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Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Christianity Survived in Korea: Swing Dancing and Different Perspectives

Dancers and Diatribes: Discussions on Korean Christianity and Political Activism
         Good swing dancers move without speaking. Communication happens in a flowing, spinning, or bouncing moment of bodies moving past each other, and a watcher might find herself hard-pressed to say who really "makes" the dance. Is the "lead"'s solid fulcrum really in control of "making" the dance, or does he rely on the flairs of the "follow" to make it more than simply pretty steps across the stage? Even the dancers, in the heat of the moment, cannot envision the entire dance, but only feel the push and pull at the boundaries of their own bodies.
         So with the history of Christianity in Korea, for long after the complex dances of ideas, people, and politics passes, historians have a difficult time determining what made and continues to make Korean Christianity an integral part of the Korean ideological and political sector. The three texts presented here have different perspectives on the "dance" because their authors stand at different places in the "room": Wi Jo Kang in Christ and Caesar in Modern Korea, himself an activist Christian, is a dancer, while Chun-shin Park, a strict historian in Protestantism and Politics, is a watcher on the dance floor. The authors of the selections in Christianity in Korea are dancers, watchers, or theorists on dance, depending on the author. Dancers may miss parts of history others participate in; watchers may misunderstand the passion of the dancers and the subtleties of their strategies; theorists offer information on strategies and techniques, but little else historically. Despite these varying approaches, or perhaps because of them, all three books ultimately show the reader that while the exact mechanics of the relationship remain up for debate, the political atmosphere in Korea affected and became affected by Korean Christianity in positive ways.
         Of the three texts, Wi Jo Kang speaks with the most passion, as a past active participant in the democracy movement in Korea. His book grants access to information other texts do not, such as details of relationships between the missionaries and his own activist life. His love for Korea causes him to betray an intense dislike for many foreigners in Korea, specifically the Japanese, and his emotional involvement with one story of liberal Korean Christianity allows him to downplay other sectors of the Korean Christian movement. While historical completion (and thus accuracy) would require a different book, Kang's merit lies in how he immediately forces his readers to form a vested interest in understanding Korea, rather than allowing them to remain quietly calculating, studious foreigners to his world.
         Kang's text begins with the strongly opinionated, nationalistic, and fiercely story-like tale of Roman Catholicism in Korea that focuses on persecution, imperialism and the relationship Korean Catholics had to foreigners and the "opening" of Korea. Kang divides his book into political interactions, not chronological stories. Almost the entire third chapter discusses the work of one missionary, Dr. Horace Allen, whom Kang uses to claim that the Protestant missionaries did advance Korean societal, technological, and economic improvement, but sometimes out of selfish gain. Afterwards, four out of the sixteen chapters discuss interactions with Japan, and foreign affairs dominate much of the rest of the story, with a great deal of space given to analysis of anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiment. Generally, Kang emphasizes the Japanese war atrocities and, especially leading up to the March 1st movement, the active role of the churches in opposing Japanese rule (35-42). After the March 1st movement, Kang suggests that relations cooled between Christianity and the Japanese because the Japanese made efforts to appear more tolerant on the world stage, but that during the Shrine controversy, under intense government pressure Christians cooperated with the Japanese (43-70). Roughly another quarter of the book addresses the democracy movement, claiming that while the majority of Christian churches supported the Rhee and Park regimes (99), Korean Christians provided the main force behind opposition to oppressive regimes in South Korea(99-116). Another quarter describes the politics of unification and communism, emphasizing the South Korean church as the major possible force for unification (128) while condemning the conservative South Korean church for remaining overly anti-communist (98) and overlooking the role of conservatives as primarily passive. He concludes on a seemingly optimistic note that reunification will require compromise on the part of the South Korean church with the humanist regime in North Korea.
