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A Scholarly Look at Korean Protestantism


Protestantism and Politics in Korea

Chung-Shin Park

University of Washington Press, Seattle and London; 2003

ISBN #0-295-98149-0


Review by Jerry Winzig


Chung-Shin Park's Protestantism and Politics in Korea is a scholarly look at the historical role that Korea's Protestant Christians have played in Korea over the last one hundred years.  It's a thorough study, complete with quotations, biographical information about key players, and essential facts and figures.


However, there are two caveats.  The first is that Park's book is not the story of a movement and is not written from the point of view of a participant.  At the end of the book, the reader has no idea whether the author is himself a Christian.  (Park is professor of Christian studies at Soongsil University in Seoul.)  Nor is it biographical in the sense of tracing the lives and teachings of key Christian leaders in Korea.


The second is that, from the point of view of this reader (who's been Catholic the first half of his life and Lutheran the second half), Park fails to make a convincing case for why his book examines only Korean Protestants and excludes Catholics.  He says Catholicism has not been successful in Korea, but this isn't entirely accurate.  While it's true that Catholics made up a larger percentage of Korea's Christians a hundred years ago, Catholics today still make up about 20 percent of Korea's 15 million Christians.


If, however, you're looking for factual information that explains how Confucian Korea became one of the most Christianized nations in Asia, Park's book has some answers.  (Park, incidentally, quotes Martin Marty as saying South Korea is the most Christianized nation in Asia, but the Philippines are 90 percent Christian, compared to about 40-50 percent for South Korea.)


Protestant Christianity saw its first successes in Korea before the Japanese occupation in northern Korea, where there were more commoners and fewer yangban (the so-called "gentlemen" class).  This is a theme that Park reiterates throughout the book -- the fact that Christianity's reach extended across class lines (but he neglects to point out that this appeal dates back to the early church under the Roman empire).


He quotes from a 1910 article in the Korean daily newspaper, Taehan Maeil Sinbo, "All ye that grieve over lack of freedom and equality, if you do grieve, accept Protestant Christianity.  If you are in sorrow over your plight, adhere to Protestant Christianity.  If you muster enough Christians in the country to demand your legitimate rights by proper means, no evildoers can silence you."


Park recounts two periods of explosive growth in Christianity in Korea.  The first occurred during the early years of the Japanese occupation, from 1905 to 1920.  In part, this occurred because of the Japanese occupation.  Park says, "Particularly during the early colonial period, from 1905 to 1919, when they were not allowed any political organization and action, Koreans cleverly used religious communities and ceremonies for their social and political activities.  The Protestant church came to serve as a place for solace, a political forum, a communication network, and an organizational base for Korean nationalist activities."


Park says this influence began before the Japanese occupation.  Protestant Christians were leading members of the original Independence Club that was founded in Seoul in 1896, and remained influential in early attempts to build a Korean democracy.  Park says that 16 of the 33 national representatives who signed the 1919 Declaration of Independence were church leaders.  Kim San, one of the Korean leaders of this time period, said, "Christianity will be the mother of Korean independence.  In Korea it is a symptom of revival, not a mere spiritual religious institution.  In the name of religion many great historical happenings have been brought to pass."


However, as Japan solidified its hold on Korea, the Protestant church's resistance to the Japanese occupation dwindled, until by the end of World War II the church in Korea was emphasizing an other-worldly outlook that did not challenge the Japanese.


When Japan was defeated and its occupation of Korea ended, Protestant Christianity once again resumed its leadership role in pushing for democracy and freedom.  In North Korea, Kim Il-Sung "reacted by ordering Christian leaders arrested."  Kim also employed a divide-and-conquer strategy by prevailing upon a few Christian ministers to form a pro-Kim Il-Sung "Christian League of Korea."  This began "a huge migration of Christians to the south and contributed to the explosive growth of Protestantism there."


In South Korea, Syngman Rhee positioned himself as a Christian leader, with the support of the United States.  In Park's view, this led to a symbiotic relationship between Korean Christians and the American occupying forces and ushered in a long era during which Korean Christians took a hands-off approach to the Korean government and political policies.


This post-World War II era also began the second period of explosive growth for Christianity in Korea, a period Park says was characterized by a conservative, other-worldly approach.  For example, writing in Sinhak Chinam (the Presbyterian Theological Review) in 1973, the fundamentalist theologian Kim Uihwan held that power, even if held by General Park Chung-hee, was from God: "Christ's church should not become involved in politics….It follows then that Christians cannot insist only on a democratic form of government.  One ought to obey higher powers, be they Roman or some other empire."


However, in contrast there were some liberal Christians who questioned the authoritarian South Korean governments, and played an important role in South Korea's transition to democracy.  One example is the 1973 "Theological Declaration of Korean Christians", which read in part, "God is the ultimate vindicator of the oppressed, the weak, and the poor….His Messianic kingdom will be the haven of the dispossessed, the rejected, and the downtrodden."  These liberal Christians opposed General Park's third term as president, supported Kim Daejung, fought for democracy against Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo, and gradually became the core element in the democratization campaign.


If you're looking for a factual account of these developments, Park's book is helpful.  But if you're looking for a passionate account of Christianity's role in Korea from the point of view of a believer, you'll have to look elsewhere.



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