A recent article in the New York Times showed that 99% of people in Flushing wear masks. It’s the highest rate among 14 different neighborhoods in New York City. Vigilant mask wearing explains how a high-density area like Flushing could maintain one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in the five boroughs. The collective effort and adherence to public health guidelines really worked to curb the spread of the virus. The same kind of public cooperation was the key behind East Asia’s exemplary pandemic response earlier this year.
But Korea is now seeing a resurgence of the coronavirus after an anti-government protest rally led Jun Kwang-hoon, a far-right political pundit pastor. His church, tied to the spread, is making headlines in the news and harsh accusations abound on social media. I’ve read people comment, “August 2020 has seen the end of Korean Protestant churches,” “Does a lunatic make a Protestant pastor or is it the Protestant church that makes its pastors go nuts?” It’s heartbreaking to watch churches being put on a negative spotlight, whether it’s happening in the United States or in Korea.
How can we understand the Jun Kwang-hoon phenomenon? His rhetoric at massive rallies reminds me of the populist propaganda tactics employed by fascist or authoritarian leaders. Jun rouses his crowds by constantly repeating incendiary slogans, irrespective of whether they are true or not. His message invokes patriotism, stirs the deep-seated public dissatisfaction, and directs it against the supposed common enemy. Looking back in history, that was how Hitler drove hostility against Germany’s Jews as ‘an enemy within’ and came up with the “Final Solution” for the genocide of the Jews during World War II. We’ve seen and heard the same populist nature in Trump’s rhetoric over the past few years. Under the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Trump draws his political power by scapegoating of immigrants and using the dissatisfaction of white nationalists to his favor.
Professor Frederick Sontag once said something along the lines of ‘heresy is the debt unpaid by mainline churches.’ In other words, when the church fails to live up to its purpose, heresy and schism start to take over. We’ve seen that happening in American politics: Trump’s presidency and the return of white supremacy to mainstream politics revealed that there were a lot of delusions and contradictions within American liberal consensus, and many people were unhappy about it. We’re now seeing that in Korea too. The breakdown of catholicity in the progressive-leaning Korean Protestant churches, and the corruptions of many conservative megachurch leaders – all contributed to public mistrust and anger against the church in Korea. With the absence of mature and responsible leadership, it has become the world of half-adults, as Robert Bly puts it. Individuals are attempting to fill the vacancy as leaders, but foregoing the real responsibilities as true adults. And their dissatisfied interests, aligned with far-right politics, gave rise to the Jun Kwang-hoon phenomenon. Jun, in turn, will continue to assume the position of a suffering servant who gave his all for the country and the church.
But the critics of Jun Kwang-hoon are jumping into a hasty generalization by putting all Korean Protestant churches in the same category with Jun. Anti-Christian, anti-Church comments should not be taken without caution because they will feed Jun’s movement with greater justification and legitimacy. Without introspective humility, pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-liberal skepticism hurts the health of the church just as much as the radical dissensions of the far-right populists.
Korea is now going back to banning all large gatherings, including church services. And Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun called on the religious sector’s active cooperation toward the government’s decision. From Chung’s statements I could tell that the Korean government is trying to respect the ethos of the Korean church, which I think is a wise move. It was a mistake on the part of Jun to maneuver his personal fame and political influence by colluding with the far-right political camp. The church should not be abused as a political machine, irrespective of its political inclinations. The separation of church and state is good both for the life of the church as well as the state.
And most importantly, what we see isn’t everything. Beneath the invisible ground of my motherland’s church flows the blood of countless martyrs. Many progressive Korean Christians have shed their sweat and blood for Korea’s democracy, but much deeper is the flow of the tears and blood of the martyrs who have kept the life of the church. It is they, who by giving their lives under brutal Japanese colonial oppression and persecution, preserved the life of the nation and the church we are today.