Some Tears of Religious Aspiration: Dynamics of Korean Suffering in Post-War Seoul, South Korea1
One of the most impressive visual characteristics of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, may be its night view with an uncountable number of lit crosses on the tops of small and large churches. Like the cities of New York, London, and Tokyo, Seoul is conceived as a major world city, all of which function as "centers of finance and centers for global serving and management."2 On top of that, Seoul can be seen as an epicenter of religion, in particular, of Protestant Christianity, and is home to the world's largest mega-churches. This paper aims to demonstrate urban religious aspirations that articulate the socio-political location of these churches in the Seoul landscape through analyses of some prominent Korean church founders' conversion narratives. By historicizing and contextualizing such religious accounts that have mobilized a series of massive conversions in post-war South Korea, I want to shed light on a nucleus of Korean Christian practices that arise out of the aspirations inspiring a war-scarred people in search of better life in this world and the next.
Nonbelievers' conversion to Christianity is integral to this rapid church growth which coincided with the expansion of a western mode of modernization in Korea.3 Whether "individual" or "massive," conversion to Christianity is characterized by a set of "ruptures" that are supposed to be narrativized by the converted individual before witnesses.4
With respect to this unique aspect of the Christian tradition in which linguistic ritual (i.e., sermons, conversion narratives, and various forms of prayer) is an essential yet largely neglected factor in discussions on Korean Christianity, I shed light on Korean church founders' charismatic narratives that, I assert, have promoted Korean forms of Christianity in South Korea and beyond.
My preliminary comparative analyses of some Korean church founders' religious accounts reveal that suffering, whether personal or national, appears as central in the narrativization (the constructed narrative) of their conversion experiences and serves to further the church traditions they founded. It is right to say that Korean churches' global aspiration tends to go hand in hand with the personalization of national suffering, and the nationalization of personal suffering as well. In the religious narratives, Japanese occupation, national division, and the Korean War followed by the Cold War were featured as dark forces, "external" victimizers under which the Korean nation, church, and individuals suffered as victims. In this light, I note a critical shift in the view of suffering individuals from sinners to victims in the context of Korean mass conversion that accelerated in post-War South Korea.
I hypothesize that the series of massive evangelical campaigns that contributed to a rapid increase in new converts,5 the emergence of mammoth churches in urban landscapes and their missionaries located all over the world, and denominational divisions, particularly between the conservative and the progressive, are all firmly rooted in and stem from the reasons, meanings, and consequences of Korean suffering. In this respect, I agree with Donald N. Clark's claim that "the missionaries never could become Koreans and, as foreigners and with few exceptions, have never been able fully to share in the experiences of their Korean co-believers."6 This, I submit, is what makes Korean Christianity Korean.
In the scale of world Christian communities, Korean churches' articulating of national adversity served to legitimize a leadership role. Accordingly, translation of historical particularities into biblical language and transnational network building accelerated in post-War South Korea. However, it is arguably suggested that Korean Protestant leaders have put less effort into transcending politico-economic problems than identifying the "enemy" from which the adherents are mobilized to distinguish themselves.
My empirical research suggests that there is a primary difference between testimonies of the conversion processes in documents that American missionaries authored (mainly during the Pyongyang Great Revival of 1907), and contemporary Korean testimonials of faith, or singang kanjŭng that I have heard in the course of my fieldwork.7 That is, when describing the scenes of massive conversion, American missionaries particularly emphasized the repentance (i.e., confession of sins) and spiritual awakening aspects which are part of the conventional process of conversion in Protestantism.8 Meanwhile, rather than repentance of sins, one finds a tendency in present Korean conversion narratives, made publicly in churches, to devote much of the focus to articulating past "suffering" and how it was solved or its meaning shifted thanks to "God's grace."
Accordingly, it is critical to contextualize the massive conversion within the specific historical juncture when charismatic leaders in both political and religious areas emerged to claim and found the "Korean" state and church in the envisioning of a national restoration. Recognizing that, this paper consists of mainly three parts; first is a brief historical and theoretical review on religion and state in Korea focusing on the theme of suffering; the second part comparatively analyzes two religious leaders' contributions to the foundation of Korean Christianity; and the last section discusses to the extent that the past suffering serves to foster a religious aspiration that is reified with the increasing number of mega-churches in Seoul's metropolitan landscape, and, through missions, on the world map.
Spiritual Revival and National Restoration
Billy Graham, a prominent evangelist in the United States, once stressed a characteristic of the Korean Church that "has set a pattern of perennial revival to which the church universal looks with wonder and amazement. … It is refreshing to know that the spirit of revival still prevails in Korea, and that the work of God there continues unabated."9 As such, a series of evangelical "revival" movements have continued to occur more frequently and at a much larger scale in South Korea after the Korean War (1950–1953) through the 1990s than elsewhere in the peninsula and under any other historical conditions prior to and after the 1960s~1990s.10 This series of massive evangelical campaigns, as Timothy Lee points out, characterized Korean evangelicalism,11 and, I argue, further provided the basis for the exponential growth of churches in the urban landscape.
Using the term "revival" (Puhŭng (復興) in Korean) to signify the rise and growth of Korean Christianity, however, does not mean that Koreans were once Christian and are returning to their lapsed faith. Nor does the series of revival campaigns constantly taking place in Korea mean to reawaken secularized people's interest in religion. In this rhetoric, the church or Holy Spirit is present everywhere in the universe, but only reconstructed, revived, and resurrected through the newly converted or reborn believers. Korean mass conversion to Christianity thus manifests for Korean Christians the conviction that that they are "chosen" to reify and prove the existence of God.
