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Syngman Rhee: Christianity in Korea can be a catalyst for reconciliation

The Korean Peninsula is a divided land, long torn by hostility and enmity. But Christianity is a life-giving religion that can help write a new history even there, says the noted Korean-American church leader.

Photo by Christina Holder

March 26, 2013

The land that is now North Korea was once an important and successful mission field called “the Jerusalem of the East.” And though Christianity is virtually nonexistent there today, it nevertheless offers one of the best hopes for peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea, said the Rev. Syngman Rhee.

“There is a particular need for reconciliation between North and South Korea by the teaching and the love of Christ,” said Rhee, a noted Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and mainline church leader.

Some Christians in South Korea oppose anything to do with North Korea, believing that Christianity and communism cannot coexist, Rhee said. But others disagree.

“A growing number of Christians in South Korea insist that we -- Christians -- can no longer be enslaved by the belief that Christianity equals anti-communism,” Rhee said. “Christianity was not created to fight against something. It is life-giving and can be a catalyst to create a new history in any kind of society, capitalist or communist.”

Born in what is now North Korea, Rhee came to the United States after the Korean War for college and seminary and has long worked for peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea. He was president of the National Council of Churches from 1992 to 1993 and moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 2000-01.

From 1998 to 2011, he taught mission and evangelism and Asian theology and served as director of the Asian-American Ministry and Mission Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va. He currently serves Union as special assistant to the president for global ministry and advancement.

Rhee spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School for a consultation on Northeast Asia hosted by the Center for Reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why should the church in America care about missions and reconciliation with North Korea?

One, North Korea, particularly the capital city of Pyongyang, used to be called “the Jerusalem of the East.” There was a strong Christian witness and concentration of mission activities in that city and throughout North Korea.

Presbyterian mission work centered around Pyongyang in the north of Korea, and Methodist mission work centered around Seoul in the south. So North Korea was a very important mission field. A lot of enthusiasm and conviction about Christianity was born there, in Pyongyang.

Two, the division between North and South Korea that happened at the end of World War II was a tragic event, one that had very little to do with the Korean people’s aspiration. Korea had been under Japanese control for a half-century, until the end of the war, and was divided at the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, that division for military purposes became a political reality, with a North Korean government backed by the Soviet Union and a South Korean government backed by the United States.

Once it was divided, both sides became further entrenched, which led to the Korean War. And for Christians in North Korea, including my family, life under the communist regime was not easy. My father was a pastor who was martyred in prison in the fall of 1950.

After that, my mother insisted that her two sons -- I, at 19, and my 17-year-old brother -- go to South Korea as refugees, because she feared the same thing would happen to us. We left home, our mother and four little sisters, on December 3, 1950, and walked for about 10 days to Seoul, and then from Seoul to the southern tip of South Korea, a place called Chinhae, where we joined the South Korean Marines.

When I think about it now, what a tragic reality that was, but that’s how we survived. The enmity and hostility for what happened to us as Christians was so deep that we felt a justification to fight each other, between North and South Korea.

After I was discharged in 1956, I came to the United States and went to college in West Virginia, then Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, Yale Divinity School for my master of theology degree and Chicago Theological Seminary for a doctoral program in sociology of religion.

I became a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister to follow in my father’s footsteps and to carry on the task that he was unable to complete.

Q: What’s the state of the church in North Korea today? Mostly nonexistent?

Basically, that is correct, but since about the middle of the 1980s, we have made every effort to re-establish Christian community in North Korea. In 1989, for the first time, two church buildings were built -- one Protestant, one Catholic. And they also published the Bible and the hymnbook.

I attended that first worship service in 1989. That was a wonderful, joyful day, to see a building with a cross on the top; just a moving picture it was.

But having said that, how much freedom do people have to share the gospel and attend the church services? Young people in particular are prohibited from coming in contact with Christian teachings.

So in a sense, yes, there has been some change to allow Christians to worship. Maybe 200-300 church people gather every Sunday to worship. And two years later, another small Protestant church was built, the Chilgol Church, so there are now at least two Protestant churches and one Catholic congregation in North Korea. But in terms of how much actual freedom people have, that is still questionable.

Q: What would it take to rebuild Christian institutions in North Korea? Do you think that will ever happen?

This gets to the basic question of North Korea’s understanding of what Christianity is about.

Unfortunately, tragically, ever since the Korean War, Christianity has been considered to be the religion of the enemy -- that is, the United States. From that point of view, Christianity was not welcomed, but because of international pressure, eventually they opened the door so that there are Christian churches.

