UPDATE: Shin Hye Chul, Korean rock musician and outspoken (though among young people, apparently respected) social commentator, is quoted in the Daily Economist as having argued basically what I said about the way the newspapers are presenting this: in essence, that while newspapers used to play up things, presenting the comments of one netizen in ten as a netizen consensus, he says that now the newspapers are presenting what ten in ten netizens say as a minority opinion. He wonders whether the newspapers have been under pressure from Protestant religious groups. He also said that of course he wants the Korean hostages to come home safe, but he doesn’t want them to return as heroes, smiling and pround, but rather more conscious of the mess they made. (All of the above is a paraphrase based on a paraphrase, so if anyone with better Korean ability than mine cares to critique the quality of the paraphrase, go for it.)
I’ve been working on this post for days, trying to find the best way to explain it, and I have finally figured out that the best way to do it is to tell a story. It’s a story about what’s been happening on the Internet in Korea lately, and how it’s been misrepresented in a few pieces of writing so far — a post by a Catholic expatriate blogger in Korea who goes (somewhat ridiculously) by the handle “The Western Confucian,” and a major and ultra-conservative newspaper called the Chosun Ilbo — as well as how it’s likely to be misrepresented again and again. It looks like a tectonic-scale shift in South Korean culture, which makes it worth paying attention to. It has to do with what looks to them like a sudden surge in anti-Christian sentiment in Korea.But the story doesn’t begin with the writing of either the Chosun Ilbo or The Western Confucian. It begins much more humbly, days ago in one of many cafes on Daum — something like our old-fashioned BBSes, online clubs where people of shared interests join to post, chat, and discuss their mutual interests. On this particular cafe — it could be one of millions — Koreans were discussing the newly breaking Korean hostage situation in Afghanistan.
The discussion raised the question: “Why did they go to Afghanistan, anyway?” and responses from various people suggest that they wished to die as martyrs, that they went as medical volunteers — a claim quickly shot down by evidence that only one nurse was among them, that they gullibly accepted missionary assignment by their church. Each of the claims was analyzed, and links were offered in replies, giving evidence that the hostages indeed did not act as medical volunteers but were primarily preaching religion; that they had gone knowing full well the risks of the trip; that the church was claiming they were medical volunteers; that the affiliated aid organization had deleted a line from its website (which survived in screen-captures) that they had gone to preach about Jesus. Links to the blog of one of the hostages came up, and before it was taken offline (by service outage, perhaps, as millions of Korean internet users visited the site) that they’d behaved in ways which were, if anything, a good way to get oneself killed in Afghanistan.
The discussion continued, as the hostage crisis stretched on for days and rumors of government officials attempting to bribe the Taliban into releasing the hostages began to circulate. This, after a wide-ranging discussion in Korean society had questioned whether churches ought to be tax exempt at all — a reasonable question considering the way some churches are run like businesses, sold like businesses, and profit massively, just like businesses. Suddenly, confronted with their own tax money going to free these zealots who knowingly put themselves in danger, more disgust built up.
This, of course, is what happens on the surface: so-called netizens — the people that The so-called Western Confucian describes as a “cyber-mob” so distasteful he compares them to the “mob” of Jews who — yes, indeed — killed Christ. (And he still seems to see nothing wrong with trotting out the oldest, hoariest of blood libels when confronted with anti-Christian sentiment: he compares those he disagrees with to Jews, as if this is the ultimate evil. Pathetic.) The Chosun Ilbo goes even farther (in this article), painting a picture which, at least from my reading of the article, seems to be one of a small minority of virulently anti-Christian zealots trying to “fan the flames of anti-Christian sentiment” among their fellow Koreans.
The reality is far from this circus scene, of course. The reality — one that is patently obvious from the speed with which the netizens disabled any website remotely connected to the hostages: their church, their blog, their service organization — testifies to the number of people visiting the site. Websites get disabled not when a few malcontents visit and put nasty comments, but when enormous numbers of people visit, or even coordinate DDOS attacks. The amount of criticism on news articles, and in cafes on Daum, too, testifies to the fact that anti-Christian feels reach far and wide in Korea. According to Lime, the topics has come up, and been widely discussed, in cafes she’s a member of that have nothing to do with the topic!
