13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Amid the Pandemic, Korean Protestantism Can Live Only by Collapsing

By Yani Yoo

It is biblical when something that needs to perish perishes, but this does not mean the End. The prophet Ezekiel was deported to Babylonia when his country collapsed in 587 B.C.E. He stressed that the country was judged for its unclean religion, the sins of its leaders and priests, and social injustice. He said that God would cleanse Israel after his Judgment. After that, Ezekiel imagined that Israel, which had completely collapsed and rotted to its bones, would be revived, its bones coming back together till it breathed new life.

A protest held by homophobic Protestant groups during Seoul Queer Culture Festival in 2019. Photo: ruin S.M. Pae, source: Korea Queer Archive

Covid-19 has changed many things. Protestants are no exception. To escape the stigma of “the religion of hatred,” we must critique all the methods of the Church until now. Neighboring religions are boldly broadening their arms. Pope Francis said it may be possible for women to become priests, and that he would establish a commission to study the issue of female ordination.1 He also said that “[homosexual people] are children of God and have a right to a family.” “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”2 The Committee for the Religious Peace of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism issued a statement on the recent arson attack on Sujinsa Buddhist temple by a Protestant, urging Korean Protestant churches to be a religion of harmony, instead of becoming a religion that provokes violence. The committee added that “discrimination for age, gender, region, and religion prevails” in Korean society, calling for “the legislation of an anti-discrimination law as soon as possible.”3

The anti-discrimination bill should have been passed long ago. The Korean Church, which has discriminated against minorities and encouraged hatred, has now become the subject of discrimination and hatred. It deserves it. Ironically, the Church may have to be protected by this anti-discrimination law in the future. What should we as Protestants do to pay back the sin of turning the religion of love into a religion of hate? Protestantism could be reborn as a trusted and useful religion, if it silently carries out the practice of love in thorough repentance. I hope soon it becomes clear that the lines: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) should mean for present-day Korea: “There is neither Indigenous nor immigrant, Christian nor Muslim, heterosexual nor homosexual, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


The Achievements of Korean Churches Have Become a Headache

I would like to talk about Protestantism in a more hopeful light, but unfortunately it is necessary to talk more about what it should be punished for. Conservatism seeks the continuation of tradition, classism, and authority. Conservatives like the right-wing Protestants are very uncomfortable these days. They were already becoming dissatisfied as their vested interests weakened as times changed, and these days new faces keep appearing in Korean society, making their alternative voices heard. The conservatives tut and say: “Women, sexual minorities, migrants, refugees, and Muslims should remain silent and unseen. But they are asking for human rights and equality.”

“Dad, have you seen the news? Korean churches are doomed!” These were the first words the daughter of a pastor threw at him as soon as he came home from a sabbatical in August 2020. Public cynicism and anger about Protestantism had increased significantly after pastor Jeon Kwang-Hoon and his supporters went ahead with rallies on August 15th (National Liberation Day), against the local government’s ruling.4 Christianity has often been called the religion of love, but Protestantism in Korean society today has attracted new nicknames: “gae-dok”( “gae” means dog, “dok” refers to the middle syllable of gidokyo, the formal word for Protestantism) and “the religion of hate.” How did this happen? Clearly, it is incorrect to say that a small number of illegal pastors and far-right Christians represent the whole religion, but it is difficult to avoid such stigma given the loud voices that come from those quarters. Through the changes induced by Covid-19, Protestant churches—regardless whether progressive or conservative—are realizing that they need to undergo a transformation as radical as another Reformation. If Protestantism perishes in this pandemic, it is meant to happen. Only then might it regain trust as a Jesus-following religion and be reborn as a theology that exerts a good influence on society. Protestantism should recognize its current problematic status, apologize to Korean society, ask for forgiveness, and then practice anew.

Protestant churches have been as successful as chaebol companies over the past century.5 Protestantism has focused on higher education since the beginning of its missionary work, and as such the proportion of Christians that belong to the middle and upper classes is relatively high. Over the past 20 years, 31–41 percent of lawmakers have been Protestant, and in four districts of southeastern Seoul (Gangnam, Seocho, Songpa, and Gangdong) the percentage of Protestant residents is 32.8 percent, that is 1.6 times the national average (19.7 percent).6 Looking at its historical background, Protestantism was able to start in many ways thanks to the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) after liberation. The USAMGIK supported Protestant elites who defected to the South to establish a Christian anti-communist political system. This government provided an important material foundation for Protestant schools and churches by repurposing Japanese Tenrikyō properties and shrine sites in South Korea. In the 1940s, Protestants accounted for only 1 percent of South Korea’s total population, while 46 percent of ministers in the USAMGIK, and 42 percent of politicians in the subsequent Rhee Syngman administration, were Protestant, showing how Protestants were privileged in the South after liberation.7 Due to the activities of the Western Protestant denominations and missionaries, Protestants had more opportunities to receive modern education than other groups, and soon became the ruling class of society after studying abroad. Today, Protestants have great influence in various sectors of Korean society.