         Chung-shin Park, on the other hand, writes as a historian, a watcher, with a rhetorical style characterized by questions awaiting answer moving through chronologically organized arguments. As such, he emphasizes the role of historical developments and incidents in setting the stage for Christianity's influence in politics, and suggests that the theology of Christianity alone did not convince Christians to push for the causes they promoted in Korea. Rather, he traces how Christians in different times reacted to different political situations with their theology (8). As a watcher unable to feel the feelings of the dancers, the emphasis of the effects of historical events on people sometimes goes too far. The merit in his book lies in the diversity with which he illustrates different Christian political reactions to different eras and regimes.
         Park's first three chapters deal with the growth of Protestantism in Korea from a religion focused on the poor and down-trodden to a powerful social institution. He argues that this change in social position changed the church's theological direction from one ready to change strict Confucian society to one willing to compromise and acquiesce with dictators (13-95). He then shows in his next chapter how churches, as the only ideological organization allowed to continue under Japanese annexation, became "an organizational base for Korean nationalist activities" (117). Because nationalist politics could only happen in church, the church grew during this period as people looked for places to remember their nationhood. Later, as the Japanese removed certain restrictions after the March 1st movement, the church no longer held a monopoly on nationalist organizing, and some activists left the church when it no longer conformed to their political expectations. The political role of the church became more marginal (142) and the failure of the March 1st movement caused many Korean nationalists within and without the church to turn to socialism and communism (141). Although at first the two nationalist groups--the Christians and the socialists--tried to cooperate, "some of the so-called Christian socialists...[became] apologists for Christianity and eventually would turn antisocialist." (145) Whenever the church became more powerful and institutionalized, he argues, it tended to cooperate with the government rather than oppose it.
         The third text, Christianity in Korea, is a compilation of different authors' articles and thus slightly more difficult to treat as a whole than the works previously mentioned here. Nevertheless, the editors Buswell and Lee demonstrate a clear purpose of their selection of the articles in their introduction(1). Essentially, they selected articles to prove the Christian contributions to modernity and political mobilization against the Japanese and for democracy, with a special place given to the ideological effects of Minjung theology on Korean social and religious thought. They claim that they also hope to demonstrate the importance of Koreanness to Christianity on a world stage, but all of the articles they select deal predominantly with what Christians or Korean Christianity as an abstraction performed in Korea, not vice versa. The book really does discuss "Christianity in Korea," more than "Korean Christianity," with the exception of the chapters on Minjung theology. The Minjung theology chapters deal predominantly with the "Koreannness" of Minjung and its biblical hermeneutics, supplemented with evidence of its impact on society. Most of the authors write only from their strong theological background about advice for the church or theology within it, making them distant theorists rather than observers of the "dance." Because article topics must tend towards the specific in order to really prove anything in such a short space, these texts tends to focus on narrow aspects of Korean Christianity, and they have trouble thoroughly proving larger claims. Nevertheless, this book provides a useful reference on a wide range of subjects and opinions on Christianity in Korea.
         As mentioned above, Christianity in Korea contains a wide range of articles general and specific, mostly organized in chronological groups. Several of the articles contain specific life stories that demonstrate the impact of Christianity on individual lives and the subsequent contributions of Christians to society. Of these articles, the one written about Ahn Changho most strongly illustrates how the man's theological beliefs affected his actions, actually analyzing the Old Testament passages that appealed to Anh and laying them out with his actions (132). The article on Kil Son-ju seems the least relevantly explained, because while it shows clear theological connections to political inaction and reaction, it overemphasizes the impacts of a movement that, almost a cult, fell quite far from mainstream Christianity, despite its impact on politics and despite the millennial trends still present in the modern Korean church(160). The relationship of this movement to the mainstream of Christianity needed more fleshing out. Overall, these articles on human lives add a more personal understanding to the history of Korean Christianity while providing useful case studies demonstrating the positive or sometimes simply important effects Christianity had on people's lives. They are the highlight of this book.