Why that has happened, suddenly, now, isn’t even puzzling, or so it seems to me.
But it turns out that it is puzzling to a lot of people. The question on the lips of Protestant Koreans in the Daum cafe I mentioned quickly became “Why do they suddenly hate us?” Protestants in the habit of greeting people in a religious fashion, or by typing “Shalom,” suddenly became uncomfortable with continuing to do so. Some Protestants burst out with defensive attacks against anyone who seemed even obliquely to discuss Protestant behaviour in Korea — such as, say, one poor pregnant woman who merely complained that she and her Arabic-looking Muslim husband were being turned away from every apartment they tried to rent, and that she was worried about finding a place to live before the baby was born. “Christians AREN’T bad people!” was the characteristically unsympathetic, out-of-left-wing response she got.
Why indeed. The Chosun Ilbo’s depiction of the situation, claiming, “Korean netizens fear that such posts could endanger a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” and depicting the anti-”Christian” comments as those of a few radicals who are trying to stir up anti-Christian sentiment among the masses, is a serious distortion of the situation. The Western Confucian is, at least, correct that this is — superficially — a new phenomenon. However, even he misses the point that the new phenomenon is not the resentment, disgust, and impatience itself: only the expression of it is new. The feelings, on the other hand, are well-rooted, deep, and have been growing for a long time now. Even CHeong Wa Dae, “the Korean White House,” seems to have failed to grasp this, as seems obvious from their attempt to encourage Koreans online to lay off on criticizing the religious aspect of the situation. After all, they’re still denying publicly what every net-aware Korean who’s been online in the last few days knows to be true: that these people were explicitly religious missionaries, and rather tactless ones, at that (1).
The question that Cheong Wa Dae, the Chosun Ilbo, and The Western Confucian all quite predictable either didn’t ask, or failed to seek a real answer for, is the question of why such powerful attitudes of resentment turned from a trickle to a flood. Cheong Wa Dae seems to think the answer to this question is irrelevant, because it’ll just tell people what to talk about and they’ll obey, like in the good old days. The Chosun Ilbo, being in the business of creating spin, has decided it’s the effect of corruption spread by a few bad apples who hate Christians for some inexplicable reason. The Western Confucian thinks it’s because netizens are unwashed hordes of blithering idiots.
The latter attitude is, in fact, one shared by many foreigners in Korea, and which I think is also to some degree promoted by the way discussions about netizen activism are presented on blogs like the famous Korea-issues blog The Marmot’s Last Hole. When netizens (pathetically, yes) “cheat” on international polls to put a mediocre Korean pop star on the international chart of important people, or (foolishly, yes) support censorship as they did a few summers ago, during the blog ban that the Korean government orchestrated in the wake of the last Korean hostage-killing, it gets duly reported and cackled at. When netizen pressure is used to publicly shame embarrassingly nasty politicians like GNP Congresswoman Song Young-sun, whose ridiculously rude and nasty treatment of the Park Myoung Jae was captured on video and uploaded to the net, I hear little mention of it in the Korean blogosphere. When video of a techer slapping a student is uploaded, the foreigner blogs all repost the video and cluck disapprovingly of the state of schools, but say little about netizen pressures on the government and the school for reform eliminating such treatment of students. When netizen pressure forces police to take seriously the kinds of cases they’ve always neglected and dragged their feet on — rapes of middle school girls, for example, or abuse of influence by rich CEOs seeking to avoid being charged for crimes — we hear about the story, but not about the netizen pressure that forced the issue into the limelight and embarrassed the police into action. Netizens are as netizens do: the ones who go around mass spamming sites with nationalist rhetoric, they’re not so respectable, but other segments of the internet user population are actually managing to do remarkable things.
