I spent a long time on this one.
OK. I'm angry about something. I've been talking about it with my students in class, and I'd like to get it off my chest. I've done my best to get the sarcasm, bitterness, and overstatement out. Here we go!
You may not have heard about this: it was downplayed by the world media, probably so that the Taliban wouldn't get leverage from a worldwide outcry, or maybe Afghanistan is just yesterday's news (isn't that possibility disgusting in itself -- that a place where people are dying and a whole country is laced with minefields isn't newsworthy anymore?). However, here in Korea, it was a proper, candlelit-vigil-level crisis. Twenty-three Korean missionaries were kidnapped, and two murdered, in Afghanistan by Taliban terrorists. Seoul denies it, of course, but rumours keep popping up that a large sum of money changed hands for their recent release.
The kidnapped missionary group's story reads like a litany of bone-headed recklessness. They ignored international warnings against traveling to Afghanistan, to begin with, even flaunting their daring by having their pictures taken in front of the sign warning them not to enter Afghanistan. They rented a tour bus (big, easy target), and didn't check whether the highway they were traveling was safe to traverse on a tour bus. It wasn't. By blundering into such a dangerous situation, this group backed Korea into a corner where no face could be saved, where Korea looks bad in front of all its allies. Not that anybody deserves to be kidnapped and confined, but they sure weren't exercising much common sense.
Beyond the international faux-pas' committed by Seoul in response (negotiating with terrorists directly, rather than through the local government, possibly funding terrorist organizations, and painting a big bulls-eye on the back of every Korean missionary and aid worker in any unstable country), this has also led to a lot of hand wringing and self-examination about the way Korean missionaries act when they go abroad.
Here are some quotes from an article I read in a recent issue of the Korea Herald about the work of Korean Missionaries abroad.
"Doing God's Work for Taliban" by Shim JaeHoon, Korea Herald, Thursday September 6, 2007; page 13.
". . . The kidnapping . . . has revived criticism of missionaries' no-holds-barred proselytizing. The zeal of some churches, often offending local sensitivities, has made the Korean missionaries controversial at home and abroad. . . critics suggest that Korean missionaries pause and moderate their course.
"Korean missionaries are 'too loud and aggressive in their ways and self-centered. . .'
"In temperament, Korean missionary activities reflect the country's aggressive outward-looking economic push in recent decades. . . [as in their economic expansion,] an obsession with numbers and size weakened the moral foundation of what Korean church historians say is an otherwise splendid achievement. . .
"But such success is the root of present-day problems. Obsessed with over achievement, pursuing quantity over quality, the churches are often criticized for placing secular interests above spiritual commitment. . . Some critics suggest that vigorous missionary activities abroad actually serve to cover up the churches' manifold problems at home, including some corrupt and divisive institutions.
". . . The Afghan incident not only prompts a hard look at Korea's overseas missions, but also much-needed reflection on the state of South Korea's religious establishment."
Rob again. You see, other issues aside, at home and abroad, Korean Christians (and especially Korean protestants) are about the most aggressive, in-your-face proselytizers I've ever seen. When you walk around downtown Seoul, especially on weekends, you'll run into groups of Christians singing into megaphones, strumming guitars into car-battery powered amps, hollering Christian slogans at people and handing out fliers ("Hey Barri! Gatt lobjuh yu! Berriebang Jejus!" the old lady shouted at me. "Hey buddy! God loves you! Believe in Jesus!"). Students of mine have recounted a lot of instances, during discussions I've had about this in class, of Christians telling them they're guilty, wrong, or hellbound.
Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion about the relative merits of different world religions, but what I will say, emphatically, is this: that brand of street evangelism has always been my least favourite thing about Christian (and any kind of faith) culture. I personally think it's wrong-minded, and it puts the worst features of religious communities on display -- aggressiveness and arrogance, moral smugness and judgmental superiority, standoffishness and, frankly, heedless rudeness. When I say "I know Jesus, and I LOVE him a lot!" and they still insist, "That's not good enough. You have to come to MY church!" As if only the baptismal water at THEIR church works properly, it makes me think, "why would I want to go to a church full of people as pushy and presumptuous as you are? It sounds very unpleasant." Why would anybody? (When you take such tactics across cultural barriers that are sometimes not fully understood, doing as Koreans do, even though you're in Rome. . . you can see how the chance of people being offended increases: at least here in Seoul, people are USED to it.)
Telling people they are wrong, guilty, and going to hell only builds walls of stereotype, prejudice and hurt that make it really hard for people to listen to ANY kind of talk about such topics from even the most open, considerate, and reasonable person of faith. I believe that there are people honestly seeking God, and seeking something to believe in, who are rejecting the Church out of hand, not because of any problem with Christ at all, but because they've been hurt or offended or judged by people who treat Jesus as if he were a pair of socks to be peddled on the street.
One of my students (a Christian himself) mentioned how, when Christians chase you down like that in the street, it certainly isn't going to make their religion or church attractive to you. In fact, he suspects the main motivation is a kind of self-validation of one's own faith: "I must be really committed! I approached thirty people this hour, and one even swore at me!" If those people need faith-validation, I wish they'd go have a quiet time, or even better, feed the hungry, visit prisoners, and clothe the naked instead! The church ought to be forming tight, holy, integral communities that take leadership in helping people, and attracting people to them in THAT way, in my opinion.
I just feel like people who take these tacks, who tell Catholics they're going to hell because they worship Mary, who use scare tactics like "where would you go if you died tonight", or dismiss other religions out of hand: "It was the Devil talking to the Buddha!" completely miss the point that faith is not about being right, and then judging everyone from their moral/philosophical high-ground, but about being grateful that God loves them.
I suppose I admire the courage it takes to sing hymns into a megaphone on a city street: you can't deny these folks are passionate, but passion that is not tempered by sober-minded leadership and deep humility is dangerous, irresponsible, (not to mention, if numbers remains their goal, off-putting to those not "in the club"). By acting without grace and moderation, and putting arrogance and rudeness on display as they represent the church (and, by association, Christ) they are defeating their own purpose of advancing the kingdom of heaven (as THEY define it), and sowing distrust and dislike for Christ.
"Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." St. Francis of Assisi
"Our words show what we want to be. Our actions show what we are." -me, age 17
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