In contrast to secularization theories which show religion being replaced by the nation-state12, and world cities frameworks that view the global flow of capital as having precedence over the state,13 religion and its influences have grown rather than declined in both public and private spaces in the process of modern nation-state building accompanied by rapid urbanization and industrialization in South Korea. Further, as of today, Protestantism is so prevalent that the Seoul metropolitan area, having about 25 million people,14 is home to the world's largest mega-churches.15 These churches have always exerted substantial power in key domestic political and economic issues such as the recent presidential election, national security law reform, private school law reform, and policies toward North Korea(ns) to name a few, and have further both competed and cooperated for the world evangelization.
Although it has declined in recent years due to a secession of disenchanted people in the Seoul metropolitan area, the size of the Protestant population in South Korea is remarkable. South Korean churches claim that 25 percent of the entire population is Protestant, whereas in Asia (where 60 percent of the world's population resides), Protestants account for only around 5 percent of the population, far behind other traditional religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. According to a 2006 report by the South Korean National Statistics Office, as of November 1, 2005, Buddhists constituted 22.8 percent followed by Protestants at 18.3 percent and Catholics at 10.9 percent. Combining Protestants and Catholics, Christians surpassed Buddhists—29.2 percent to 22.8 percent.16
In addition, the Korea World Mission Association (KWMA) recently reported that the number of Korean missionaries serving overseas numbered 19,413 in 168 countries as of January 2009. This makes South Korea the second largest missionary-sending country after the United States; and this figure represents a huge jump since 2000, when the number was 8,103.17 It has become well known that Korean missionaries target some of the most difficult-to-evangelize countries such as Iraq, North Korea, and China.18 As The New York Times reported, "[They] are eager to do God's work and glorify God. They want to die for God."19
Between the 1960s and early 1990s not only Christianity, but indeed all religions, including Buddhism, Shamanism, and even new religious movements like the Unification Church (known as Moonies) flourished instead of declining, and the population involved in institutionalized religions increased six-fold in the context of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Drawing on preceding studies, as Andrew Kim summarizes well, the main socio-historical factors that explain the ever growing religious adherents and institutions are as follows; "psychological scars and an overwhelming sense of shame felt by Koreans over Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945); traumatic experience of the Korean War (1950–1953); the anomie arising from rapid industrialization and urbanization; and the profound sense of deprivation borne by a widening income gap. Also, by serving as welfare agencies and as points of contact for displaced individuals- which included millions of North Korean refugees-seeking comfort and fellowship, religious organizations provided for the adherents a sense of belonging, identity and security."20
In this sociological understanding, Korean people appeared to become more religious in the face of abrupt and radical social transformations than they did in pre-modern eras in the nineteenth century. Religious institutions, more than any modern state apparatus, provided solace to seekers in post-war South Korea. This contrasts with the Western example, where, people became less involved in the church as modern nation-states developed. This historical and contextual discernment of the rise of religion in urbanized South Korea has been well perceived by both domestic believers and foreign missionaries alike, and to some extent they suggest that the hardships are seen not as historically contingent but as inherent in what constitutes Koreanness.
From the start, the rise of Christianity in Korea has been keenly related to the conceptualization and categorization of suffering and millenarian yearning for salvation. 21 It may be right to stress that the sacralization of suffering was and is a missionary project by which the pleasures of everyday life have been overlooked in favor of the utility of using common suffering as a rallying point for common faith. When arriving to evangelize the Korean peninsula, the first American missionaries witnessed an extreme poverty and political weakness far worse than in Japan and China, who were then fighting with one another on the peninsula to occupy Korea, and they believed that such conditions were mainly, if not completely, caused by Koreans themselves. For both foreign missionaries and newly converted Korean Protestants, the local cultural practices such as those of neo-Confucianism (in particular, ancestral worship, concubinage, etc.), shamanist ritual (i.e., kut), Buddhism and Taoism, and such popular entertainments as gambling, drinking followed by singing, dancing, and often fighting, and smoking, etc., were all considered to be sinful behavior and thus should be expelled. Significantly, conviviality, fun, pleasure, or what Korean calls hŭng (興) was degraded as something that only belonged to the lower classes by the neo-Confucian ruling class; devalued as extravagant by anti-Japanese fighters; and simultaneously demonized as evil by Christian missionaries. As I shall elaborate in the following sections, it is crucial to understand that Protestant asceticism was well incorporated in promoting the economic development at a rapid pace in the aftermath of the Korean War.
Post-Korean War Seoul, as a context, was crucial to the rise of churches. Concomitant to the armistice of the devastating war was an emergence of internally displaced refugees, namely from the North where early Christians concentrated. Seoul, as the capital of South Korea, was where these "strangers" could be relatively invisible and anonymous. The social and political dynamics of that time were instrumental in the Christianization of Seoul. The South was governed by the Christian dominant government (Syngman Rhee regime) and US military forces, while American missionaries were also active in an era (1945–1950s) that was followed by the notorious militant dictatorship driving national restoration campaigns, in particular, the New Village Movement (1960s–1980s). Political loyalty to the South or resistance to the anticommunist state, the sacralization of Seoul as legitimate capital of the Korean peninsula and Korean nation,22 renegotiation with the patriarchal system in family, church, and social relations, and the desire for social mobility through social networks (equivalent to Chinese guanxi) all intermingled to accelerate the church growth wherein my particular attention is given to the religious accounts.