And I think that the dialogue about “Christians” (which is the term Koreans use for Protestants) is another one of those remarkable, fascinating things. It’s a backlash which it seems to me has been a long time in coming, and is likely the outward signal of an important subtyerranean shift in Korean society. After all, anyone who checked into the most recent census in Korea noticed that Protestant Christianity is, in fact, on the decline here. More and more people are leaving their churches, turning their backs in digust. (Interestingly, Catholicism is mildly on the rise, and the backlash has also, in some discussions, suggested a positive reevaluation of Catholicism, as compared tothe more zealot-like forms of Protestantism as they are practiced in Korea.)
A great place to start, in order to understand why I think this backlash is so deeply rooted, widespread, and indicative of a general disgust with Protestantism in general, is by looking at the picture included with the Chosun Ilbo article… which may well end up being taken down, so I’ve copied it and am going to include it here:
What’s depicted in this image is a monk who is apparently raising money (the newspaper says alms, but in fact I’m told it was for two soup kitchens that the monk collects donations for) while reading what is probably Buddhist scripture. The man touching his head — a bloody disrespectful actfor a stranger to perform anywhere, but moreso in Asia — is basically your stereotypical Korean Protestant street-evangelist.
The Chosun Ilbo article suggested that the image may not be real — it might be a staged shot. (Apparently, it’s not staged: I’m told that a reporter went and interviewed the monk, who rather compassionately explained that the man had been coming and placing his hand on the monk’s head and praying for him for months on end. The monk asked the Christian, “If you’re a virtuous man, why don’t you help, and collect money for one of the soup kitchens? You can take over!” and the Protestant Christian rejected the offer point blank. The monk expressed gratitude towards the very rude man, saying that through enduring the man’s insulting and rude behaviour, he was being helped to overcome some bad karma, perhaps from a past life.)
But even if it was staged, the photo rings very true. This is how a certain number of Protestant Christians — the most visible ones, the ones that most non-Christians will remember encountering — behave in public on a constant basis. This is exactly how distastefully they present themselves, without any manners, respect, or sense of the human dignity of others around them, and unfortunately, the moderates (whom I truly hope outnumber the nutters) tend to ignore them, tolerate them, excuse them, or say nothing, so they also have to live with guilt by association.
Non-Protestants, looking at this picture, will recognize the kind of man this is instantly: just another one of the endless droves of obnoxious Protestants who march about the city, hollering on and chanting and singing on subway trains, accosting people in shopping centers, knocking on doors and trying to force their way into people’s homes, blasting horrible “Christian” music at ear-splitting volumes, informing people that they are bound for hell, and basically being rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious jerks. The digust goes deeper than passing encounters, though: it has built up from years and years of such experiences. People discussed being harassed by Protestant co-workers pushing them to convert; people mentioned being asked at the beginning of a group job interview, “What is your religion?” and non-Christians being thereafter utterly ignored in favour of those who gave the “right answer.” (This rings particularly true in my experience: I have worked for three religious Univerities in Korea: neither the Catholic nor the Buddhist school asked about my religion; only the Protestant one did. Yes, I did get the job, but only after someone who “gave the right answer” passed on the offer, having gotten something better elsewhere.)
Lime related a story to me today over dinner, about a man who was the minister of a church. He decided to sell the church, and in his negotiations, he said, “Well, I have X number of people who attend the church weekly, so you should pay a million won (roughly a thousand dollars) for each consistent congregation member. The buyer agreed and purchased the church, and the ex-minister took his profits and went out and bought himself a PC-Bang (Internet cafe, for those of you not in Korea).