While Protestantism has become powerful in both size and resources, its megachurches have been criticized, and it has become a headache for Korean society. Although half of the total operating churches are small and poor with less than fifty people in attendance, most churches aspire to be like large churches, sharing similar basic theology and direction, so the criticism extends to the entire Protestant Church. According to “The Problems of Korean Protestant Churches,” which was researched by Protest 2002, the group working to reform Protestant churches in Korea, the first to fourth points are all about the pastors in charge, namely their financial corruption, dogmatism, family succession, and sexual violence. These pastors have often been written about in the media, contributing to the degradation of Protestants’ credibility and reputation. Another survey asked more than one thousand pastors and Christians about the “tasks of reform for Protestantism,” with the majority answering that the biggest issue was secularization and materialism, followed by the lack of qualifications and self-interest of pastors, the quantitative expansion of churches, and individual churches’ -centeredness.8 All of this must perish.

Booths installed by homophobic Protestant groups during Seoul Queer Culture Festival in 2019. Photo: ruin S.M. Pae, source: Korea Queer Archive

Far-right Protestantism United by Opposition and Hatred

Recently, far-right Protestants have been raising their voices inside and outside the Church with various opposition movements, including anti-feminist, homophobic xenophobic, anti-refugee, and anti-Islamic. They work by spreading fake news, a mix of fact and lies, through so-called “church KakaoTalk chats,” Protestant-affiliated newspapers, websites, and YouTube channels. The activities of Shincheonji, a Protestant cult, and far-right Protestants in general, have never been as dominant among ordinary people and Christian communities as in 2020. What pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon and his supporters showed in their rallies was very similar to the Shincheonji scandal in the spring of 2020. When the coronavirus rapidly spread in Daegu, especially among members of Shincheonji, they did not cooperate in preventing the further spread of the virus, instead providing a false list of members. Pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon’s group was also found to have lied about participants in his rallies. Although he initially registered the 100-member rally and said he did not encourage people to attend en masse, the truth was that he systematically contacted supporters behind the scenes and planned large-scale demonstrations, then submitted a fabricated list for the police investigation. I felt more disappointed with this lie than with their far-right stance. The Christian Council of Korea, where pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon served as chairman, accounts for 18 percent of active Protestant churches in Korea. The council considers Shincheonji a cult, but the council and Shincheonji are conservative right-wing comrades, both religiously and politically.

Protestant rightists are closely related to modern Korean history, and their ideology and conservative beliefs are anti-intellectually combined.9 Protestantism and socialism were at odds during the liberation and the Korean War; an ideological massacre of North and South Koreans, including by the Northwestern Youth League, an anti-communist group organized by the Youngnak Church at the time of the USAMGIK, was carried out in the South and North. When the military regime was formed in South Korea, the important forces were from the Japanese military and the Northwestern Youth League. In the fifth year of the South Joseon Defense Academy by National Defense Command (now the Korea Military Academy), two-thirds of students were from the Northwestern Youth League. They later led the May 16 military coup d’état under Park Chung-hee, and it is no coincidence that Protestants then filled the majority of political and intelligence agency positions. In South Korea, military coups and dictatorships continued, and ideological conflicts were a good tool to control the people. Until the 1980s, if someone merely mentioned reunification between the two Koreas, they were accused of being a “commie.” The anti-intellectual aspects of right-wing Protestant churches are also related to the compressed economic development of South Korean society and its rapid social change. People moved to the city in large numbers and began to flock to churches that promised mystical “healing rallies (revival assemblies)” and “saving the three beats” of health, money, and soul for those living impoverished lives, suffering from poverty or disease. In this way, anti-communism, materialism, conservatism, and anti-intellectualism have become engrained in ideology and beliefs based on Protestantism.