Addressing the causes of suffering is inherent in most religions, as Talal Asad discusses about Christian and Islamic traditions.23 Primarily, the concept of suffering as an analytical tool is directly linked to healing, and both are central as the goal and means of the conversion to Christianity. Amanda Porterfield suggests that Christian healing calls attention to the ways in which suffering is intrinsic to living a Christian life. She states: "Part of Christianity's appeal as a means of coping with suffering is the idea that suffering is not meaningless but part of a cosmic vision of redemption. … Thus, many Christians have accepted the onset or persistence of suffering as part of religious life, while also celebrating relief from suffering as a sign of the power and meaning of their faith." She continues, "Beneath this apparent paradox, a fairly consistent tendency to experience suffering as a means of both self-understanding and communion with others have enabled many Christians to rest easier with pain and death, even as healing experiences have energized Christians, enabling some to defeat pain and death, at least temporarily."24 This perspective is likely applicable to the Korean church only as an analysis of the ahistorical and universal role and meaning of the Bible and church, but is limited in its understanding of phenomenal mass conversion in Korea in light of the relationship between suffering and conversion. It is in this sense suggestive of a contextual approach considering how people, in particular some church leaders, interpret, negotiate, and narrativize the geopolitical circumstances—for instance, colonialism and national division—uniquely affecting Korea in Biblical terms.25
Through following the life trajectories of the ministers introduced in this article, we will understand how they have taken the historical upheavals with which their personal hardships were intimately linked into account, and show how the set of memories that are narrativized in biblical language are also reified or manifested through their various practices in belief.
As a preliminary comparison of Korean church founders I have primarily chosen two Presbyterian church founders: Han Kyung-jik (Han Kyŏng-Chik), the founder of Young Nak Church, the largest Presbyterian church in the world; and Kang Won-yong (Kang Won Yong), the founder of the Kyoung Dong Presbyterian Church and the Korean Christian Academy which initiated progressive social activism in South Korea. It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate all their achievements comparatively though.
Han Kyŏng-jik: Grounding Korean evangelism
On April 29, 1992 in Berlin, Rev. Han Kyung-Chik (Kyŏng-jik, 1902–2000) who was in his 90s, was awarded the Templeton Prize. His achievement is remarkable; Young Nak Presbyterian Church, built by war refugees from North Korea like himself, is the first mega-church in Korean church history, and Rev. Han was the first Korean minister sending missionaries to foreign countries. As a consequence, there are more than two hundred Young Nak churches all over the world as of today. Additionally, he founded schools for secondary and college education, orphanages and shelters for the needy, and he co-founded World Vision in Korea (Sŏnmyŏnghoi) with Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, Inc.27
In this paper, I want to elaborate the twofold meanings of his religious leadership; first Rev. Han pioneered to revive Christianity and Christian subjectivity as "Korean" while identifying non-Christian ideologies and rituals, particularly communism, as "foreign" and "evil" in the making of the Korean nation-state; accordingly, his church members established a Korean conservative church culture in which individuals practiced a community-oriented religious life.28
Born in a Protestant family at a small rural village, it was at the O-San Academy where Rev. Han was deeply impressed by nationalist teachers and learned to be a Korean patriot, modern scientist, and above all a sincere Christian. In the summer of 1924, just one year before graduating college, he experienced a call to be "born again" by listening to God's voice:
Young Kyŏng-jik Han in this brief account was emblematic of a Christian nationalism that intensified in response to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, dubbed as Kyŏngsulgukch'i, national humiliation in the year of Kyŏngsul. During the 35 year long Japanese occupation period (1910–1945) Protestant churches and schools played a role in enhancing in young Koreans like Han Kyung-jik "the capacity to aspire"29 to be national leaders. And it was God who, in Han's account, told him to enlighten his people's ways of life, and bring hope to those who were suffering. Following God's calling and the suggestion of his professor, the missionary Dr. Blair, he moved to the United States to study humanities, and later theology. Soon after finishing his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary after the College of Emporia, he was diagnosed with severe tuberculosis that terminated his plan to go to Yale graduate school for a PhD. In such a desperate condition, he prayed to the Lord "just three more years to live" in order to serve his people.
Preaching and Practicing
From his return to Korea in 1929, after recovering from near-fatal tuberculosis, until the end of World War II in 1945, he served at the Second Church of Sinuiju in the north, while struggling under the control of Japanese authorities. Soon after the liberation in August 1945, the US and the Soviet powers divided the peninsula into two and put each side under trusteeship. By December of 1945, the brutal clashes between Christians and communists became irreconcilable and threatened his life in the north. He fled to the south and started another church ministry in Seoul with 20 to 30 refugees from the north. The church changed its name to Young Nak Church the next year and grew to 500 members, then increasing to 2,000 by that summer, and to 3,000 by the following summer.30 His church continued to expand after the Korean War (1950–1953), reaching 12,000 attendants by 1969.
Substantial resources provided by state and foreign aid, Rev. Han's leadership, and "God's grace" are often stressed as the main forces for this achievement in spite of such historical turmoil. I maintain, however, that the nucleus of his church growth can be better understood in Rev. Han's own accounts. And it is through his biblical vocabularies that historical pain and evil are redefined, differentiated, and sometimes silenced in the name of the Holy Spirit, national evangelization, and world missionization alike.
First, Rev. Han translated adversity such as being oppressed, uprooted, losing family members and land, and being imprisoned, as a guarantee "for a great reward in heaven" and felt that the oppressed are entitled to "rejoice and be glad" (Matthew 5:12) (sermon of Feb. 21, 1960).
Secondly, suffering became located temporally in the past (e.g., Japanese colonial period, and before the war), while at the same time spatially, in the north. Japanese "colonial" forces and Korean "materialistic" communists were all categorized as "inhuman" persecutors under whom "spiritual" Koreans suffered. Though Rev. Han considered materialistic and totalitarian communism in North Korea a more severe "evil" than Japanese imperialism in opposition to liberal, democratic South Korea in both of his accounts, the Japanese colonial period and the current reality of North Korea are signs of an uncivilized world where people were and are persecuted, as opposed to the South, where Christianity is granted and supported by the state powers (i.e., South Korean and US regimes). He considers this to be an example of an ideal civilization with spirituality, science, and patriotism. In other words, pain, which is not simply imagined as in the past, but rather recognized as alive in the present North Korea, is counteracted in modern South Korea.