But it is complicated. The continuing tension and enmity between North and South Korea has a great deal to do with what the future of the church will be in North Korea. The more openings there are between North and South Korea, the more opportunities there will be for the churches to grow and flourish.

But given the tensions between North and South Korea, it is difficult to be encouraged.

Q: Is there a role for the church in South Korea in creating those openings and opportunities?

Yes. Some Christians in South Korea still oppose anything to do with North Korea. They say communism and Christianity just cannot coexist.

On the other hand, a growing number of Christians in South Korea insist that we -- Christians -- can no longer be enslaved by the belief that Christianity equals anti-communism. Christianity was not created to fight against something. It is life-giving and can be a catalyst to create a new history in any kind of society, capitalist or communist.

There is a particular need for reconciliation between North and South Korea by the teaching and the love of Christ. That is a growing conviction now, and this consultation is one of those efforts to bring that about.

Q: You’ve been the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and president of the National Council of Churches. What’s your assessment of the future of the church generally, both in the U.S. and around the world, particularly the mainline?

When we talk about the church in general, American as well as Korean, in spite of some decline in the mainline churches in the United States, I still believe that there are basic roots of Christian teaching and belief that need to be strengthened.

We all experience decline, both in membership and in influence, as society has become more secularized and churches have failed to make Christianity relevant to the younger generation.

Before, churches almost took it for granted that society would help them, but they no longer can expect such things. Now, churches should take the central message of the gospel as their own and take responsibility for it.

As I see it, we are in a transition period, with a greater awakening of what it should mean to be a Christian. It’s good that we have to struggle with that kind of question.

In South Korea, of course, Christianity has grown since the missionaries, particularly Methodists and Presbyterians, went there about 125 years ago. It is really a success story, a miracle story, of the American mission. Until recently, Korean churches have grown because of the struggles with the Korean War, the difficulties people faced.

But now, when I visit South Korea, I hear about a decline of church influence, mainly for two reasons. One, people do not feel the need to satisfy their own existence and aspirations, which the church used to provide. There are other sources of comfort and joy.

Secondly, churches have become so inwardly oriented, as a result of the church growth movement and the development of megachurches in South Korea.

Q: The largest church in the world, the Yoido Full Gospel Church , is in Seoul.

That’s right.

It’s good and bad in a sense. Church is not supposed to be for its own survival or existence. But these churches have become so big they have to deal with internal structures and maintenance.

Korean society is becoming critical of the churches, particularly Protestant churches, for becoming larger and larger and having enormous financial resources. Rather than using those resources for the well-being of society, it has grown to be self-serving.

But it’s a time of awakening for the churches in South Korea. South Korean Christians are really thinking about and asking how to be an effective church in Korean society.

Q: What can the church in America learn from the church in Korea?

American churches have forgotten the grace of God, which is basically what it’s all about. Any organization, including religious organizations, when it becomes comfortable and powerful, becomes focused on sustaining and maintaining itself, and begins to think less about the basic essence of what the church was made of.

I think of myself. I came here in the middle of the 1950s, so I experienced all the history of the church’s decline. When I was a campus minister at the University of Louisville in the early ’60s, I took part in the civil rights movement, because that was a manifestation of our Christian message at that time historically, and I was glad to be part of it.

But we neglected to nurture the roots of our faith. It is imperative to nurture the roots of our faith if we are going to have the fruits of our faith.

Unfortunately, I think mainline denominations were so involved in bearing the fruits of our faith that they neglected nurturing the roots of our faith -- basic things like the importance of Scripture, devotion and worship, and so on.

Q: Anything else?

If I can sum up, I’m just deeply grateful for even the fact that I am alive today, because there were many occasions that I could have gone. So basically, to use a Korean expression, it’s second-chance life.

In a real sense, as a Korean Marine during the war, there was no particular reason that I survived, whereas my comrades perished. This is now the second-chance life given to me. That is the basic conviction that I live with.

And so rather than trying to become somebody famous or big, just wanting to be faithful to the given opportunities each day and each year. God has led me all the way. I have just a deep sense of gratitude.

Korea is still divided with hostility and enmity. How we can bring reconciliation and peace in the Korean Peninsula is such a complicated matter. It’s not just the North Korea-South Korea relationship; it’s also all the major powers involved -- China, Japan, Russia, the United States.

And the tragic thing is that the Korean people have become the victims of regional and global dynamics. But the Korean people are really one people, with no difference in language and customs. Yet we are caught in that, and that’s why the message of reconciliation is very important.