All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:18-20)
THE AGONY OF A DIVIDED KOREA
June 25, 2020 will mark 70 years since the start of the Korean War that divided a nation and its people, profoundly affecting every aspect of life and society on the peninsula to this day. Political and military brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula regularly make world headlines. Recent developments of face-to-face meetings between the US President and the NK leader have caused a rollercoaster ride of emotions around the world, not least for the Korean people. In South Korea, Christian responses are decidedly mixed. Some applaud President Moon’s attempts to promote dialogue for peace at every opportunity. Others actively pray against such attempts, believing that the liberal Moon is offering up South Korea on a platter for North Korea to eat up. In the general public, an acute fatigue and even cynicism has settled in at the prospects for reunification and peace.
The physical divide between North and South Korea, however, is only a stark reminder of deeper divisions that have plagued the Korean people for decades, even centuries. Territorial division date as far back as the 7th century when the “Three kingdoms of Korea,” Goguryeo in the North and Baekje and Silla in the South often fought against each other. Today, remnants of the old regionalism still influence society even as new demarcation lines are drawn between Seoul and the rest of the country, between the haves and the have nots, and between the older and younger generations. Unfortunately, Protestant Christians, the largest religious group (not counting Secularism which now accounts for more than 50% of the population), are not immune to the deep divisions that dog the Korean people. The drive to reunify the two Koreas largely overlooks the critical need for reconciliation at various sublevels of the Korean society, and the church has done little to alleviate the problem.
A DIVIDED KOREAN CHURCH
The Korean church is known around the world by its large mega churches, its emphasis on prayer, and its passion for mission. The largest congregations of many of the major worldwide denominations are found in South Korea. Korean Christians gather at seemingly every local church to pray “Korean style” for daily prayer services at dawn. And Korean missionaries are more widespread, in the most difficult mission fields, than any other mission force. However, at home, the Korean church is losing influence in the larger society, and alarmingly, it is losing the next generation. When once college campuses in Korea were the breeding grounds for evangelism, discipleship, and the next generation of Christian leaders, many campus ministries have experienced a sharp downturn. Only 15% of college students self-identify themselves as Protestant Christian and of those, almost a third of them also self-identify as “Canaan” Christians, meaning they do not attend church but still consider themselves as Christian. This means at best, only 10-11% of college students are church attenders. I have heard campus ministry leaders speak of numbers as low as 3% church attendance. Furthermore, all indications are that church attendance does not improve after graduation. While some 56% of the general population consider themselves “non-religious” (or secular), the number nears 70% for the younger population. In fact, South Korea is among the nations with the “biggest gap” in religious affiliation between the younger and older generations, and the highest for a non-Christian majority nation, according to Pew Research. The soft underbelly of Korea’s thriving churches is that young adult ministries within these same churches are all struggling.
Hidden beneath this trend of younger adults leaving the church are deeper, more serious gaps between the generations in Korean society. In 2016, millions of Koreans gathered for “candlelight rallies” in many cities across the country in protest of the then-President Park Geun-hye for her abuse of power, corruption, and bribery. Eventually, Park was impeached, tried, and found guilty by the highest court in the land. In many ways, this scandal mirrored the complaints of younger adults about hypocrisy and abuse in the church. Some of the most visible churches and its leaders have been mired in scandals of embezzlement, personal integrity, and church leadership succession. As much of the protest against Park was fueled by younger Koreans who felt a growing sense of hopelessness, sometimes referred to as “Hell Joseon,” from the gap between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless, so many younger adults leave the church because of perceived gaps between wealthy mega churches and their pastors and the average, younger church attenders.
The other side of the “candlelight rallies” was the pro-Park “Taegukgi rallies” (Korean flag) in counter protest. On the whole, the counter protest group was made up of older generations, who tend to think positively of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, a military general turned political leader in the 60s and 70s. Positive nostalgia runs high for the elder Park among the older generations who lived through the Korean War and its immediate aftermath of profound national poverty. To this group, the elder Park is credited with not only rebuilding Korea from the ashes, but also with what eventually came to be known as the Korean economic miracle. The older generations of Koreans are thus politically conservative. Behind this generation gap are strong cultural traditions based on Confucian elderly male hierarchy and rejection of these values among the younger generations. In much of Korean society, the older males still tend to hold the reigns of power and younger peoples are expected to submit.