In the meantime, Rev. Han's evangelical accounts have functioned to silence or deny other historical memories and current suffering. First of all, the cruel clashes between Christians and Communists before and during the Korean War did not only victimize the former. Instead, for instance, the Northwest Youth League (Sŏbuk Ch'ŏngnyŏndan) formed by mainly North Korean refugee Christians, and in particular young members of Rev. Han's Young Nak Church, was sent to help South Korean soldiers to suppress the Jeju Uprising; the armed forces notoriously took tens of thousands life between 1947–1954. Not to mention the Yŏsu-Sunchŏn incident in the south and Sinchŏn massacre in the north. In other words, these atrocities have hardly been confessed, but rather silenced or redefined as secular activities. In the same vein, Rev. Han chose not confess his participation in Shinto worship (1938–1945)31 (which he considers a sin) until he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1992. Further, his couching of past suffering solely in biblical terms neglected the societal problems experienced by that era's South Korea such as political dictatorship, human rights abuses, corruption, and so on.
Indeed, Rev. Han's biblical accounts drive us to understand a characteristic of the relation between church and state in terms of spatial differentiation in the context of divided nation-state building in South Korea, and further, the different images of charismatic leaderships in political and religious realms. Rev. Han shared ideas of anticommunism, economic development orientation, and western civilization with political leaders as basic instruments to further evangelize the nation and beyond. His church members were encouraged to volunteer for extended community activities in all educational and social welfare enterprises as faithful practices of altruistic nationalism, while at the same time his church space served as a holy sanctuary keeping "spiritual" Koreans safe from the evils of communism, reiterating conversion narratives in which suffering stories were and still are central.
This set of characteristics differentiates Rev. Han from the other strand of Korean Christianity primarily led by Rev. Kang Won Yong about whom the following section is devoted.
Rev. Dr. Kang Won Yong
While the formerly introduced Rev. Han Kyung-jik laid the foundation for the growth of conservative churches through revivalism, anti-communist patriotism and the promotion of collectivist church culture; Rev. Kang Won Yong set forth a Christian model that actively engages with immanent societal issues including those of human rights, equality, and Korean reunification. Migrating from north to south after Korea's liberation in 1945 just as Rev. Han did, he established what today is known as the Kyungdong Presbyterian Church and invited Rev. Kim Jae Joon as a senior pastor. Rev. Kang was ordained a minister in 1949, and studied at the University of Manitoba, the Union Theological Seminary and The New School in New York City from 1953 to 1957.
Rev. Kang's most notable achievement is his effort and vision that situates religion, specifically Christianity, in the "between and beyond" of South Korean society. Equally notable is his methodological pronouncement to pursue his vision through "conversation." He identified South Korea's acute ideological and public interest schism and polarization after the national partition and the Korean War as the main cause of "suffering" and attempted a topological anchoring of religion in the "between and beyond" of the two extremes. In the same vein, his philosophy of the "between and beyond" also contributed to opening a dialogue among different religious organizations, mainly Protestant, Catholic, and Buddhist as their influences on society was increasing. In terms of urban aspirations in Seoul where urban migrant workers from rural areas, war refugees, and such urban poor concentrated, Rev. Kang's efforts can be seen by his calling himself a "voice" to "inspire and motivate the 'marginal man'—and the marginal woman—to strike it out in the city in search of a better future."33 While Rev. Han took up the anticommunist regime and its economic development first policy as instrumental to his evangelical mission, Rev. Kang seems to have practiced his mission for such social problems as human rights, justice, and democracy as a way by which enlightened elites or Christians could play a mediator role to mobilize and inspire both the grassroots and the privileged alike. In this line of theology and practices, he founded the Christian Academy of Korea following and with funding of its German precedent. Just as Rev. Han did with world evangelists, Rev. Kang pioneered to cooperate with and contribute to the ecumenical movements as a member of the Central Committee and the Executive Committee in the World Council of Churches.34 Based on Korean literature like Ko B.-s. (1987),35 and sizable e-articles available in the Kang Won Yong Cyber Archive36 run by Daehwa Munhwa Academy (formerly the Christian Academy), the following examines a progressive form of Korean church Rev. Kang has established.
Conversion and Awakening
In considering his conversion experience and simultaneously what conversion to Christianity in that time period might look like, I find his born again experience as one that reflects multilayered conflicts that were radically polarized in terms of culture and ideology in early 20th century of Korea. Christian conversion for Rev. Kang and others in his generation could be seen as a series of interactions and negotiations with such historical challenges that emerged between Christianity and Korean traditional cultures like Confucianism, between foreign missionaries and domestic Korean theologians, between Christianity and Marxism, and between 'true' and 'hypocritical' Christians as well.
Born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, Rev. Kang was baptized when he was about fifteen years old. Until his twenties, his religious practice was based on strict stoicism and biblical literalism. Not only did he take the Bible literally, he caused trouble by not following his own family's Confucian tradition as well as disrupting his neighbor's ancestral worship. Then one day, an opportunity for a reawakening presented itself through the pedagogical influence of his teacher and mentor Rev. Kim Jae Joon;
The experience of being born again that appears in Rev. Kang's narrative is suggestive of the significant of an inspirational moralistic relationship. His experience of such "spiritual enlightenment," later accompanied by his theological education, becomes pivotal in his social activism.
In a similar vein, the integrity of faith and practice even in a time of extreme turmoil gave more significance to his form of Christianity through experiencing the Korean War (1950–1953). During the War, unlike Rev. Han, he did not evacuate out of Seoul and experienced the chaotic event as follows;
The antagonistic relationship between Christianity and Communism in the context of Korea was not simply grounded in each principle, but rather actualized and experienced through brutal battle, and reproduced in discursive genres of narratives and practices in faith in church history. While Rev. Han tended to anchor the war refugee experience and suffering as anticommunism in his evangelical nationalism, Rev. Kang, who also maintained an anticommunist stance, seemed to decide to take a third direction in what he called "between and beyond" extreme anticommunist Christians and antireligious Communists that governed the Cold War era on the Korean peninsula. In this sense, I may call his faith reflexive theology, and refer his social activism to the foundation of an applied Christianity on Korean soil.
