Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jesus will kick... your... ass

UPDATE: Cool exchange going on in the comments section. Check out Lorianne's and Sperwer's remarks by hitting this post's time stamp. Feel free to add your own comments.

[NB: Bloggers have been on this case for a couple days. Check out the Marmot here and Asia Pages here.]

It's Sunday, and I haven't done a religion-related post in a while, so I thought I'd comment on this nonsense.

The lowdown: a year ago, a young Korean woman in Australia was taken to a park and beaten by three Korean men, all of whom were members of a Korean Presbyterian church. One of the three men was an assistant pastor. The woman's crime basically boiled down to impiety: she didn't attend church frequently enough and she was "disrespecting her elders." The three men recently stood trial in an Australian court, pleaded guilty to charges of assault, and were sentenced to several months in prison.

Like many Americans who grew up in mainstream Protestant culture, I cannot relate to Korean Christianity. Korean Protestantism, which has a historical association with nationalism, literacy, and money, remains true to its Western missionary roots. Far from becoming moderate over time, the way Christianity did in Europe* (not even in Germany will you find frequent tent revivals in the countryside), Korean Christianity has largely kept-- maybe even sharpened-- its fundamentalist edge. Korean Presbyterianism, the strain of Korean Christianity with which I'm most familiar, bears little resemblance to PCUSA. The Korean church has much more in common, temperamentally, theologically, and sociologically, with American evangelicalism and stronger strains of Yankee fundamentalism than with moderate Western Christianity.

Korean Christians are, generally speaking, theologically exclusivistic and mission-oriented. Whereas mainstream American Protestantism and European Catholicism don't push the missionary aspect of Christianity nearly as hard as they used to (unless you live in the American Bible Belt, I suppose), Korean Christianity is crazy enough to send missionaries into war-torn Iraq to convert folks to the True Path.

Christianity, taken as a whole, is a money machine**, but Korean Christianity gets first prize when it comes to shameless financial displays. Korean Protestant church bulletins-- pamphlets handed out at the beginning of every Sunday worship service-- often contain a page or two devoted to noting the names of members who have contributed a large amount to the church's coffers. This is obscene, in my opinion. Money is a necessary element for the survival of any institution, but the Christian ethic also strives against money-obsession. The Church should, in my opinion, be on constant guard against the tendency to give the temple back to the money-changers. So far, it hasn't done a very good job of that, and the failure is especially acute in a place like South Korea.

This brings us to Jesus' temple-cleansing and the notion of a violent, ass-kicking Jesus.

While the scriptures provide evidence for a wide variety of christologies, the gospels don't provide enough evidence to support the notion that Jesus was a violent individual. The one time he is portrayed as truly flying off the handle is the temple-cleansing incident (Mt. 21:12, Mk. 11:15, Jn 2:15, etc.). Given the paucity of scriptural evidence in favor of such an image, is it tenable to live a life of imitatio Christi based on the violent-Jesus paradigm?

Images of a stern, physically combative Jesus may come primarily from the book of Revelation, and may be hinted at in the gospels (cf. Mt 10:34). But this belligerent Jesus is, to my mind, little more than a cartoon. Unfortunately, many Christians take the notion of an apocalyptic Christ seriously.

Imagine a pissed-off Superjesus descending from heaven wearing a jetpack, armed with a futuristic assault rifle and accompanied by throngs of similarly armed angels. The holy army makes planetfall and immediately*** starts mowing down the sinners. Explosions everywhere; Jesus radios various angelic commanders: "Target the Muslims first! Then go for those Buddhists! There's a Zoroastrian family huddled in a cave in Iran-- find 'em and frag their asses!"

The scriptures don't portray the earthly, pre-crucifixion Jesus as violent. Fortunately or unfortunately, religious traditions surpass their founders and accrete layers of doctrine, theology, cosmology, etc. Christianity isn't immune to this tendency, and it's easy to see how Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God, a message informed by the twin themes of peace and love, could get twisted or buried by his followers centuries after his death.

As a tradition evolves into an institution, it begins to bear the marks of all institutions-- in-group/out-group mentality, for instance, or the desire to suck in money and membership to maintain institutional viability. As I've written before (and the thought didn't originate with me), organizations act like living organisms. They have a survival impulse and need to feed. They also reproduce and compete with other, often similar, organisms in a Darwinian environment.