The attitude of conservative Protestants on the issue of refugees in recent years, which has grown out of this problematic historical background, has been very embarrassing. Public opinion was divided over whether to accommodate five hundred Yemeni refugees who arrived on Jeju Island in early 2018. The Korean Church Press Association, which has represented the position of the conservative Protestant community, issued a ridiculous statement saying: “Most of the killings and terrorism that occur around the world these days are perpetrated by Muslims.”10 At that time, violent fake news was being distributed in large quantities, spreading Islamophobia. Fake news posted on an Islamophobic website in the US said: “92 percent of sexual violence in Sweden is caused by Muslim refugees and half of the victims are children,” and “the sexual offence rate of Afghan immigrants is 79 times higher than that of Koreans.” The Esther Prayer Movement, a far-right Protestant organization, imported this message and disseminated it in Korea.11 Later that year, only two of the five hundred Yemeni refugees received refugee status. Only 4.1 percent of asylum seekers receive refugee status in South Korea, which is only one-sixth of the world’s average of 24.1 percent.12

What about their attitude toward women who “hold up half the sky”?13 Far-right Protestant groups have recently started to use the term “anti-feminism,” but in fact, all Protestant churches have been oppressing women for many years. Behind the rapid growth of the Korean Church were a considerable amount of donations from women, along with their service, but it was practically impossible for women to be “promoted” to an elder of a church congregation. There was only one female elder among fifty elders in the church I used to attend. Even in churches that allow women to train to become pastors, it is very difficult for them to have the opportunity to lead a service in reality. According to a survey in 2018, female delegates of the General Assembly of the Church made up only 14.3 percent of the Korean Methodist Church, 9.1 percent of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (KiJang), and 1.1 percent of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (TongHap).

Female congregation members should not be regarded as fools. When I was working at a women’s organization of a denomination, I had the impression that women members were aware of the pastor’s wrongdoings, but endured him in order to sustain a family-like church, just like they endured their own patriarchal fathers. However, women are no longer holding back. The number of Protestants has declined by 1.39 million over the past ten years, decreasing every year, with the number of believers in the most conservative Presbyterian Church of Korea (Hapdong) falling the most.14 According to a survey conducted by the Korean Federation of Churches a few years ago, women no longer want the role traditionally asked of them by the Church and have turned their backs more than men, with now only 50 to 60 percent of churchgoers being female; previously this was 70 to 80 percent.15 If the Church maintains a misogynistic stance, it cannot survive as a sustainable religion.

In recent years, Korean society has resummoned feminism and women’s movements have gained momentum. In the past, they have tended to be neglected over other social agendas such as the anti-dictatorship pro-democratic movement and the reunification movement, but now they are closer to the fore. In summer 2018, young women protested against biased investigations into hidden-camera crimes in the country. This was the biggest ever protest by women to highlight issues solely faced by women, drawing 70,000 people—more than double the protest of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions at a similar time. But alt-right website Ilbe Storage argues that men and women in Korean society are already equal, and that men in their twenties and thirties are rather the victims of reverse discrimination. Can that be true? In 2018, women earned on average just 66.6 percent of what men earned, and Korea marked the lowest for the gender wage gap and the glass ceiling index among major OECD-member countries. How then could this be reverse discrimination? It is a big concern as there are many women who commit suicide because of related frustrations. The suicide rate of women in their thirties is seven times higher than in their mothers’ generation.16 After the 1997 foreign currency crisis and the 2008 financial crisis, two out of three women became temporary or part-time workers. Women’s college entrance rate is 8 percent higher than that of men, but women’s educational background and skills do not lead to increased social status in the labor market. Due to Covid-19, 120,000 women in their twenties lost their jobs in March 2020, but the media focused on unemployment among men. Women’s unemployment is by no means trivial; this reality is not unrelated to the high suicide rate among young women.

Participants gathered in Seoul Plaza during Seoul Queer Culture Festival in 2019. Photo: ruin S.M. Pae, source: Korea Queer Archive

Homophobia Is the Korean Church’s Great Sin

Nevertheless, the suppression of women by Korean society or Protestant rightists will not so easily last long. What is the future for a society that doesn’t treat women as equal partners and a religion that wants to use women as maids? Thanks to the recent women’s movement, it should now be difficult for any organization to survive if it foolishly regards women as enemies. The Protestant rightists might have already noticed this. These days, they are more bent on attacking other targets such as sexual minorities than feminists.

Following the Methodist Church’s lead in 2015, most major Protestant denominations—except Anglican and Kijang—passed an anti-homosexuality bill at the General Assembly without any research or discussion. The specific content states that sexual minorities and those who support them are unable to work in the Church and face disciplinary action if they are found out. Behind the resolution is the Protestant right-wing movement, which has been opposing the passing of the anti-discrimination law since it was first drafted by the Ministry of Justice in 2007. Since then, whenever the anti-discrimination law was redrafted, groups with names like “Parents Union”, “National Alliance”, or “National Gathering” have systematically blocked it. There is no explicit Christianity in the names of these groups but in many cases, they are backed by Christians. They use the organizational power of the Church to increase their power by blocking local governments’ human rights ordinances, student unions’ human rights ordinances, and gender-equality ordinances, by protesting with numerous faxes, phone calls, church petitions, and protests.17