Rev. Kang is recognized as the religious leader most influential on political issues. He attempted to establish Christianity as a public religion capable of checking political power. Rev. Kang has assessed his own life works in a spirit of neutrality by promoting conversations between religions, scholars, politicians and so on, and by training people to be the "middle group" mediating such bipolar sides as the power holder and the powerless, conservatives and progressives, and employers and employees through the Christian Academy, a non-government organization he built for ecumenical campaigns and social change.
He has always emphasized the importance of the mediating process by which polar opposites could negotiate and find a third direction to move in a dialectic manner. I frame such "middle ground" or the process of mediating across sectarianism as a socio-cultural conversion, a "break" from convention and prejudice. Strictly speaking, Rev. Kang Won Yong is not an emblematic pioneer of a large-scale parish. Nonetheless, he has established a tradition of a liberal social activism based on Christianity through his formation of an ideal figure of a participatory Christian and through his work that goes beyond the categorical boundaries of the political and the religious as well as the secular and the sacred. Simultaneously, he has been less interested in such idealistic matters as a principle or an ultimate goal than in practical matters. He has suggested that people be wary of being restricted with certain religious/social precepts or confusing a goal with a means. In this respect, constant conversation and communication across parties and sects are important.
As of today those who are influenced by Rev. Kang tend to value active participation in and contribution to social activities as part of mission works. Overall, my research suggests that one of his positive impacts on Korean Christianity is the establishment of the church's image both in South Korea and among Koreans in diaspora, as a key social institution contributing to social progress rather than merely promoting individual salvation.
In light of church expansion in urban areas, his church and the churches in his denomination (The Presbyterian Church of the Republic of Korea, simply called Kijang in Korean) may be incomparable with megachurches that are evangelical-revivalistic and politically conservative.39 Considering the charismatic leadership in mobilizing social activism and organizing street protests and vigils for political democratization, labor movements and national reunification that characterized South Korea's 1980s, few will disagree with the suggestion that progressive Protestantism fueled South Korean millenarian aspirations to live "together" (tŏburŏ salgi). Such a desire for equality has barely been realized due mainly to macro geopolitical conditions, including the Cold War legacy which inherently prefigured the nature of Seoul and its urban religiosity. Suffering is haunting.
By analyzing two Presbyterian Church founders' religious accounts and practices comparatively, I have tried to articulate the significance of suffering as central in the conversion narratives that serve to understand successive mass conversions of Koreans, and the sectarian differentiation between conservative and progressive churches that have emerged in the context of post-war South Korea. At the heart of mass conversions, it may not be an exaggeration to say that no other than biblical vocabularies served to translate Korean suffering as simultaneously universal and unique as those of the Israelites and early Christians. In that context the church has been able to redirect the pains, memories, and aspirations toward a certain direction with conviction. Korean church leaders' authority is granted and respected not only because it is given by God in principle, or because of neo-Confucian legacy.40 Simultaneously, I stress that it is also because their conversion narratives demonstrate they suffered as much as or often more than the war-scarred people, being called to be born as a new model Korean in faith.
I began this paper with the notion of religious aspiration in the context of Seoul, while discussing mainly national suffering. This section aims to open further discussion as to what extent these seemingly antagonistic concepts interplay in both the Christianization of Seoul, and globalization of Korean Christianity. Following Arjun Appadurai,41 I consider aspiration as a future oriented form of culture; determined socially; distributed unevenly between the rich and the poor; crucial in giving "voice" to the poor, and, in biblical understanding, longing for the providential hand of God. Conversely, suffering is likely related to the enduring "past" misfortunes, sins, curses, evil, etc. on one hand. In religious accounts like the Bible, on the other hand, it also appears rather positively as one that can work for proving God's divine healing, a sign of being chosen. The term theodicy reflects centuries-long intellectual endeavors in most religions to answer the existence of evil despite the goodness of God. But my interest is not in such a philosophical and theological discussion. Instead, I view, retrospectively, Korean religious aspiration in conjunction with its global imagination, which may be implied in following anecdote, I observed in the 2011 revival of Korean Protestants in Europe.
Rev. Song's sermon based on his own life trajectory was not merely delivering a typical narrative of personal suffering and healing. Rather, his sermon was devoted to the theme of "Change the World, with the Heart of Jesus!" the slogan of the 2011 KOSTA Europe,42 the largest annual revival of Korean Protestants in Europe. In this context, Rev. Song's "collapse" story not only evoked hardworking ethics to the young audiences, but also served to legitimize the "servant" leadership role of Korean Christians in saving Europe, who sent Robert Jermain Thomas to awaken Korea in the 19th century.43 More surprisingly, in addition to Rev. Song, nearly all Korean ministers and missionaries from large and mega-churches in Korea and Americas, including the successor of Rev. David Paul Cho at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, spoke about their own suffering experiences ranging from a physical illness like Rev. Song, a financial crisis, to spiritual wars. Note that The Economist has recently reported, "The Protestant church, in particular, seems to have produced a tribe of flashy, mansion-dwelling pastors," with regard to Korean mega-churches, and in particular to the fact that Rev. Cho was accused of embezzlement of church money (circa $20 million) by his followers.44 We can unveil multilayered implications in these seemingly peerless depictions; on one side "mansion dwelling pastors" with their suffering on the other. The bottom line here is that the theme of suffering is still prevalent for the religious leaders to legitimize their religious authority to their congregations and audiences, so too is it for Korean missionaries in the world mission.
I suggest that however the theme of suffering, as a form of ritual and a theological foundation, have to do with its future oriented culture, namely religious aspiration of the believers. There are two significant and somewhat incompatible developments in Korean Christianity: Minjung Theology and the Pentecostalization of mainline churches. Both seem to represent and project Korean Protestant aspirations for salvation in different ways, but both are firmly founded on the theme of suffering. Following is a brief description of them.
