Mission life: THE KUKMIN DAILY

Korea, Koreans, Korean Church

2013-10-28 14:49

Korea deeply appreciates the friendship it has fostered with churches around the world. Christian missionaries first set their feet on the Korean Peninsu­la in the late 19th century. At the time, the 500-year-old Joseon Dy­nasty was on the verge of collapse and would soon be colonized by Imperial Japan. In the second half of the 20th century, Koreans underwent enormous suffering caused by war and human rights abuses by dictatorial regimes. The churches of the world stood by Koreans during these difficult times. There would not be a Re­public of Korea today, had it not been for the support provided by the churches, whose representa­tives are now participating in the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches.

Korea is a land of spiritual­ity and prayer. Indian poet Ra­bindranath Tagore called Korea the “Land of the Morning Calm.” It was customary for Koreans to place a cup of clean water in their backyards early in the morning and pray for the well-being of the family. Based on this spirituality, Korea, a small country located between China and Japan, kept its own language and culture for 5,000 years while embracing for­eign religion and civilization in an openhearted manner.

Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to the Korean Peninsula about 1,600 years ago. They flourished as the state reli­gions of ancient Korean dynasties for 1,000 and 500 years, respec­tively. Korean museums feature a number of works based on Bud­dhism and Confucianism. There are traces of Nestorian Christian­ity entering the Korean Peninsula around the same time, but it failed to take root.

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that Koreans began to hear the name of Jesus again. Rad­ical elites of the Joseon Dynasty, who went to China in search of a new state ideology, were bap­tized by Catholic priests there and translated the Bible into Hangeul. The Joseon Dynasty, whose state religion was Confucianism, se­verely oppressed the Catholics. Protestantism was also first em­braced by reform-minded Korean elites who met Western mission­aries in China in the 19th century. The Koreans involved in these cases represent a unique example in that they began searching for the Gospel even before Western missionaries visited Korea.

When suffering under Japa­nese colonial rule in the early 20th century, Koreans prayed at churches every dawn. They dreamt of a new world reading Exodus and Revelations. The church was the basis for the in­dependence movement. Some Christian pastors were even put in jail for challenging the Japa­nese policy of forcing all Koreans to worship at state Shinto shrines. The priests refused to pay obei­sance at the shrines, denouncing the forced worship as an act of idolatry.

Korea regained its independ­ence in 1945 upon Japan’s surren­der in World War II. Christianity became the spiritual mainstay of the newly launched Republic of Korea. The first president, Syn­gman Rhee, was a graduate of Princeton University and a church elder. The nation’s first parlia­ment also opened its first session with a prayer. Foreign Christians who visited the nation during the Korean War cared for children or­phaned by the war. This was the starting point for international NGOs that are still active today, such as World Vision and Com­passion International.

After the war, Koreans suf­fered human rights violations under military regimes. The pro-democracy movement against the regimes received the support of churches around the world, par­ticularly those in the United States and Europe. The churches protest­ed against the governments’ dic­tatorial repression of democracy activists, and prayed for those imprisoned. The World Council of Churches, in particular, provided strong support for pro-democracy fighters in Korea.

After the 1987 democracy movement led to democratic re­forms, including a constitutional revision, Korea saw the emer­gence of moves calling for rec­onciliation and unification of the two Koreas. The Cold War era was not yet over, but South and North Korean Christians could meet through the World Council of Churches.

South Korea has attained phe­nomenal growth, transforming it­self from one of the world’s poor­est countries to the 10th largest economy. Its export items include semiconductors, super large ships, automobiles and smartphones as well as K-pop and democracy. The miraculous achievement cannot be talked about without mention­ing Christian spirituality.

The nation’s industrialization led to the migration of a large number of people from rural ar­eas to cities, and such Koreans gathered under the Cross of the church in cities. The church be­came a friend of the poor, giving them encouragement and power. Unique meetings such as early morning prayers, overnight vigils and Bible-reading sessions began at churches. Most of the largest churches in Seoul today started off as small ones in the city’s poor­est neighborhoods. Churches also provided opportunities for musi­cal and artistic experiences. Many K-pop singers are Christians who started playing the guitar at church. Korean NGOs have risen from aid recipients to donors. More than 1 million Koreans are now providing one-on-one sup­port for children in foreign coun­tries.

Churches in Korea are faced with several tasks as the only di­vided nation in the world. They need to realize the Gospel of for­giveness and reconciliation taught by Jesus, healing the wounds caused by ideological conflicts and war, and overcoming the his­tory of confrontation.

The Korean churches hope that their friends from around the world, now here in Busan for the 10th WCC Assembly, will serve as a spiritual companion in the jour­ney for peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula.

By Kim Ji-bang, Kim Kyungtaek

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