Along with interreligious competition there's intrareligious competition: churches of different denominations vying for prominence in the same city, missions from different Christian strains establishing beachheads on the same foreign shores. Some critics have attached the word "viral" to this sort of activity, but let's not get cynical about religion: memes are memes, and they're all viral, whether we're talking about an English-speaking meme or a jeans-wearing meme or an Allah-praising meme.

If we put the Korean incident into this meta-framework, we can see that such behavior-- beating someone up in the name of piety-- isn't surprising. On a visceral moral level, I find it repugnant, inexcusable, and shameful, but there's no doubt the behavior has its source in a form of "institutionalized" thinking: Bring the wayward sheep back into the fold! Preserve the in-group!

A constellation of factors were at play in the Korean incident, but not all of them can be traced to institutional Korean Protestantism, per se. Some factors were cultural. Koreans don't generally place the same value on individualism that Westerners do; their thinking tends to be more group-first than me-first. This is neither good nor bad; me-first thinking has its pitfalls, too. My point, though, is that physical coercion in the name of an institution makes more sense to the group-first mind than to an individualistic one.

Korean Confucianism also favors maleness, which might have made it easier for the three men involved to contemplate ganging up on a teenaged girl and beating her for two hours. This isn't to say that all Korean men view women as objects or chattel, but there's no doubt that Confucianism offers fewer benefits and privileges to women than it does to men. Some men, like the three in question, will take advantage of that fact.

Before I end this essay, I need to make clear that Korean Christianity is far from monolithic. My generalizations about Korean Christianity are just that-- true on the whole, but acquiring texture and subtlety as we zoom in from gross to fine. There are exceptions to the picture I've painted. For example: one church I know, Keumho Presbyterian Church, has been very friendly to me whenever I appear there. Although the congregants usually ask me some form of the "Where have you been?" question, they don't move from that to the finger-wagging "You should come here more often!" Keumho Church is where my #3 Adjoshi and Adjumma go. While the church has its share of theatrically weepy preachers, it also has a lot of good, decent folks. In other words, not all Korean churches have that creepy, cultish aura. (Many, however, do.)

I should also note that, while Confucianism is increasingly burdensome for modern Korean women, it isn't inherently evil. I wasn't implying above that Confucianism causes male violence against women, so please don't misinterpret me. By the same token, I wasn't implying that groupthink inevitably leads to violence.

The three men who stood trial may have thought they were simply acting the way a Korean Christian is supposed to act. It's my understanding that some Koreans-- specifically, those who followed the trial-- feel Australian law is cold, heartless, and makes no attempt to understand and respect Korean culture. Such a protest is galling on several levels, not least of which is the absurdity of demanding the right not to do as the Romans do when on Roman turf. Western societies are famously pluralistic, but they do share some basic notions about individual rights and freedoms. I side with the Western view in this case: beating up a young lady is not an expression of Christian charity. It's a violation of the lady's right to worship or not worship as she chooses. Western law is right to view the attackers' behavior as impermissible.

And from a Christian standpoint, the three men ignored the woman's free will-- a crucial factor in making an informed moral choice. Forcing someone (back) into a religious community isn't virtuous; it's reprehensible. Practically speaking, force achieves nothing. I doubt this lady ended up feeling greater loyalty to the church after her beating.****

To be sure, the Australian incident isn't representative of how all Korean Christians act. Some perspective is called for: a few Christian guys went to extremes, made the news, and gave their faith a bad name. In doing so, they gave us reason to consider the darker aspects of Korean Christianity, and to ponder what, exactly, is so Korean and Christian about beating up a putatively impious lady.

*You might argue that Europe had centuries for this to happen, which is a good point. But Christianity didn't come to Korea in the 1900s, either; it arrived significantly earlier, in fact, and has had time to let East Asian syncretism do its work. While Korean Christianity has indeed undergone certain syncretic changes, its general form is recognizable to American Christians, who wouldn't be far wrong to apply labels like "evangelical," "charismatic," or "Pentecostal" to large swaths of the Korean Christian landscape.

There's an interreligious factor to consider as well: Christianity came to dominate Europe, whereas Korean Christianity has had to contend with Buddhism, a well-established religion. Buddhism is losing ground but is still quite robust, and its competition with Christianity has forced both traditions to define themselves more clearly. This need for self-definition doubtless contributes to Korean Christianity's continued refusal to become more moderate.