The Korean church have generally sided with social and political conservatism. In fact, it was common to see mixed in with the national flags at Taegukgi rallies Christians displaying large wooden crosses, Christian flags, and even large Bibles in hand. What is more, church leaders, who tend to be older, publicly support conservative leaders and agendas, much to the dismay of younger church members who may not hold conservative political views. For some, being Christian means that you must support the conservative agenda. In good Confucian style, the younger members are told to submit and follow their elder male leaders.
DIVISIONS THAT RUN DEEP
The stark generation gap in the church reflects deeper societal conflicts in recent Korean history. On May 18, 1980, a student-led pro-democracy movement erupted into a massacre in what is now known as the Gwangju Uprising. It was part of larger pro-democracy demonstrations by college students in the 80s against dictatorial rulers in South Korea. Even to this day, however, Koreans, again split mainly by generations, do not agree as to the causes and significance of the uprising. On its 39th anniversary, President Moon stressed, “The truth about the May 18 movement cannot differ between conservatives and liberals.” Such statements reveal painful divisions in Korean society.
These divisions go back further in recent Korean history. The two Koreas today and the DMZ that separates them are a painful reminder of a war that technically has never ended. The Korean people on both sides of the DMZ are still paying the price of war. In fact, the price of bloodshed was higher than any other war in recent memory, including the Vietnam War which rightly received so much negative press for its civilian casualties. Various sources estimate between 2-3 million civilian casualties, which is far more than the number of military casualties. Many of the older generations have very personal stories of terror and loss, which they experienced as children or young adults during the war. For Korean Christians, many of the stories come from communist persecution of Christians in the North. As one Christian leader who fled North Korea then puts it, the Korean church in the North suffered ten times more under the communist persecution than under the Japanese one. The systematic suppression of Christians by communists left a deep scar on the collective psyche of Korean Christians.
There are even deeper scars of war. As communist forces threatened to overtake the Korean peninsula, many Koreans were swept up in the conflict, on both sides. Stories of civilian deaths at the hands of anti-communists in the South demonstrate how deep the divisions run. One could charge his neighbor as a communist sympathizer (bbal-gang-ee or “red” gang) and that neighbor then was rounded up, imprisoned and often executed. Civilians suspected as communist sympathizers were massacred en masse in several well-known incidents involving South Korean and US forces. Even children were baited into slandering their parents and family members turned against each other. I remember stories of how my grandmother, who lived in the South all her life, one day during the war was called on by some men in dark clothing. With her infant son on her back, she was incarcerated because a distant relative, coveting my grandmother’s possessions, had accused her of being a communist sympathizer. She disappeared and no one knew whether she was alive or dead. Two years later, my grandfather somehow discovered she was still alive in prison, and vouching for her ideological beliefs and paying a bribe, got her freed. Tragically, she watched her infant son, my mother’s younger brother, die in prison from malnourishment, but my grandmother never talked about that. Post-war South Korea continued to inculcate a deep hatred and suspicion toward the communists in the North. In fact, “anti-communist education” was taught to children as patriotism until the late 90s. But these measures also stoked fears of communist spies and sympathizers in the South. Indeed, many older conservatives genuinely believe that communist influence lies behind the Gwangju Uprising (1980) and even the Candlelight Rallies (2016).
In many ways, it is understandable that the older Koreans who lived through the atrocities of the Korean War and its immediate aftermath would have a difficult time with “peace talks” with North Korea. When you have personally suffered at the hands of North Korean enemies, lost your home and family, not to mention friends and neighbors, forgiveness must be naturally hard. Moreover, it is understandable how their trauma from the fear of being labeled a communist sympathizer, suffering shame and imprisonment, might fuel a certain brand of patriotism based on outwardly expressed views of conservative anti-communism.
There are still deeper historical roots of division. The recent trade spat with Japan revealed once again the deep-rooted animosity that Koreans have toward Japan. The painful history of the Japanese annexation from 1910 to 1945 remains an open wound that is repeatedly irritated by the salty issues of comfort women, forced Korean laborers, and the island of Dokdo (the disputed territory which the Japanese call Takeshima). Further, Koreans harbor a deep national resentment, or han, a complex Korean term meaning something like lament in the face of grave injustice, bordering on rage, not only for the atrocities of Japanese colonization, but for Korea’s division, a fate, like Germany, only fitting for the perpetrators of World War II. Many liberal Koreans blame, in part, the United States because the decision to divide Korea was haphazardly made by lower-ranking US military officials for fear of Russian troop movements on the peninsula. Adding insult to injury, Korea remains divided while Germany has been unified for 30 years. Over the years, I have seen my share of moving “reconciliation” moments when Japanese Christians publicly ask for forgiveness and Korean Christians respond in tears. But such displays of reconciliation have not noticeably influenced Korea-Japan relations on a larger scale.