In August, 2020 the Korean Methodist Church slapped pastor Lee Dong-hwan with a two-year suspension for giving a blessing to participants of a queer festival. Meanwhile, an annual conference of the Methodist Church unbelievably elected a pastor who had committed numerous sexual assaults as a bishop. Female Christians organized protests to stop the appointment but the Church has not disciplined the pastor for his criminal activities. Various right-wing Protestant media and speakers are busy spreading fake news against homosexuality. When several Covid-19 cases were confirmed among persons who had visited nightclubs in Itaewon, the newspaper Kookmin Ilbo ran the headline: “People with the coronavirus visited an Itaewon gay club,” and exposed personal information such as the people’s age, job, and work area. This was a clear violation of human rights, which erroneously emphasized sexual orientation that is unrelated to the control of Covid-19. Kookmin Ilbo had advocated homophobia in the past, and has published a series of homophobic articles of a questionable level for an established media outlet.

A few years ago, one young man went through the following exchange at a church, the day after the Seoul Queer Culture Festival. A deaconess sitting next to him said: “I saw the Queer Culture Festival on TV and I found homosexuals so disgusting. I hope they all die.” The young man thought: “That gay man is sitting next to you.” The Church, which is supposed to save lives, is committing a felony.

If Korean Protestantism perishes fully, it is not impossible for it to be reborn. According to the results of a national awareness survey on the anti-discrimination law conducted by the National Human Rights Commission in June 2020, 88.5 percent of respondents said they “agreed to legislate a ban on discrimination to cope with discrimination in Korean society.” Compared to one year before, the approval rating increased by 15.6 percent. Some Protestants agree. According to the 2019 Protestant Perception Survey by the Christian Social Affairs Institute of Korea, Protestants (58.4 percent) who agree with the idea that “homosexuality is a sin” are more than twice as many as non-Protestants (25 percent), while 4 out of 10 Protestants have “denied or questioned” the idea.18 In addition, both Protestants (59.7 percent) and non- Protestants (70 percent) ranked “general recognition from society” as the top priority in “the formation of awareness around homosexuals.” This suggests that Protestants are following changing societal perceptions toward sexual minorities rather than following the Church on this issue.

As representatives of the Church’s general assembly and religious leaders are mostly men in their sixties, their negative stance on sexual minorities has merely been overrepresented, as if it were the absolute position of the whole Protestant Church. Protestants are also politically progressive compared to other religious believers. The main religious group to choose liberal candidates in the last few presidential elections was Protestant. For example, in the 2017 presidential election, Protestants voted in the order of Moon Jae-in (39.3 percent), Ahn Cheol-soo (25.9 percent), Hong Joon-pyo (21.5 percent), Yoo Seung-min (6.7 percent), and Sim Sang-jung (6 percent). Support for the two liberal/progressive parties is almost 45.5 percent.19 According to a survey at the end of 2020, Protestants have not only become accustomed to online worship, the concept of physical attendance has itself weakened, and more and more people do not even participate in online worship. In this time of pandemic, Church members, who conservative pastors have tried to control and lock in the Church, are one by one changing their ways of believing in and contemplating God. This involves following their personal beliefs, rather than listening to pastors in churches.

1Lee Eun-hye, 프란치스코 교종 “여성 성직자 가능하다.” [Pope Francis said “it may be possible for women to become priests”], News & Joy, 13 May 2016, http://www.newsnjoy.or.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=203415 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

2Shin Ki-seop, 교황, 동성커플 시민결합법 첫 공개지지. [Pope Francis indicates support for same-sex civil unions for the first time], Hangyore, 22 October 2020, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/international/international_general/966903.html (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

3Yoo Young-jun, 차별금지법(평등법) 제정 추진에 대한 종교평화위원회 입장 발표 [The Committee for the Religious Peace’s announcement on the legislation of an anti-discrimination law], Bulkyo Ilbo, 16 July 2020, http://bulkyoilbo.maru.net/bbs/board.php?bo_table=bulkyonews&wr_id=15803 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

426 far-right groups notified the Seoul Metropolitan Government that they would hold rallies. The Seoul Metropolitan Government issued an administrative order banning the rallies citing the risk of spreading the virus. However, each group filed provisional dispositions to suspend the administrative order, and the Seoul Administrative Court later allowed a few of them to take place. Two legal rallies were held in Gwanghwamun. Participants in the rallies called for the resignation and impeachment of President Moon Jae-in and condemned South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party.

5Chaebol companies in South Korea are large industrial conglomerates owned by a single family or powerful owner.