**Fact: big religion is big business. Korean Buddhism is a money machine, too, and Tibetan Buddhism is lucky to have caught America's interest and to have a media-savvy guy like the Dalai Lama as its spokesman. As long as Tibetan Buddhism has stars like Richard Gere to bring the dollars in, it probably doesn't matter much whether Tibetan Buddhism's Sancte Sede (relax, I'm being facetious) is in Tibet or in Dharamsala, India. Sorry if I sound cynical, but I think the Dalai Lama has become a victim of his own fame-- and, further, he's aware of this and tacitly encourages the influx of money. Not a charge I can substantiate without research, but a feeling I have. What's undeniable is that Tibetan Buddhism is big money, and other Buddhisms are as well. This goes for other major world religions, too.

***"Immediately" is an adverb that takes a frequent appearance in the gospel of Mark, known to many Bib Lit teachers as the "hasty gospel." Unfortunately, no gospel has been nicknamed the "tasty gospel," which is really too bad.

****Interesting to note that the lady's parents argued on behalf of the girl's attackers and even paid their legal fees, according to the Marmot.



Lorianne said...

What a scary story! My (honest) first response was "wtf?"

Years ago when I did Catholic campus ministry for my undergraduate alma mater in Ohio, my ex and I arranged for a Korean Zen Master to give a talk on campus. We put up a lot of posters on campus, and many of them were torn down.

Although we'd gotten complaints from Buddhist students who took offense from the fact that the ZM's appearance was sponsored by a Catholic organization, we explained that a CAMPUS group had to sponsor the talk in order for the University to allow on-campus publicity, and at the time there weren't any Buddhist groups on campus. The students who complained explained that *they* hadn't torn down the signs, which continued to disappear as quickly as we put them up.

Finally someone suggested that Christian groups were taking the signs down. Although we didn't have proof that it was Korean Christians who were responsible, these posters for a *Korean* Zen Master were the only flyers that were tampered with. Other "godless" and "pagan" groups were allowed to poster without disturbance: only our signs were deemed "dangerous."

If (?) it was Korean Christians who tampered with the signs, that's pretty damn pathetic. What, is Jesus such a scaredy-cat that he can't out-match a Zen Master?

Kevin Kim said...

If Kenneth Leong is correct, then Jesus is a Zen master.

I suppose he could wrestle with himself. Jesus, I mean; not Leong.


Kevin Kim said...


Yes, thanks. That's a much more detailed way of breaking it down. I mentioned in my post that Christianity was associated with nationalism. I probably should have expanded on that point.

When I wrote "nationalism" and "literacy," I was thinking specifically about Christianity's role in subverting the Japanese occupation, partly by keeping the Korean language alive through the quietly insistent teaching of Hangul to whomever the church could reach.

So I agree: Christianity's existence in Korea has been embattled, which has forced it-- pretty much from the beginning-- to define itself clearly, establish an aggressive agenda, and deepen its own tenacious tendencies.

My footnoted mention of Buddhism was also meant to reinforce the "embattled" notion. Re: Christian violence against Buddhists: Dr. Frank Tedesco, a Buddhist, wrote some great articles on the subject. Here's one link.

I should also note that "persecution" is a recurrent theme in Christianity in general-- it's a notion found in scripture and seized upon by Christians everywhere as part of the Christian narrative. This may seem ridiculous to non-Christians, given Christianity's current global dominance (over 2 billion adherents and counting), but many Christians do indeed view themselves as islands of righteousness surrounded by oceans of sin.

The term I was dancing around in my post was "boundary issue," a phrase we often use when talking about interreligious dialogue. Boundaries are often unfelt until we encounter the Other, but conflict makes their presence known and even reinforces them. People like the Buddha were keenly aware of the mind's tendency to create such boundaries, which are, after all, just another form of our reflexive (albeit mistaken) inclination toward dualism.

I tend to think that Jesus, too, was aware of the potential harmfulness of boundaries. This would go a long way to explaining his transgressive behavior, which offended Jews and Romans alike. Putting aside the question of the historical truth of the Jesus narrative, I think an important lesson to be drawn from his conduct is that the scripture of the heart is far more important than the scripture in a book.

That news story tends to support the proverb that "Jesus was cool but his followers are assholes." Christians who read that proverb should listen to it instead of bristling. Putting aside love, compassion, and humility in the name of lesser things (money, in-group preservation, scriptural literalism) is a betrayal of the original spirit of the tradition.

Thanks for fleshing the Korean history out.


Lorianne said...

If Jesus is a Zen Master, would Korean Christians allow a poster advertising *that* fact? ;-)

Kevin Kim said...

I'd love to see a poster for yae-su dae-seonsa-nim.