The fact is, anti-Christian sentiment here is already widespread. Christians are not a majority here. They seem like it, sometimes: their political clout made me imagine their numbers were much greater, and I honestly very rarely meet people who aren’t some form of Christian or Catholic. No, actually, the thing is, I very rarely meet people who have anything to say about religion who aren’t Protestant Christians. But the interesting thing, and one often mentioned to me, is how Protestants and Catholics differ. Protestants seem to work religion into the very first conversation they have with you. They either start telling you about their church, or ask you your religion, or quote the Bible, or mention Jesus… they can’t seem to have a conversation that doesn’t focus on religion, and when they sense discomfort at this, some of them push all that much harder to make the conversation all about religion. With Catholics (and, incidentally, Buddhists), on the other hand, you usually find out their religion after some time has passed, weeks or even months of friendship could go by without it ever coming up. The people with no religion tend just never to bring up the issue, but the Protestants seem unable to go a single day without outright forcing the issue. They are often teetotal, and claim that all Christians are supposed to refrain from drink. (They’ve never managed to explain why Jesus would create wine as his first miracle if drinking is so bad, however.)
Yes, these are generalizations. But widespread attitudes form on the basis of just such generalizations, and the generalizations form from common experience. The most memorable experiences derive often from the most negative ones, but in terms of your average person’s experience of Protestant Christians, the most prominent among them are also the rudest, nastiest, and most off-putting.
Protestants have also been tainted by scandal. One of the more amusing ones is Jang Air. Jang Air is the nickname that the Korean public have given to a Protestant Minister who, as it turns out, was apparently having an affair with one of his congregation members, a married woman. When the woman’s husband burst in on them having sex in a hotel, Minister Jang, still naked, attempted to flee out the window. He ended up hanging from the air conditioner outside, and someone took his photo in that compromising (and, let’s admit, amusing) position before he plummeted to his death. The Christian newspaper claimed he had died of a heart attack, while the Joseon Ilbo reported a story much closer to the one I reported. Korean netizens, aware of both reports, were faced with yet another hypocritical lie from a Protestant Church.
Here are a few more impressions that a lot of people seem to share:
- Protestant Christians have significant political power in Korea, but while their rhetoric is full of talking about helping others, their prime interest is usually helping other members of their same immediate church group, or at best their denomination. The rest, they have very little compassion for or interest in. Like the evangelical prick “blessing” the monk above, a commonly shared interest isn’t in soup kitchens, it’s in preaching loudly in public places. My challenge on Marmot’s comment thread, for anyone to name even five Protestant organizations of comparable scale to the Catholic service organization 꽃�?�내 (which administers villages where physically and mentally handicapped people live and are helped in their day-to-day lives by primarily Catholic volunteers and clergy) went unmet, despite the presence of some vocal Protestants participating in the screaming match “discussion” there… I suspect because such organizations simply don’t exist.
- Protestant Christians, when confronted with hard questions, tend to follow a certain logic in their answers, which can be boiled down to avoiding the original question and asserting that because they are saved and have a relationship with God, they know the truth and nobody else does.
- Protestant Christians, unlike Catholics, are highly intolerant of other religions. True, only extremists have gone out and actually committed temple arson, but it’s not unusual to hear Korean Protestant Christians describe non-Christians, or even Christians of a different denomination, or even members of a different congregation of the same denomination — yes, really, and yes, it boggles my mind too but I’ve seen it any number of times — with as much disdain or horror as one would expect them to describe Satan worshippers. A Korean Protestant I knew once described Thailand as a “sinful nation” — not because of the widespread prostitution and political corruption at the top of the government, but rather because Thailand is mostly Buddhist, and because of the compulsory monastic service required of young men. I’ve spoken to no fewer than three students who went into crippling paroxysms because they had recently discovered that a friend belonged to a rival Protestant denomination, or had decided to convert to a different denomination than their own. At the farther extremes, you get people like Lee Myung Bak, a mayor of Seoul who once publicly consecrated the city to Yahweh (I wonder what the Buddhist majority and the nonreligious citizens of the city thought about that!), and you get Protestants explicitly praying for the “destruction” (literally destruction) of specific Buddhist temples in their city (as in the second half of this video).While there are certainly lots of Protestants who are tolerant, loving, and respectful of people who follow other religions — I know a couple myself, after all, and the netizens’ discussion seems often to include this very caveat! — those who aren’t certainly don’t get much public criticism from their fellow Protestants, and while silence doesn’t always mean complicity — especially in Korea — there comes a point when it becomes hard to remember that the thick layer of rotten apples at the top of the barrel don’t mean the whole barrel is rotten.Hell, if you want intolerance: intolerance is when people believe that other members of their denomination, who happen to attend a different building on Sundays and listen to a different preacher, are somehow “wrong” or “bad,” and who refuse to change churches even when they’ve moved far from the original church… when you can’t even get along with people of the same religion because they’re not in your particular community, that’s religious intolerance to a degree that looks a hell of a lot like mental instability to me. And to lots of other people, too.
