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Four Surprises on South Korea’s Complex Christian Landscape

September 2, 2010

No place makes me come alive like the streets of Seoul, Korea, where I grew up as a missionary kid for 12 years.  Last week I returned.  Besides enjoying the bustling life, night neon, and incredible energy and aesthetics of the city, I had my eyes wide open for fresh signs of hope.   South Korea is, after all, a tricky landscape, bustling with Christian growth and yet the question “what kind of Christianity” is prominent (a close Christian Korean family friend’s grandson told me he felt “oppressed” – he starts school at 6 a.m. and returns home at midnight, and this is not rare).  Korea’s economic growth is a phenomenon, now the 15th largest economy in the world (and will host the G-20 summit in November).  Yet just as in America the gospel of prosperity and success is vibrant and I discovered how powerful what I have called the “Jesus versus Justice divide” is.

Yet God is always planting signs of hope amidst the divides.  On either side of an eye-opening seminar on “Building an East Asian Peace Community” I hit the streets.  Across three days of subways, taxis, and a good 20 miles walked I discovered four surprising stories:

Jae Young and Karen Lee at the Korean Anabaptist Center

… The small offices of the Korean Anabaptist Center bustle with what Hispanic theologian Virgilio Elizondo terms “a new mestizo humanity” – young people from Korea, Canada, and the U.S. mixing together in the same office, eating and praying over a daily office lunch, and living in proximity outside Seoul.  Over coffee program director Jae Young Lee shared his vision.  “100 million people were killed in the last century.  The 21st century is an era of peace.  It starts not with weapons but mindsets.  We need a paradigm shift otherwise we will repeat the previous century.”  He said seven east Asian countries have military academies transforming young people through “infrastructure, energy, forming would-be soldiers devoting their lives to killing someone.  We need a peace school to train peace experts.  Our slogan is ‘no more military academies, only peacebuilding institutes.’”  Next year he and partners from thoese seven countries will launch the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute.

… On the other side of Seoul I slogged through pouring rain to the Yonsei University office of chaplain and professor Chonghun Jeong.  I found a gentle prophet.  Over tea and Korean pears he said “Non-Christians see Christians fighting each other.  Conversative Christians here depend on the U.S. and hate North Korea.  Liberal Christians don’t like the U.S. and try to help North Korea”  In August his Christian Network for Peace and Unification gathered 80,000 from both sides in a worship service for peace and reconciliation.  “Love of enemy is the highest Christian virtue.  Christians are the only way to North Korea because only they can tell of love to the enemy.”  Between all Christians in Korea, “we are trying to make one voice.”

… In the small room where Presbyterian Pastor Sang Yeol Oh’s church meets in a busy section of Seoul, I saw well-used Bibles stacked next to offices of organizations staffed by energetic church members in their 30’s and 40’s – one organization working on health care for the poor, another on envioronmental advocacy, another on transparency in government.   Part of Sang Yeol’s formation was one year in a Hutterite colony in Canada, a powerful experience of Christian community.

At the Inter Varisty bookstore in Seoul with Seonghan, me holding the Korean version of "Living Gently"

… A final surprise:  walking into the six-story building of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship Korea and their first-class bookstore with Seonghan Kim, their media director.  Seonghan said the vast majority of Christian books in Korea concern self-help, positive thinking, and God’s blessing.  I was shocked when he handed me “Living Gently in a Violent World” translated into Korean (from our Duke Center’s joint book series with Inter Varsity Press) and said such books are gaining an audience among Christians looking for an alternative to the shallow, success-driven prosperity gospel.  “The Anabaptist tradition is most important for Koreans to see” he said.  Seonghan began a profound transformation during required military service, then in seminary at George Fox and Associated Mennonite discovered a new kind of Christianity in the peace tradition about sacrifice and costly discipleship.

I have come to “expect revelation” on these kinds of journeys, to expect to be surprised by powerful, fresh stories and alternatives under the radar screen, at the borderlands, interrupting what is normal.

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

See also: Demilitarizing East Asia, story abut Jae Young Lee from Eastern Mennonite University

Last 5 posts on the Reconcilers Blog:

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Paco permalink
    September 9, 2010 1:59 pm

    I was surprised when I saw Korea in the title of a post. I was even more surprised when I read about you meeting so many of my friends and church members (Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul). Next time you are in Korea I recommend checking out the peacemaking community/group I work for as well. We’re called “The Frontiers” (not to be confused with the American evangelist group “Frontiers”). We’re close partners with KAC and the peace oriented Christians in Korea. We live and work from a rural intentional community just outside of Seoul. We also work/live in peace making communities in East Timor, Aceh Indonesia, Pakistan Administered Kashmir, and Malaysia. Please stop by our community next time you are around, we would enjoy it and I think you would also be interested in us as well.

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