Dennis Rodman has often bragged (in third person, no less) about “doing whatever the f— he wants.” And his public life shows he’s not joking.
From kicking a camera man in the crotch during a basketball game to his infamous hair-dying practices that often distracted both teammates and fans to the time he promoted his autobiography by showing up in a wedding dress and announcing that he was marrying himself, Dennis Rodman has always been an powder keg of peculiarity.
Now, the 52-year-old Rodman has created a media circus with a trip to North Korea to train the country’s basketball players.
And at least one person, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, thinks he’s the perfect bridge builder and mediator in the United States’ contentious relationship with the communist country.
Rev. Jackson tweeted, “Ping pong diplomacy worked in China, and Basketball seems to work in North Korea.” He also congratulated Rodman on his efforts, calling him “a light” in a dark place.
I beg to differ.
Let’s be clear: Rodman’s visit to North Korea is not diplomacy. By definition, diplomacy is the act of two governments working together through the respective country’s representatives. “Ping-pong diplomacy” worked in China in the 1970’s because U.S. President Richard Nixon was doing it.
Rodman is not authorized to negotiate for or speak on behalf of the United States or any other nation. When Rev. Jackson and others refer to Rodman’s trips to North Korea as “diplomacy,” they empty the word of its meaning.
Instead, Rodman’s bizarre foray into North Korea is low comedy and ultimately inconsequential to international relations. The only beneficiary? The North Korean government, which is leveraging his visit in its propaganda “to brainwash their people into believing they have legitimacy on the world stage.”
But it isn’t the ineffectiveness of Rodman’s trips that ultimately earn my disapproval; it’s the way my faith speaks to such situations.
Jesus tells those who follow him to love their enemies, a command that is not for the faint of heart. How do you love the man who stole your wife away or the teacher who molested your child? How do you love Al Qaeda or the Taliban or anyone who wishes to kill you just for being, well, you?
North Korea has both asserted and proven that it is America’s enemy and the government has no desire to be otherwise. It’s easy to love those who love us back, but Jesus followers must also look for ways to connect with, understand, and seek the good of those who hate us.
And yet sometimes the love of enemy finds itself in tension with an even more central exhortation of Jesus: the love of neighbor and the care for “the least of these.” Such is the case with the North Korean government.
- Most workers in North Korea earn between $2 and $3 per month from the government.
- About 1/3rd of North Korea’s children are stunted due to malnutrition, according to the World Food Program. Parents who send their children to school “are expected to provide desks, chairs, building materials and cash to pay for heating fuel.”
- North Korea restricts religious expression among its citizens. According to Open Doors USA, North Korea is the top persecutor of Christians in the world. The regime is holding about 130,000 citizens as “political prisoners” according to the United Nations.
This bitter salad of poverty, hunger, and oppression are largely the result of the morally bankrupt government. In fact, North Korea is officially the most corrupt country in the world, ranking at the very top on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. Kim Jong Un may be worth as much as $5 billion, according to the best estimates. Through his corruptive coercion, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea has effectively “starved its people for a nuke.”
Yes, this is the same Kim Jong Un that Rodman warbled “Happy Birthday” to. This is the same Kim Jong Un that Rodman portrays as just another misunderstood world leader and not the tyrannical dictator at the head of one of the greatest human rights violators anywhere around the globe.
Conservatives shouldn’t support Rodman because of their belief in democracy and their opposition to Communism. Liberals shouldn’t support Rodman because of their opposition to global injustice and inequality. And Christians shouldn’t support Rodman because they must ultimately and always side with the oppressed over the oppressor.
Christians must look for ways to love their enemies without cozying up to the “powers that be.”
The North Korean people need food and freedom and the ability to worship as they choose. But Rodman has chosen to ignore the cries of the hopeless and helpless and instead uncritically embrace one of the world’s most dangerous dictators.
So, no, I cannot support him. And neither should those who bear the name of “Christ.”