- Protestant Christians, for all their talk of love and respect and compassion and Christian morality, are quite preoccupied with money, status, and appearance. The most racist Koreans I’ve met were Protestant Christians; the most crooked businesspeople I’ve dealt with were all Protestant Christians — not Buddhists, not non-Christians, and certainly not Catholics. When you visit Protestant churches, you can see all kinds of exspensive cars in the parking lots.
- Lastly, religious evangelists in public who are at all rude, self-righteous, confrontational, or obnoxious are almost exclusively Protestant Christians. To wit, I have never seen a Catholic in the street marching with a cross, let alone yelling at people or causing a ruckus on trains. A Catholic has never exhorted me to “Believe Jesus!” without even asking me whether I do, or even after having asked me. A Catholic has never knocked on my door and rang my doorbell constantly at 7:00 am on a Saturday, hoping to convert me, and tried to force her way in. The church next door that left all its windows open for the psychotic two-hour speaking in tongues sessions I had to hear every Wednesday night wasn’t a Catholic church, either, and for one more strongly personal point, the only students who’ve ever disrupted my classes by getting onto religious tirades were… you guessed it, Protestant Christians. In other words, the people whom most Koreans experience being a shithead about religion in public are not Catholics — who are mostly quiet and reserved– nor Buddhists, who seem to have maintained general peace after their long-ago street brawls a decade ago– but are almost always Protestant Christians. Since a strong moderate voice criticising these extremists has not emerged, these people appear to non-Protestants to have tacit approval of the Protestant mainstream.
And all of this had led to the situation which the Chosun Ilbo so pathetically misrepresented. The fact that netizens have lashed out about the hostage situation so angrily is simply the fact that, in Korean society, public confrontation isn’t kosher. Netizens are posting hateful, angry comments about these people in Afghanistan, mostly not because of anything personal against those idiots, but because it’s a chance to vent about the jerk Protestants that annoy them and bug them on an almost constant basis in public, who ring their doorbells at all hours, who drop by to visit them and inform them that they’re hellbound… Cheong Wa Dae — “the Korean White House” has asked that people quit criticizing the hostages in Afghanistan, but they’ve completely missed the point, which is that this is an expression of a more deeply-rooted rage and disgust at Protestants in general — mostly pent-up since most well-raised, polite Koreans shy away from confrontation and challenging of others in public, regardless of how annoyingly, rudely, or nastily those others behave — for which outpouring the hostage situation has served merely as a catalyst, an opportunity to speak out.
And before someone rushes to the defense and says, “Wait! The criticism of Protestants in Korea is uninformed and unwarranted!” I recommend checking out the biggest message boards online for a while. The new wave of apologies and admissions that, yeah, there’s something rotten in the Protestant Churches of Korea is coming from young Protestant moderates who actually agree with the criticisms and understand why the rest of the country is so fed up. When even some of the people being yelled at are coming forward and saying, “You have a point,” it’s a trend worth paying attention to. If the Netizens are intelligent enough, they could use this as a defining issue of the next Presidential campaign, after all: Lee Myung Bak’s extremely outspoken Protestantism may even turn out to be his biggest liability. I know I’m not alone in hoping so.
