See compelling article in Sojourners magazine by my Japanese colleague Dr. Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, A Love That Disarms. Reflecting on next month’s 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagsaki, Fujiwara writes:
“This ‘realistic’ ethic [of theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr] … led to the ironic tragedy of a country that claimed to be Christian dropping a bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, where generations of underground Roman Catholic Christians had lived, worshiped, and been persecuted for 260 years.”
We must abolish nuclear weapons argues Fujiwara, but we can’t stop there.
I’m happy that this week my recent blog post was published in the Korea Herald, on the opinion page, titled “A Tale of Two Seoul Cemeteries.” The Herald is Korea’s largest English-language daily newspaper. Hopefully the first of more articles to come.
“He was accused of upsetting the social order by attempting, against the government’s orders, to introduce western thinking into Korea” Marker at statue of Saint Kim Tae-gon, first Korean Catholic priest, executed in Seoul at age 26
“I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey” Gravestone of Homer Hulbert, Methodist American missionary to Korea
This week I visited two sites in Seoul which honor Christianity’s roots in Korea: the Foreigners Cemetery, and the Catholic Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine. It was a moving experience for this son of Presbyterian missionaries who served 16 years in Korea. The two parks sit side by side on the Han River. Both are beautiful and inspiring. Yet on the surface, they tell different stories.
The Marytrs Shrine story is of Christianity coming to Korea via Koreans (the first Catholic Korean was converted in Beijing). In contrast, the Foreigners Cemetery (almost all graves are of Protestants) tells a story of Christianity coming to Koreans via foreign missionaries. Marytrs Shrine tells a story of the first Christians seen as traitors to Korea, leading to mass killings (last year 124 were beatified by Pope Francis in Seoul). But in the Protestant story, the first Christians were embraced as friends of Korea. The foreigners cemetery gravestones tell of those who founded major institutions to serve society (such as Yonsei and Ewha Universities and Severance Hospital), and those who promoted Korean independence (one missionary, Hubert Hulbert, was even sent by the Korean king on an unsuccessful mission in 1906 to persuade U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to protect Korea from Japanese occupation).
Sadly, however, the street between the two parks is like a dividing wall. Korean colleagues tell me that the Protestants do not claim the Catholic story, and vice versa. Yet not only is each story true, but both stories share powerful truth as well. For both tell a story of Christianity coming to Korea via people viewed as strange and “foreign,” and via great sacrifice and suffering: The first Catholic Koreans were viewed as a “western” threat by the government which hunted them down and tortured and killed them. The first Protestant missionaries exchanged privilege for great risk (one cemetery section is dedicated to children who died in their first two years of life). My parents tell of the difficulty many of their Korean friends faced in becoming Christian in the 1960s and early 1970s; to be Christian then was a costly departure from family and cultural traditions.
Church history scholar Dr. Andrew Walls has said that faithful Christianity must be always, at once, both “indigenizing” and “pilgrim”—both hospitable to local culture and tradition, and challenging it where necessary, by creating a people whose ultimate identity is not determined by nation, race, or ethnic group, but centered in Christ and in loving strangers and enemies.
According to many analysts of the church here in South Korea, the suffering and sacrifice in the DNA of Christian beginnings here has been infected by a virus of prosperity, success, and even scandal. It would be an error to romanticize these first Christians as pure heroes. Yet at their best, perhaps it is their foreign-ness and pilgrim-ness (both Catholic and Protestant, both Korean and foreign) and their willingness to trade success for sacrifice which is precisely what needs to be recovered today. Historically, the true nature and origins of Christianity are neither Protestant or Catholic. In this divide, too, the pilgrim identity is of greater importance.
Dr. Chris Rice is Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia at Duke Divinity School, U.S., and Northeast Asia Representative for the Mennonite Central Committee. Chris and his wife live in Chuncheon, South Korea.
Since it began in 2009, I missed the Duke Summer Institute for Reconciliation this year for the first time. But with new work in Northeast Asia, it filled me with joy to have these colleagues there–Hongtao Yin (director, China Vision), Yuko Fukushima (professor, Aoyama Gakuin University Tokyo), and Jongho Kim (president, Intervarsity Korea). All three were at the 2012 Duke gathering when a vision was birthed for a Christian Reconciliation Forum in Northeast Asia, all three were at our April 2015 Forum in Nagasaki. Truly God works beyond what we ask or imagine.
In bbally-bbally (“fast fast”) Seoul, it is easy to miss signs of the times. Standing in Seoul’s center this week, cars zooming around, the New Testament word kairos came to mind (not watch time, but the divine time of opportunity). This spot on the boulevard became a kind of “ground zero” for feeling the kairos of a divided Northeast Asia region of rising nationalism.
Begin with the mountain: Just 35 miles behind it lies North Korea. Any military conflict, any disintegration in the North, would have immediate impact on Seoul’s 14 million. In many ways two Koreas have become accepted as normal, natural, inevitable, and the urgency to heal this divide has been lost.
At the mountain’s foot is graceful Gyeongbok Palace (built 1395), historical home of Korean kings. Yet for 250 years the king journeyed to Beijing to kowtow (prostrate) to the Chinese Emperor. (Japanese occupiers destroyed the gate in the 1920’s and built a huge government building behind it; when I grew up in Seoul the gate was rebuilt, yet with the Japanese building looming behind and above; later the building was demolished; now at the opposite end Seoul’s new city hall looms over the old Japanese version.)
To the right is the sole foreign embassy on this central boulevard, that of the U.S., making clear America’s historical and current role as a central force shaping realities in the region.
Across from the embassy, the statue celebrating King Sejong and the Korean Hangul alphabet. It symbolizes the struggle of less powerful minorities to preserve their traditions surrounded by powers of Japan, China, Russia, U.S., and globalization.
Looming in the foreground, the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin marks Korean resistance to a history of Japanese encroachment (the recent movie about Yi replaced “Avatar” as Korea’s most-watched movie and stirred up unresolved ill feelings toward Japan).
Unseen, seven hundred miles equidistant from this spot: to the west, Beijing and China’s rise; to the southeast, Tokyo and President Abe’s intensifying nationalism; to the north, Vladivostok and Putin’s intentions.
Yet this boulevard is also a place of Christian sacrifice. Inspired by the Lord they understood to rule all nations, Korean Christian martyrs were tortured and killed by earthly rulers in this area in the 1800’s. In 2014 the boulevard was filled with 800,000 people when Pope Francis blessed their sacrifice.
Slowing down to take in the stories of such places is to receive a different time and different way of seeing, feeling, receiving. If I ever lead a pilgrimage of pain and hope in Korea, we will begin here.
Yesterday in Manhattan, after meeting with North Korean U.N. mission for MCC conversations, I passed many famous sites. But amidst all the hustle and bustle, walking past St Paul the Apostle Church, I noticed and felt beckoned by these three as if waiting for me quietly at the top of the stairs. Benedict, Clare (Francis’ colleague), and Antony of the Desert. We had a special moment together. Each had a word to share. Always grateful to slow down for wisdom from the communion of saints.