Minjung Theology, likely the equivalent of the Liberation Theology of Latin America, gained worldwide popularity among theologians as representative of specific Korean theology since its theorization was accomplished in the 1980s. Minjung Theology stands for Korean "minjung," roughly translated as the people or grass roots, as a historical subject and social agent with reference to the Exodus, and to Jesus Christ appearing in the Book of Mark as the model Christian who served the people. Thus the emphasis is on Christian practices in faith. Byung Moo Ahn (Ahn Byŏng Moo) and Nam Dong Seo (Sŏ Nam Dong), the pioneering theologians who proposed this theology by interpreting the main concepts of "minjung (the people)" and "han or haan (inner wounds)"45 according to the Bible, proclaimed the Third Coming through the liberation of the people in this time, and thus provided a theological base and motif for progressive Christians. Minjung Theology therefore allowed the churches to stand at the forefront of social activism for political democratization, social justice, and human rights against the militant regimes of 1980s-onward South Korea. However, this theology has been far less recognized and supported by the minjung themselves or by Christians in South Korea than by intellectuals and western scholars, and was thus nearly replaced, though not completely, with Pentecostal movements mainly led by Rev. David Yonggi Cho, who founded the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world's largest church.
As for the bulky growth of Korean churches, most intellectual approaches seem to consider it as problematic as the rapid modernization under the military dictatorship. For instance, it is argued that "Let us live well! (chal sarabose!)," the motto of the New Village Movement of the Park Jung Hee militant regime (1961–1979, followed by Generals Chun and Roh regimes till 1993), was indeed an allegory of street beggars' material desire that turned out to be a national aspiration under the Park dictatorship. This secular goal, with its means to achievement, brought about heterogeneous consequences. Kang Myungkoo, a Korean sociologist, highlights "developmentalist mentalité" that "serves as a system of ideology and affect that consolidates modes of behavior as well as ways of thinking. Due to this developmentalist mentalité, civil virtues and morals of solidarity and tolerance have been replaced with avaricious desires for material possession and an indiscriminate, competitive, survival mentalité."46 Following this line, some argued that the rapid economic development led to "bigness syndrome" within Korean Christianity; namely the physical size of the institution being correlated with its success, and its adherents' desire to be blessed with economic prosperity and good health, a complete break from their poor past.47
In the same vein, there are criticisms toward churches from the perspectives of both insiders and outsiders, throughout the history of Korean Christianity. During the Japanese colonial period, nationalists and apparently communists alike were critical of the revival movements due mainly to their lack of national consciousness, while in the developmental period since the 1960s, criticism has been directed at the quantitative, growth-oriented church interests combined with competitive evangelization. In recent years, Korean megachurches have promoted political right-wing campaigns, creating inter-religious tensions, aggressive missionary activities, and anti-education reforms alike. That is, megachurches are accused of being major hegemonic institutions aiming to perpetuate privileged, secular aspirations.
In contrast to this critical perspective, there are those that give rational explanation and express appreciation for Korean mega-churches. In reality, large numbers of church leaders, laypersons and missionaries visit Korea to participate in various training programs. Further, as ordained pastor and theorist of Korean megachurches at the Yoido Full Gospel Church, Hong Young-gi asserts, it worth considering how Korean megachurches have followed "the trend of North American enterprise culture, both in socio-economic development and church theology." 48 By using the terms "McDonaldization" and "Charismatization," Hong theorizes the ways by which Korean mega-churches have managed to and should "incorporate a charismatic spirit into rationalized systems," namely by accesssing, "both effective system and vital spirit" that are required to turn the quantity-oriented culture to the quality growth of churches. Akin to market theory that interprets people's behavior such as churchgoing as a rational choice and justifies the competition among churches is, however, limited in its understanding of the intimate relationship between the churches, the economic market, and the state politics. Simultaneously, much writing on Korean "fervent" religious practices usually reiterates the Korean shamanism-Pentecostal Protestantism nexus theory that portrays Koreans as inherently religious and eager to be healed or promoted by supernatural power, which appears as a substitute, if not alternative, to the state social welfare system in the context of globalization.49 This analysis tends to take the ideal symbiotic relationship between ongoing urban distress as problem and religion as its solution for granted. However, I have maintained in this article that the theme of suffering is, in the Korean church tradition, vitally reincarnated in dialectical processes and forms of rituals through which Korean Protestants continue to be born again as victims of certain uncontrollable evil forces—i.e., socio-historical upheavals— both for their own sake and for envisioning a reunified national evangelization and world mission.
Jin-Heon Jung is a research fellow and the Seoul Lab coordinator at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. He works on the intimate connection between North Korean migration and Evangelical missionary networks from the Sino-Korean border area to Seoul, South Korea, and a project on urban aspirations in Seoul with the lens of religion in the context of national division. His recent publications include Building Noah's Ark for Refugees, Migrants and Religious Communities (co-edited with Alexander Horstmann, Contemporary Anthropology of Religion Series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and a forthcoming monograph, Migration and Religion in East Asia: North Korean Migrants' Evangelical Encounters (Global Diversities Series, Palgrave Macmillan 2015 October).. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1 This work was supported by the Academy of Korean Studies Grant funded by the Korean Government (MEST) (AKS-2011-AAA-2104).
2 Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, and Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 342 (emphases in the original).