As for the way the Western Confucian suggests a parallel between the anti-Christian comments among Korean netizens and the vitriol in the Marmot’s comments section, it’s silly. The comments don’t represent “Christophobic vitriol,” it’s just the same level of vitriol as usual, the same vitriol spewed on everyone and everything discussed there. (Though I do appreciate the Marmot’s hard work keeping all the comment-trolls of the Korean blogosphere busy.) This particular vitriol is nothing special, just more of the same, so don’t let The Western Confucian’s latest fit of moral panic fool you. Far more amusing is his inexplicable espousal of the idea that the use of “parenting” as a verb betrays traces of heretical “gnostic” thinking.
(And that’s to say nothing of his histrionic applause for the Marmot’s deletion of links… anyone who thinks that what gets blogged right now is being read by the Taliban to help them decide what to do with these people is not paying attention to the fact that there’s only one strategy with one minor variant open to the Taliban right now: milk these idiots for all they’re worth, and then release them (if it’ll secure Korean withdrawal) or kill them (if the terrorists are more interested in sending a message to potential evangelists in the future). And if the Taliban is reading Marmot’s, they’ve quite certainly thought to search Youtube, and already run across this (now with subtitles). The Taliban doesn’t need to worry after all: the Koreans were, quite characteristically, teaching the kids Christian propaganda in Korean, which means the kids didn’t understand a damned word of what they were saying anyway!
Indeed, if anyone in this branch of the Taliban is reading any blogs — let alone the Marmot’s Hole, which would indeed surprise me — it’s just to pass the time while waiting for the next deadline and the next delivery of cash from the Korean government, when they’ll defer the deadline again and make some more demands. They must be so happy to have found a government that’s willing to try cut deals with them: they’re going to milk these hostages for as much as they can. Then again, we’ve always known that Roh’s administration is happy to negotiate with terrorists, and quite committed to continuing negotiations, even when the terrorists break their promises: after all, that’s their North Korea policy, too. Sunshine in Seoul, Sunshine in Kaesong, Sunshine in Pyongyang, and now Sunshine in Kabul.
I’m tempted to call this the Mideast Sunshine Policy, actually. The difference, though, is that unlike the North, Islamic militants around the world have nothing to lose by committing more of these kidnappings, and now they have the impression they have everything to gain. So, yeah, it feels like Amateur Week in Kabul. Ah well… in the end, if everything goes wrong, as Marmot reports, they’ll just blame the USA. (As usual.)
Note 1: It is widely known in Korea that the hostages were in Afghanistan on religious, not medical, business. On the (now offline) blog that one of these “volunteers” left behind, there were plenty of accounts of Christian missionizing, but nary a mention of working in any clinics or hospitals. Of course — there was only one nurse in the bunch! No, what those blogs contained accounts of were only discussions of how these people did such brilliant things as visit a beautiful mosque, compliment the security guy on the beauty of the place, ask permission to sing, and then start singing Jesus songs. In a mosque. “It sounded like music out of heaven,” one of them commented, oblivious or unconcerned by how rude this kind of behaviour would appear to even non-militant Muslims. (I have serious trouble imagining a group of Muslim missionaries visiting their church in Bundang and behaving the same way and leaving without a scratch on them.) Or, even better, the account of their visit to the grave of some famous Islamic hero, and how they performed a Christian worship ceremony at his grave. They were so proud to be the first Christians to visit the site, and to worship God there, the blogger (now a hostage, remember) claimed. This is not netizen rumor-mongering: materials screen-captured from one of the missionaries’ blog before it went offline in a blaze of netizen commentspam (of which I have some, here) don’t just “allege” that these people were doing missionary work — according to Lime, who read the blogs while they were online, it’s pretty starkly obvious that at least some of the group were there primarily for the purpose of doing religious evangelizing, as well as traipsing about the country being shockingly ignorant and, more surprisingly, shockingly blasé in their insults to the local dominant culture and religion. Lime’s a Catholic, and she reacted to what she saw the same way I did: with disgust. These people went there and disrespected the local people. I agree that this shouldn’t be a capital offense, but in Afghanistan, it can be, quite easily, and these dolts knew that well enough when they went there… pictures of them posing gleefully in front of warning signs show as much. (One is included in the above archive of blog screencaps, if you doubt my word on that.)