our neighbors.
In a few days, we enter into a new decade. The interpretive lens one adopts will influence how you feel about the future. There are more important things to consider than the state of Wall Street, the wrangling of Washington, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or the latest celebrity sex scandal.
There is a sense among many that the old clichés are worn out, that grand declarations and pronouncements have little impact, that there are ways of embodying historic orthodoxy in a manner that remains relevant because rooted in permanent things, that there is a new generation posed to take the helm of churches, businesses, and homes who are open to a fresh blowing of the Holy Spirit. 2009 has been a dark year for many. Yet it’s always darkest before the dawn.
When Rear Admiral James Doyle was given the responsibility to execute the Incheon invasion, he was dumbfounded. His communication officer said, “Make up a list of amphibious ‘don’ts,’ and you have an exact description of the Incheon operation.” 2010 is the year for executing ambitious beachheads of shalom. We have more on our side than the 1st Marine Division. Ours is the task. His is the power. Today’s Pusan can become tomorrow’s Incheon.