3 For anthropological discussions about the intimate relationship between Christian missionary and colonial modernity by the West to non-west, see Peter van der Veer ed., Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity (New York: Routledge, 1994); Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa v. I and II (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1991, 1997); and Talal Asad, Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
4 See Susan Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist language and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Birgit Meyer, "Make a Complete Break with The Past: Memory and Post-colonial Modernity in Ghanaian Pentecostalist Discourse," Journal of Religion Africa 28 (1998): 316–349; Peter G. Stromberg Peter G., Language and Self-Transformation: a study of the Christian conversion narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
5 Timothy S. Lee, Born Again: Evangelicalism in Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2010).
6 Donald N. Clark, Christianity in Modern Korea (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1986), 24.
7 I carried out anthropological fieldwork from August 2006 to December 2007 for my doctoral thesis on the Christian encounters between North Korean migrants and South Korean Church, which I am developing to publish into a book. Future research could consider the relevance of contemporary non-Korean Christian testimonies for comparative purposes.
8 For example, William Newton Blair addressed his witness as follows; "As the prayer continued, a spirit of heaviness and sorrow came upon the audience. … Man after man would rise, confess his sin, break down and weep, and then throw himself to the floor with his fists in a perfect agony of conviction" (William Blair & Bruce Hunt, The Korean Pentecost & The Sufferings Which Followed (Carlisle PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 72). The terms of weeping, sorrow, etc. are evidence of the presence of Holy Spirit, according to Blair.
9 René Monod, The Korean Revival. Translated by Anthea Bell, with Foreword by Dr. Billy Graham. London, Sydney, Auckland, Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971 (1969),. 5.
10 Lee, Born Again, 84–114.
11 Ibid., xv.
12 See Asad, Formations of the secular; Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Casanova, "Public Religion Revisited" in Hent de Vries, ed., Religion: Beyond the Concept, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 101–119.; Casanova, "Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective," The Hedgehog Review, no. 8 (spr./summer 2006): 7–22; Peter van der Veer, ed.. Conversion to Modernities (New York: Routledge, 1996); Imperial Encounters: Religion, Nation, and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); "Smash Temples, Burn Books: Comparing secularist projects in India and China" in Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan Van Antwerpen eds., Rethinking Secularism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 270–281, 2011; "Religion and Education in a Secular Age: A Comparative Perspective", in Religion, Education, and Politics in Modern China 33 (2011), 235–245 for scholarly discussions about secularization theory, and religion in the West and East.
13 See John Friedmann, "The world city hypothesis", Development and Change, 17 (1986), 69–83; "Where we stand: a decade of world city research", in Paul L. Knox, ed. World Cities in a World-System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 21–47; and Sassen, Global City; "The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier", American Studies, 41, nos. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 2000), 79–95 for the concepts/natures of world cities and global cities; and Kyoung-ho Shin & Michael Timberlake, "Korea's Global City: Structural and Political Implications of Seoul's Ascendance in the Global Urban Hierarchy", International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 47, no. 2 (2006), 145–173, for a discussion about Seoul as a global city.
14 Thomas Brinkhoff: The Principal Agglomerations of the World, http://www.citypopulation.de. Seoul city government officially claims that it had some 10.4 million residents, one-fourth of the total Korean population as of the end of 2010 (http://english.seoul.go.kr/gtk/about/fact.php?pidx=3).
15 Yoido Full Gospel Church, Association of God Grace and Truth Church, Yongrak Church, Nambu Gospel Church, Kum Ran Church, Soong Eui Methodist Church, and so on are on a list of the world's largest megachurches, but Somang Church, Sarangui Church, Onuri Church, and Chunghyun Church, to name a few, are also famous megachurches in Seoul in terms of the size and their political-social influence in South Korea.
16 T'onggyech'ŏng (Statistics Korea). 2005 Inkujutaekch'ongchosa (podojaryo) (2005 Census: Population and Housing Census (Press release)). 2006. (in Korean)
17 S. Sang-Cheol Moon, The Protestant Missionary Movement in Korea: Current Growth and Development. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 32, no. 2 (2003), 59–64.
18 The number of Christians in China is increasing at a rapid pace. It is estimated at about sixty million both in Protestantism and Catholicism (Gardam, BBC News Magazine, September 11, 2011), but it seems there is no way to count increasing number of underground house churches and their congregations.
20 Andrew Eungi Kim, "Characteristics of Religious Life in South Korea: A Sociological Survey", Review of Religious Research, 43, no. 4, (Jun., 2002), 291–310.
21 Kenneth M. Wells, New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction nationalism in Korea 1896–1937 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990); Yi Mahn-yol, Han'guk Kidokkyo wa yŏksa ŭisik (Korean Protestantism and historical consciousness) (Seoul, South Korea: Chisik sanŏpsa, 1981); Blair & Hunt, Korean Pentecost; Park, M-s., Tachonggyo sahoe esŏ ŭi Han'guk Kaesin'gyo wa kukka kwŏllyŏk (Korean Protestantism and National Power in the Plural Religious Context). Chonggyo yŏn'gu, 54 (2009): 1–37; Ryu D-y., Han'guk kŭn-hyŏndaesa wa Kidokkyo (Korean modern history and Christianity) (Seoul: p'urŭnyŏksa, 2009).
22 See Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann eds., Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999 for historical and anthropological discussions about religious nationalism in relation to the sacralization of national territory.
23 Asad, Formations of the secular.
24 Amanda Porterfield, Healing in the history of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
25 Chung-Shin Park, Protestantism and Politics in Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Danielle Kane and Jung Mee Park, "The Puzzle of Korean Christianity: Geopolitical Networks and Religious Conversion in Early Twentieth-Century East Asia," American Journal of Sociology, 115, no. 2, (2009), 365–404.
27 For more information about World Vision, Inc. visit www.worldvision.org.
28 The data are based on Korean literature such as Ch'oe, C.-g., Yŏngnak kyohoe ŭi puhŭng: Han Chonggyo Sahoehakjŏk Yŏn'gu (The Revival of Youngnak Church: A Religious-Sociological Study). Seoul: Han'gungmunhak, 1974); Han, K.-j., Han Kyŏng-jik Sŏlkyo Jŏnjip 1–12 (The Complete Works of Reverend Han Kyung-Chik's Sermon 1–12). (Seoul: Han Kyŏng-jik Moksa kinyŏm saŏp'oe, 2009); Kim B.-h. Han Kyŏng-jik Moksa (Reverend Han Kyŏng-jik) (Seoul: Kyujang Munhwasa, 1982), and various e-articles published in the website of Kyung-Chik Han Foundation (hankyungchik.org).