         The book also contains several articles explaining the ideological interactions of Christianity with Confucianism, liberal theology, and Buddhism, as well as several chapters on Christianity and women, and finally some chapters making general claims over large eras. One of these general claim chapters, an overview by Grayson, claims that "to understand this history...we have to understand what the Christians of Korea believed."(7) He never summarizes these beliefs, but does describe at length their actions in promoting medical care, education, democratic movements, and even acquiescing to Korean culture early on. This short overview effectively demonstrates the positive things Christians have done for Korea, but does not really explain what theology motivated them. Indeed, through much of the Christianity in Korea book, any central thread between basic Christian theology and political action seems largely forgotten in the favor of descriptions of social trends and new and exciting, non-mainstream theologies.
         None of the segments effectively connect core Christian theology with political action. The first largely theological segment describes the early Catholic teachings on society that resonated with and differed from Confucianism, giving a theological explanation for why Catholicism took root at all in Korea.(35) This segment perhaps represents the best of the theological comparisons, for it demonstrates on a subject by subject basis the hope that Catholic equality ethics could have brought to those dissatisfied or downtrodden by Neo-Confucian norms. It only explains the new ethics of Christianity, however, and not effects of the core theology from which these ethics stem, thus castrating Christianity by failing to explain what really made it different. Other movements have also promoted social equality and ethical behavior, and a close study of other religions will demonstrate that it is the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation of sins, not Christianity's ethics, that make it primarily different from other belief systems.
         A strict definition of or introduction to the core, common beliefs of Christianity would have aided all of the texts. All three founding authors or editors, as Christians, assume that the reader has familiarity already with the doctrines of Christianity and the meaning of a strict or liberal interpretation of the Bible. While Park consistently dedicates a few sentences to developing the meaning of particular theologies, a brief paragraph of information on basic Christian beliefs would have greatly assisted an understanding of how these theologies fit into the picture of Christianity, and specifically Korean Christianity, as a whole. The compilers of Christianity in Korea could easily have slipped a summary of mainstream Christian beliefs into their introduction, especially because the last few chapters of the book emphasize different interpretations of Christianity including Minjung theology and millenarianism. An understanding of the foundation off of which these different interpretations branch would have furthered understanding of the interpretations themselves and to what extant they relate to the whole of the churches of Korea and historical Christianity. More importantly, for the sake of historical clarity and an understanding of what "Christians" really did in the political development of Korea, one must have a working definition of Christian to determine whether activism stemmed from the mainstream, fringes, or simply different sectors of the Christian whole. Kang especially would have benefitted from a concise, page-long definition of Christianity as a belief system, because his lack of a definition compromises his arguments in the book later on. He helpfully gives examples of philosophies that stand at odds with Christianity, allowing for the general understanding to emerge that Christians believe in the deity and centrality of Christ and emphasize his sacrifice for sins as necessary for salvation from Hell--but one can only pick up these pieces of definition through his discussion of the Unification church, Confucianism, and juche, so that not until the end of the book does a real picture emerge.
         Specifically, Kang's discussion of North Korean Christianity suffers because it stands at odds with his descriptions of "true" Christianity from early in the book, in addition to omitting important facts. He clearly shows that the Unification church did not qualify as a strictly Christian church because it denied the deity of Christ (81-82); how then can he claim that the Kim's North Korean church, founded upon the story of a grandmother who did not even believe in the existence of God (161), does? Additionally, the complete acceptance of anecdotal evidence and statements of North Korean authorities, one of tolerance in North Korea(160), despite evidence that Christians in North Korea continue to face severe persecution, demonstrates either a lack of research or perhaps a lack of available sources at the time the book received publication in 1997. Kang believes that Christians met with persecution during and before the Korean war, but now, afterwards, accepts the North Korean story that assumes Christianity's failure to re-establish itself stems from loss of church buildings and the original members who moved to the South (160), not because of government persecution of any who remain. It seems, however, that Kang did have access to information, as he mentions house churches, but he does not go into detail about why Christians would need house churches if the North Korean government really tolerates open meetings and church buildings not controlled and constructed exclusively by the government(161). It seems as if Kang would like to emphasize the tolerance of the North Korean government in hopes of convincing South Korean readers that "Christianity...and juche...share some common ground." (161)
         Closer investigation and further reading shows that Kang does not hope to prove that juche and Christianity share common ground, but rather than "there is a future for Christians on both sides of Korea." (163) He discusses the opposition between juche's humanism and Christianity's God-centered philosophy, and dismisses the question of common ground as "academic." He ultimately suggests that finding a common ground will become imperative for unification (162-163), and ends on a hopeful note. Given his information on the disconnect between juche and Christianity on a fundamental level, his hope seems unwarranted, unless he can indeed prove a Christian presence in both North and South Korea that can unify the peninsula. As shown, his proof for a Christian presence in North Korea remains paltry at best.