6Kang In-cheol, “정치판의 부흥사가 된 한국 보수 개신교” [“The Korean Conservative Protestant Church has become revival service provider of politics”], Le Monde diplomatique Korea, 31 August 2020, http://www.ilemonde.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=13240) , (Accessed: 20 December 2020); Lim Sun-young, “‘종교 있다’ 강남 58%, 은평 31% ···종교도 양극화?” [“‘I Am Religious’ Gangnam 58% Eunpyeong 31% … Polarization even in religion?”], Joongang Daily, 24 July 2017, https://news.joins.com/article/21508726 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

7Kim Jin-ho, 권력과 교회 [Power and Church], (Paju: Changbi, 2018), 151.

8Lee Sa-ya, “한국교회의 가장 큰 문제는 세속화와 물질주의” [“The biggest problems of Korean Protestant Churches are secularization and materialism”], Kookmin Daily, 13 March 2017, http://news.kmib.co.kr/article/view.asp?arcid=0011325679 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

9This paragraph refers to the third chapter of Kim Jin-ho’s book, 권력과 교회 [Power and Church].

10Lee Dae-woong, “국내 난민 급증, 유럽의 다문화정책 실패 교훈 삼아야” [“We need to learn from the failure of European diversity policies for rapid increase of refugees in Korea”], Christian Today, 18 May 2018, https://www.christiantoday.co.kr/news/312483 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

11Kim Wan, Park Joon-yong, Byun Ji-min, “동성애·난민 혐오 ‘가짜뉴스 공장’의 이름, 에스더” [“The factory of fake news encouraging homophobia and refugee-phobia is Esther”], The Hangyore, 27 September 2018, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/society/society_general/863478.html (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

12Dong-gam, 20181214 법무부의 1214 제주예멘난민심사 결정발표에 대한 입장 [Our stance on the recent announcement of Ministry of Justice regarding Yemenis Refugees on Jeju] Gonggam Human Rights Law Foundation, 14 December 2018, https://withgonggam.tistory.com/2198 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

13Famous proverb of Mao Zedong.

14Choi Seung-hyun, 교인 17만 명 빠졌는데…대책 없는 교단 총회 [Irresponsible General Assembly of Korean church], News & Joy, 14 October 2020,  http://www.newsnjoy.or.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=301557 (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

15Choi Young-kyoung, “교회 내 불평등한 性역할에 젊은 여성들이 떠나고 있다” [“Young women are leaving churches due to institutional sexism”], Kookmin  Daily, 28 October 2012, https://news.naver.com/main/read.nhn?oid=005&aid=0000530519 (Accessed: 20 December 2020); see Park Jin-kyoung, “교회 여성혐오와 기독교교육적 과제” [“Misogyny in churches and the challenges of Christian education”], Korean Association of Feminist Theology,『혐오와 여성신학』 [Hatred and Feminist Theology], (Seoul: Dongyeon, 2018), 127–64.

16Lee Kyoung-mi, “지난해 2030 여성 극단적 선택 부쩍 늘어” [“Suicide of women in 20s–30s on the rise last year”], The Hangyore, 22 September 2020, http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/economy/economy_general/963144.html. (Accessed: 20 December 2020)

17On the anti-homosexuality movement as a reaction to weakening hegemonic masculinity, see: Kim Na-mi, “한국 개신교 우파의 젠더화된 동성애 반대 운동” [“The gendered anti-homosexuality movement of Korean far-right Protestants”], Institute for East Asian Studies at Sungkonghoe University (SKHU) / The Christian Institute for the 3rd Era, 『당신들의 신국』 [Your Own Divine Land], (Paju: Dolbegae, 2017), 263–314.

18Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development, 『개신교인 인식조사 통계자료집』 [Korean Protestants Survey], (The Christian Literature Society of Korea, 2020), 165–70.

19Choi Seung-hyun, “개신교인 투표 결과, 문 39.3% 홍 21.5% 안 25.9% 순으로 투표했다” [“Protestants voted Moon 39.3%, Hong 21.5%, Ahn 25.9%], New & Joy, 10 May 2017, https://www.newsnjoy.or.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=210798. (Accessed: 20 December 2020)


Yani Yoo received her Ph.D. in the Old Testament from Union Theological Seminary, New York. She served as pastor of The Olivebridge and Samsonville United Methodist Churches in New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She worked as a Regional Missionary/Consultant to Asia and the Pacific appointed by the United Methodist Women, UMC. She is the author of God of Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob (Seoul 2009) and From Eve to Esther (Seoul 2014). She teaches the Old Testament at Methodist Theological University as a Visiting Professor.