29 Arjun Appadurai, "The capacity to aspire: culture and the terms of recognition", In Rao, V., Walton, M., eds, Culture and Public Action (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 59–84.
30 Monod, The Korean Pentecost, 58.
31 In 1938 September, the Chosun Presbyterian Church Council (first organized in 1893 as the Presbyterian Mission Council) held the 27th assembly meeting that was heavily controlled by Japanese armed policemen to make the delegates vote for Shinto Worship. All the schools run by churches and missionaries fell under control of the Japanese governor-general, those who resisted to Shinto Worship were either executed or imprisoned, some missionaries were forced to leave, and etc. It is known that the period between 1938 and 1945 was the hardest time for Korean Christians (see Lee T., Born Again, 54–60).
33 T. Bunnell and Goh, D., "Urban aspirations and Asian cosmopolitanisms", Geoforum 42 (2012), 1–3.
34 A former secretary of the National Council of Churches in Korea (NCC, formerly KNCC) for which Rev. Kang was the president twice in 1964 and 1980 told me that Rev. Kang was skillful (ch'alhada) in obtaining funding from foreign churches, for example German ones, with emphasis on the poverty of Korean churches (personal conversation on April, 2012).
35 Ko B.-s. (Ko, Pŏm-sŏ) ed., Kang Wŏn Ryong kwa ŭi taehwa (Dialogue with Kang Won Yong) (Seoul: Pyŏngminsa, 1987).
37 Kang, Wong Yong. Pin tŭlesŏ 1 (At an Empty Field 1). The Complete Works of Kang Wong Yong No. 14, (Seoul: T'ongsŏmunhak, 1995), 56.
38 Ko, B.-s. (Ko, Pŏm-sŏ) ed., Kang Won Yong kwa ŭi taehwa (Dialogue with Kang Won Yong) (Seoul: Pyŏngminsa, 1987), 256–7.
39 Ryu D.-y., Han'guk kŭn-hyŏndaesa wa Kidokkyo.
40 Kelly H. Chong, Deliverance and Submission: Evangelical Women and the Negotiation of Patriarchy in South Korea (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
41 Arjun Appadurai, "Capacity to Aspire".
42 KOSTA is the abbreviation for Korean Students All Nations. It is a trans-denominational revival gathering, first initiated by about 200 study abroad Korean students in the United States in1986, and spread to other regions and countries. As of today, there is the headquarter office in Seoul, Korea to arrange and support each country and regional meetings, which are run by voluntary participants from different Korean ethnic churches in the regions. KOSTA Europe began in 1988 and the 2011 meeting was taken place with about 1,500 on February 22–25 in Kirchheim, Germany. .
43 Korean Protestants consider the martyrdom of Robert Jermain Thomas (1839–1866) as a critical seed of Korean Christianity. Thomas handed a Chinese Bible to a Korean soldier shortly before being killed in 1866. He was sailing as a translator on an armed American trading ship, the General Sherman, to Pyongyang. His intention was to spread the Gospel. However, uninvited contact from foreign countries was strongly prohibited at the time. The American crew did not listen to the local Korean guard, but kidnapped a Korean messenger instead. Further, the ship opened fire. The two-day long battle between the American armed traders and Korean guard force ended with the ship burned down. All Americans died, but Thomas jumped into the water with his Bible, tossed it to a Korean soldier who pierced him following an order. There was a house discovered in the area having the Bible pages as wallpaper. And one of the first Protestant churches in Korea was established there, and Korean Christians claim that the Bible wallpapered in the house was originally given by Thomas (see http://robertjermainthomas.com for some e-information about Thomas). In 2010, the area where Thomas was martyred has become the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology established by a non-profit South Korean Christian organization, which also founds and runs Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China (see Jin Ho Jŏng's Mŏmch'ulsu ŏmnŭn hanŭl ŭi yŏlchŏng , Seoul: Kyujanggak, 2005) for more Christian accounts about PUST and YUST).
44 "For God and country," The Economist, October 15, 2011.
45 The conceptualization of han or haan (恨) has been discussed and developed by some Minjung theologians since its emergence as a key term in the theology (e.g., Jae Hoon Lee, The Exploration of the Inner Wounds-Han (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994); Chang-Hee Son, Haan of Minjung Theology and Han of Han Philosophy: In the Paradigm of Process Philosophy and Metaphysics of Relatedness (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000); Volker Küster, A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology Revisited (Leiden: Brill, 2010), etc. to name a few), but I refer its definition to Nam-Don Suh who defines it as a "feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined" (Boo-Woong Yoo, Korean Pentecostalism: Its History and Theology, New York: Peter Lang, 1988).
46 Kang Myong-Kyu, "Compressed Modernization and the Formation of a Developmentalist Mentalité" in Kim, Hyung-A and Clark W. Sorensen eds., Reassessing the Park Chung Hee Era 1961–1979: Development, Political Thought, Democracy, and Cultural Influence (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011).
47 Kim Byong-suh, "Modernization and the Explosive Growth and Decline of Korean Protestant Religiosity," In Buswell and Lee, eds. Christianity in Korea, 309–29.
48 Young-gi Hong, "Encounter with Modernity: The "McDonaldization" and "Charismatization" of Korean Mega-churches", International Review of Mission, 92 (2003): 239–255.
49 See Kim Sung Gun, "Korean Protestant Christianity in the Midst of Globalization: Neoliberalism and the Pentecostalization of Korean Churches", Korea Journal, 47, no. 4 (2007), 147–176.
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