         Indeed Kang's entire emphasis on reunification seems almost arbitrary. He backs a claim that North and South Korea need each other for "economic stability," but clearly South Korea has managed economically on its own, although the same cannot be said of the North. This leaves only the "peace" argument for reunification, that unless reunification occurs both nations will end each other in "bloody conflict."(163) This assertion certainly may hold some historical weight, given the conflict on the peninsula and continued military attempts on North Korea's part, but that history only throws additional water on his fiery hopes of reunification because while South Korea has had policies of negotiation with the North, militarism seems to remain the North's preferred interaction. Whatever the actual possibilities for reunification, Kang does not effectively show whether or not South Korean Christians really have a united front towards this goal, and if they do, it seems that they more likely must convert the North Korean philosophy rather than compromise with it if they hope to remain Christian.
         To some extant, Kang's omission of information for the sake of a rallying unification cry and an additional inability to clearly see the conservative movement during the Rhee and Park eras seem to stem from his role as a political activist within the story and not an observer on the outside. A swing dancer can never see her own pancake-flip the same way an observer can. Kang has a mission to carry out for reunification, and his goal remains to convince others to celebrate that mission through historical discourse. Regarding his discussion of the conservative movement, the fact that a political activist could minimize another side of the same religious spectrum further demonstrates the fragmentation of Korean society that continues to plague the Korean church. In this light, Kang probably did not purposefully downplay the conservative branches of the Korean Christian movements out of enmity, but simply glossed over them because from within his role in Korean politics he could not see their action significant to the nationalist goals that he sees as really essential to Korea past and present. This book remains good reading precisely because this mission stirs the Christian reader to consider the importance of Korean politics and asks the politically oriented reader to think about the influence of Christianity in a more human, emotional way. Kang makes the reader care because he cares, and that alone influences the reader to pick up other books for a fuller historic overview.
Park would have provided that fuller historic overview, with important observations that Kang left out--when discussing the Shinto shrine controversy, for example, Park shows that the conservative fundamentalists had become the Christians opposing the Japanese, demonstrating that not only liberal branches of theology promote activism.(155) The Christianity in Korea text cannot provide the overview, because while it provides information and perspectives on the entire period of Korean Christian history, it often employs one or two perspectives on one or two main subjects within each era rather than providing overarching overviews on each era. Park's unified narrative text gives a better sense of the multiplicity of Christian perspectives rather than putting all Christians into one segment of political beliefs and social actions. The last few chapters of Christianity in Korea emphasize Minjung theology to the extant that they almost seem to indicate that every Christian who opposed the Rhee and Park regimes believed that Jesus did not come for personal salvation from sin but for social liberation from oppression. The beliefs of the earlier Korean Christians would not even have classified these people as Christians, but as members of a Christian cult. What relationship did liberation theology have to mainstream Christianity? This question best finds its answer in Park's unified narrative, even though his work sometimes over-demonizes institutions and conformity as social evils.
