14 January 2008

Backlash against the Christian Establishment

I was recently alerted to the following South Korean organization, which seeks to fight the heavy influence of Christianity in that country:

antichrist.or.kr (Korean only - English not available)

The opening page asks for 10 million signatures in support of the organization, and outside reports say over two million have already signed. Only South Korean nationals (with National ID number) can sign, however; but that does make the 2 million total impressive, as there are only 47 million South Koreans (including those too young to sign), with 14 million of them Christian.

For such an organization to exist is not a surprise at all. While Christianity is considered the religion of modernization and liberalism in South Korea, the truth is far from it, often being used as a tool to prevent women, the poor, and other marginalized groups from gaining influence. Christians have held massive prayer vigils to call for the destruction of all Buddhist and indigenous statues and temples in the country. I myself have resented the brute force tactics of street corner Christian missionaries in Seoul and Busan - and in Koreatowns across the US as well. Most importantly, in a carryover from the Confucian traditions, South Korean Christians hold themselves in awe of a superior "older brother" culture and religion - namely, the US and its Religious Right - feeling very honored to sign a free trade agreement with the US (even though very few Americans have even heard of, much less support, the said free trade agreement), and will feel just as honored if US statehood is offered to them. As a result, South Korea is the only country in the world where drawing Jesus and Mary in the image of local people is considered blasphemy - only Western-looking portraits are acceptable. (Also the only country outside the US where Christians celebrate American Thanksgiving.) Contrast with other Asian nations, where Kwan Yin often stood in for the image of Virgin Mary.

But the content of the anti-Christian movement does leave much to be desired, and reveal the same flaws in the South Korean society that allowed fundamentalist Christianity to become such a powerful force in the first place. Although religious freedom is guaranteed in the South Korean constitution, in reality there are only a handful of religions to choose from, as deviance from established religious traditions in search of one's own beliefs and values is an individualistic Western concept unheard of in the communal Korean culture. That means instead of exploring the various belief systems, both native (including the Koreans' own creation legend, dating back to 2333 BC) and imported (anything from ancient Goddess beliefs to modern Unitarian Universalism), the Koreans have few options, other than pouring their energy into opposing the Christian establishment. Which is sad, because I believe the surefire way to check the power of the Christian establishment is to spread belief systems that teach a different, and more compatible, set of values, and let those values do the talking, instead of resorting to the same exclusionary, hateful mindset that the Christians are accused of having. And most importantly, the anti-Christian movement fails to speak out on the social injustice (especially against women, the poor, LGBTs, and foreigners) that has been propagated by the Christian establishment.

Many Christians in South Korea are responding to this movement by re-analyzing some of their brute force tactics, and fine-tuning their message to be one more of love and compassion, instead of materialism and elitism.

Given that I live in the US, where the Christians not only own the Korean community, but also give it tremendous political power (from Reverend Moon to Torture Czar John Yoo to Senator Sam Brownback), this is a very relevant topic. The Korean community, especially its Christians, flexed the political power in helping gay marriage bans happen in California, Washington State, and elsewhere. It is also Christianity that ensures that the Koreans are the only non-refugee ethnic demographic that consistently votes Republican. Faith-based charities have been reality in Koreatown, ages before W spread the idea to the rest of the American society. These are very unfortunate developments that need to change. Again, the idea is not to simply lash out against the Christians, but to offer a more humane, compassionate alternative spirituality, whether within the Christian framework (United Church of Christ), or outside. Fortunately, this being the US, where individual spirituality is a well-received idea, it will be easier.