Seoul is the City of God of the East. As I rolled into it from Gimpo Airport the first thing that struck me was all the bright red crosses glowing beneath the night sky. Clusters of them above and between the apartment blocks like I’d arrived in some neon graveyard. The churches are as big as shopping malls and they’re everywhere. These megachurches can seat hundreds, even thousands.
My brother Tom was working for a Presbyterian church in Goyang, a satellite city of Seoul. The building is a huge multi-storey structure. Far from being short of funds it owns several apartment blocks in Ilsan, the neighbourhood where Tom was living, and pretty much everyone who lives in the vicinity is a member of the congregation. Korean society has a rigid hierarchy and the Church is no exception. Tom was obliged to address his pastor as moksa-nim, a title of respect reserved for clergy of his rank. Even the laymen have titles and you have to remember everyone’s status.
Religion is everywhere. A few times we encountered fire-and-brimstone street preachers. They charge through the crowds forecasting imminent divine judgement, sometimes with loudspeakers, warning pedestrians to get their shit together before this whole madhouse goes up in flames. But these people are not feral pavement-sleepers with matted hair scrawling incoherent messages of doom on the sidewalks. They are suited and groomed – sharp as any businessman. There are Jehovah’s Witnesses too. Once Tom and I were accosted by two women in the subway and handed a copy of the Watchtower in English.
In my experience Korean Christians are admirable people. They are zealous and disciplined. Tom’s pastor wakes up before the crack of dawn every day to have a prayer and worship meeting with the church elders. On my last morning in Seoul I dragged my ass out of bed sometime around 5am to catch the bus to the airport. When I passed moksa-nim’s door I could hear lively voices raised in worship. I stood there bone-weary, rucksack on my back, face to the road. The chilled night sky was still untouched by the morning sun. I was repentant for having left my warm bed. And in the room behind me a worship session was already in full swing. I wish I had just a fraction of the spiritual discipline of these people.
Yet I don’t quite know what to make of Korean Christianity as an institution. Clearly it is prospering in physical terms. Domestically the church wields social influence comparable to that enjoyed by the Vatican in the Middle Ages. A senior pastor of Tom’s church is on speaking terms with the president of South Korea. He even gave Tom a watch which had been gifted to him by the president. It bears the chief’s official crest and is engraved with his signature.
But despite its healthy looking exterior the Organised Church is undeniably riddled with hypocrisy. I was talking to a local friend while walking alongside Cheongye Stream in downtown Seoul. He told me he used to go to church but was put off by all the petty finger-wagging, face-saving and self-righteousness he experienced there. He told me how he saw a man shunned by churchgoers because he had the nerve to turn up at a service not wearing a suit. My friend tried a few different churches but the only one he liked is located too far from his home. And this is a city where churches are as ubiquitous as casinos in Las Vegas.
From what I’ve heard the prosperity gospel is huge in South Korea. A lot of pastors essentially teach their congregations that they will be showered with riches if they follow Christ. Indeed, if someone is in poverty it is because their faith is not strong enough. I can see how this logic could easily lead to a caste system like that in India. Anyway, this teaching is a heinous heresy. I like to think I’m reasonably well acquainted with the Bible, having studied it earnestly since I was about eight years old. It is obvious to me that the prosperity gospel is at odds with what Jesus himself taught. The New Testament writers consistently teach that wealth is a deadly distraction from God. Riches can drag a man to hell. What did Christ say? ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal’. In Mark 10 he told a rich man to ‘sell everything you have and give to the poor’. Sure, advocates of the PG would say that God blesses believers with wealth so that they can use it to advance the Kingdom. This is similar to the view that Judas Iscariot took and Jesus rebuked him for it (John 12:4-8). I am at pains to think of any occasion where Jesus guaranteed that his followers would be wealthy. On the contrary he promised trials and persecution to anyone bold or crazy enough to ‘take up their cross and follow him’. Matthew 6:25-34 may seem to some like a promise of material prosperity. But here Jesus merely assures the faithful that their physical needs will be met.
This has turned into a rant, which is not what I intended. I stress: I am only attacking the institutional Church in South Korea and some of the nonsense it propagates, not individual Christians or churches. I know many sincere Korean Christians who don’t subscribe to the views outlined above. My wrath is aimed squarely at the Institution. The God-forsaken pharisaical Institution.
Furthermore, I will point out that I am cynical about institutional religion worldwide. The problems noted here are not necessarily unique to the South Korean Church.