         Park's demonization of institutions comes through clearly in his analysis of the cooperating church during the Japanese colonial period. "The religious community became a consequence, the church became a religion led by socially and economically established individuals with no desire to improve conditions." (157) Park demonstrates that many of the day began to feel that the church had become socially lame, and that the more educated, upperclass clergy had begun to consider themselves better than their less-privileged lay people. (150-152) He cannot give evidence as to whether or not this latter charge in pride was actually the case or simply an angry accusation of the press because the "church ceased to be of political use" (151) when other more political organizations arose as nationalist outlets. Nevertheless, he shows that the church did acquiesce to the Japanese in the later period of occupation, and that at that point the church had become highly institutionalized.
         The mere link of existence between the "institutionhood" of the church and its lack of political virility does not prove the causation that Park attributes, however, and could quite easily show correlation instead. Kang has shown that the Japanese continued to put pressure on the clergy long after the March 1st movement ended and a more tolerant governor was instituted, arresting and torturing clergy who did not support them and upholding those who did. With the most political members of society moved into political interest groups, natural selection could easily have dictated that pastors who stood up for political reasons disappeared, and that the church instead became a place of conformity and wealth. Indeed, Park mentions that the church's institutional organization had been one of the main reasons for its usefulness politically during the initial period of the nationalist movement (117). One cannot really blame institutionalism primarily for the lack of motivated clergy during the late nationalist period if it provided such an important use for networking during the early period. A combination of factors--Japanese pressure, institutional depression after the March 1st movement, new political groups legalized--seems more appropriate. Indeed, it almost seems from Park's narrative that the new association of socialism with the nationalist movement and the enmity between socialists and Christians after the united front movement failed (145-146, specifically 3rd paragraph 146) might have driven conservative Christians away from political involvement. While Park does address this possibility (146), which has a great deal more weight behind it given his evidence, he still casts the main blame for political inaction on institutionalism, whose connection proves correlation at best.
         Perhaps Park did not want to pin the blame for conservative inaction on enmity between socialism and Christianity because of his hopes of unifying the two streams of thought. During his discussion on the period of national division, Park goes out of his way to say that Christianity and anticommunism did not always need to remain diametrically opposed, but he shows no review of similarities strong enough to keep the two together. His statement that Kim Il Sung was "driven" by the Christian church to oppose Christianity (161) thus seems unfair--rather, it seems that the two simply could not coexist ideologically.
         On the other hand, perhaps connective lapses stem primarily from Park's occasional overemphasis on historical events as motivating factors. "While it is partly true that theology has influenced the Korean church's political behavior, this study has shown that theology has functioned rather to justify and reinforce Protestant Christians' political positions and activities, which have been oriented primarily by their social status and the historical circumstances under which they have to live." (201, emphasis mine) This statement claims that Christians primarily behaved as historical actors only reacting to their political climate rather than people motivated by their feelings of spiritual truth. On the extremes, this argument stops very short of saying that most Christians merely pulled out or fabricated theology that would benefit them in their particular political situations, rather than acting in politics based on theological beliefs that were important to them: to claim that theology reinforces already held political beliefs inherently implies, by diction, that the political positions arose before the theology based on historical circumstance. Despite these dangers of extension, Park does successfully prove that the role of theology fluctuated; not all Christians thought alike always; that not only liberation theology promoted activism; that people also acted because of their place along the x axis of time and the y axis of space. Ultimately he demonstrates that historical events in many cases simply lined up to allow Christian theology to motivate Korean politics.
         To some extant, arguments over whether Christianity motivated politics or the political sphere manipulated Christianity really come down to a chicken-or-an-egg argument, for just as some chickens come before some eggs, in the lives of some people one or the other dominated their thinking. In the end, no one can really explain why Christianity took root so firmly in Korea to the point that it affected political decisions, while it did not take off similarly in Japan or China. Speculation about "why" history happens falls outside of the "how" which historians can easily prove. Although these talented writers have addressed strategies and coincidences guiding the process, no one can really pin down a human or natural reason for the historical stages ensuring the success of Christianity in Korea and its effect on Korean politics. Can we chalk the reason up to miracle? Or does that reason lie somewhere in the story of Christ that really makes Christianity different?

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