But how Koreans view and relate to Japan was divisive from the start. During the occupation, some who were in positions of power and wealth collaborated with the Japanese, but others resisted and promoted a nationalist movement (Sam-il or March 1st Movement). When Korea was liberated by the Allies’ defeat of Imperial Japan on August 15, 1945, many former collaborators simply moved to the nationalist side. The pain of the nationalist-collaborator divide remained as “pro-Japanese collaborator” (chinilpa) became a derogatory label for every foe in the newly liberated Korea. Interestingly, during the mid 2000s, a new wave of prosecutions against chinilpa commenced under the liberal Roh Moo-Hyun government, some 60 years after the liberation of Korea. In the churches during the occupation, some leaders were more accommodating to demands for pseudo-religious dedication to the Japanese emperor (Shinto worship) while other leaders, now heralded as heroes of Korean Christianity, did not bow down and faced imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom as a result. The Korean church largely moved on with few and feeble attempts to properly recognize and restore those leaders who resisted. The wounds were never healed and as a result, the spirit of division continues to live on in the Korean church.
Thus, Korea’s recent history of colonization, war, and ideological conflicts continues to fuel the divisions among the Korean people and church, disturbingly along demographic lines between the older and younger generations. Those who endured Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and its aftermath, namely the Silent/Greatest and early Baby Boomer generations, tend on the whole to be politically conservative, anti-North Korea communist, anti-peaceful reunification, pro-American, and pro-good relations with Japan. Those who grew up in the booming years of the South Korean economic miracle and democratic transformation, namely the late Baby Boomer and Millennial generations, tend on the whole to be politically liberal, ambivalent toward North Korea but pro-peaceful North-South relations (but not necessarily reunification), somewhat anti-American, and decidedly anti-Japanese. Led by the older generations and the younger generations falling away, the Korean church is overwhelmingly conservative, with all the historically charged political baggage. Many older Korean Christians, living with the social memory of war and communist persecution, see political conservatism as a litmus test not only for national patriotism but also for Christian church association. The appalling result is a deeply divided Korean church.
THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
So what is the solution to the deep divisions in the Korean church? It is time for the Korean church to focus on the ministry of reconciliation if we are to bring the generations in the church together, and especially to retain the next generation. I am drawn to Paul’s teaching of the “ministry” and “message” of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20.
Paul’s Corinthian setting was mired in divisiveness. Historically, Corinth was in the midst of deep change. The city had a glorious history of Greek culture and influence as the center of power for the Achaean League, a feared federation of Greek city-states in the third and second centuries B.C. Once allies against the Macedonians, the Romans, fearing their rise and resistance, decided to bring down the Achaean League by destroying Corinth in 146 B.C. However, seeing the strategic location and historical significance of Corinth, the Romans re-founded Corinth as a colony of Rome in 44 B.C., famously at the direction of Julius Caesar. By the time Paul arrives in A.D. 50, Corinth is a bustling Roman port city, once again leading Achaea, now a Roman province. The people of Roman Corinth were proud, both of their illustrious Greek legacy and of their new-found significance as the leading Roman colony in Greece. The leadership of the city was marked by a distinctively competitive spirit where they displayed their glorious credentials at every opportunity. As with most cities in the Roman world, political factions based on loyalties to one leader or another were prevalent.
In this politically competitive setting, the Corinthian church struggled to keep leadership rivalries and factionalism at bay, but clearly, this competitive spirit left its unwholesome mark on the church. Paul had heard from members of Chloe’s household, no doubt a prominent family in the Corinthian church, that there were “divisions” in the church (1 Cor 1:10). In other New Testament passages, the Greek word, schismata, is used of tearing apart (cf. Matt 27:51) and the division of opinion about Jesus (John 7:43; 9:16; 10:19). In 1 Corinthians, the divisions were not over differences in beliefs but in social factions formed around leaders (1 Cor 1:13), but also in the gap in means for the celebration of the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:18). Paul appeals with the Corinthian believers to be unified throughout 1 Corinthians, but in chapter 12, he goes into a lengthy diatribe about the oneness of Christ’s body (1 Cor 12:12-31). The following chapter (ch. 13) reminds the Corinthians that oneness is based on a bond of love, suggesting that divisiveness is only remedied by love.
Corinthian divisiveness takes a personal turn after the writing of 1 Corinthians. A socially influential member publicly opposes Paul, causing him to hastily depart Corinth and pen his “letter of tears” (2 Cor 2:1-4), which called for punishment of the offending member (2 Cor 2:5-11). However, the rift between he and the Corinthian believers were not completely healed. Judging from the content of 2 Corinthians, the Corinthian church questioned Paul’s sincerity over his travel plans, his apostolic ministry, and even his desire to raise funds for the Jerusalem poor. In his defense of the apostolic ministry, Paul frames his ministry and message as that of “reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18-20). One cannot miss the special relevance of reconciliation in the divisive context of the Corinthian letters that ultimately touched even Paul the apostle.
For Paul, reconciliation (katallagēs) is the aim of the gospel ministry. God was proactively in Christ “reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). Similarly in Romans 5:10, sinners and enemies are “reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” meaning that in the gospel former hostilities have been replaced by peace. Reconciliation with God is based on the righteous substitution of Christ who died to restore friendly relations: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21), one of the most precise and poetic summaries of the gospel in the New Testament. He saw this ministry and message of reconciliation as his primary task. As “ambassadors for Christ,” he implores the Corinthians, “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
If Paul formulated the gospel ministry in terms of reconciliation, between God and humankind, what about the relations between human beings? The word is used of the restoration of relationship between a married couple (1 Cor 7:11). But in the larger theological understanding of reconciliation, there is no doubt that vertical reconciliation with God is the bases of a horizontal reconciliation between people. For example, forgiving one another is only possible when one realizes that God has forgiven us in Christ (Eph 4:32). In Matthew 18, the unmerciful servant does not understand how the debt he was forgiven by his master should have led him to forgive the minor debt his fellow servant owed him. In other words, reconciliation with God cannot stand apart from reconciliation with others.
The reconciling effect of the gospel is no less evident in the unity of the earliest church. At first, the church was only made of Jews who had recognized Jesus as their Messiah. But within a very short period, Gentiles believed and “the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). The surprise of Jewish Christians must be noted in the light of deep-rooted prejudice against Gentiles. Once Gentiles and Jews share the same church space, the thorns begin to prick and the church leaders like Paul had to theologize about unity and reconciliation. In the Ephesian context, the death of Christ must lead to a new creation of “one new man,” out of the two, both Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:15-16). In other words, Christ’s sacrifice not only brings an end to the hostility between God and humankind, but also between all people. Thus, it is in this thought that “in Christ,” all have become one, and there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female” (Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11; 1 Cor 12:13; Rom 3:30; 10:12). Those whose identities are “in Christ” must no longer allow their ethnic, legal, or gender identities to divide them.
THE MISSION OF RECONCILIATION FOR THE KOREAN CHURCH
Some Corinthian church members identified more with their base Roman social identity rather than in their newly formed Christ identity. In other words, they were not sufficiently formed in their social identity as a follower and community of Christ. Thus, Paul seeks reconciliation to God through Christ as a “superordinate” identity that all believers in the community must move toward in order to overcome the problem of division based on the old social identities of Roman Corinth. Paul believes in the reconciling effect of the gospel that offers a new identity to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. His mission is reconciliation as he seeks to contextualize the gospel message to all. He supersedes social identity barriers in order to bring people to a new identity in Christ: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-23). The mission of Paul is to save as many as possible, but the end result is reconciliation and unity among the believers in Corinth.
This message of reconciliation must be restored and highlighted in the collective understanding of the gospel mission in the Korean church. Older and younger generations of believers in the church must be reminded that a confession of faith in Jesus Christ without a serious desire to bring people together is an affront to the gospel. We must then proclaim a superordinate identity of being “in Christ” where all other distinctive identities are made subordinate. This of course does not mean that all believers in the church become politically uniform, in as much as not all believers become male or Korean. But this is the crucial challenge for the Korean church, to keep the gospel identity superordinate to political and generational identities. The mission of reconciliation means that the church preaches a timeless and Christ-centered identity beyond all other identities that ultimately divide rather than unite God’s people. Indeed, the mission of reconciliation is what Korean society needs most today. The church’s mission is to preach Paul’s message of reconciliation with God, “be reconciled to God!” But it is also to live out the new identity “in Christ” as a community of sinners reconciled both to God and to one another. From my vantage point, this is the greatest challenge of the gospel mission in South Korea today. Soli Deo gloria.
Steve S. H. Chang
Dr. Chang is a Professor of New Testament at Torch Trinity Graduate University, Seoul, Korea. He is a Contributor to “Scattered and Gathered: A Global Compendium of Diaspora Missiology” (Regnum, 2016).
Dr. Chang is the Pastor of English Ministries at Hallelujah Community Church, Seongnam, Korea. Dr. Chang obtained his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, UK.