Saturday, April 2, 2005

Next pope may speak Korean

It may be hard to believe, but in some sense I still do consider myself Catholic. And like a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics alike, I am following the news of Pope John Paul II's very poor health.

He is said to be near death and so, while thousands are praying for him, people are also speculating about who the next pontiff will be. Will he be Italian or "foreign"? Will he be conservative or liberal? Will he be a uniter or a divider? [February 2009 update: the original Yahoo! News link in this paragraph is dead, but here's a Wall Street Journal article from 2002, three years earlier, about future pope speculations.]

A few years ago, I had heard some serious musings that the next pope could be a non-European altogether. Let's not forget, it was a major step to elect a non-Italian to the papacy, so the Polish Pope may have been about as much shake-up as the Church wants for the next century.

On the other hand, choosing a non-European pope may be a way to galvanize Catholics around the world. After all the priest sex abuse scandals, American Catholics sure could use a boost. Some have also cited a Nigerian, and a long time ago I had heard that the cardinals of the Philippines and Korea would be in the running.

Some in the Indian media are suggesting the cardinal of India as a possibility. This has the added bit of interest -- to me at least -- that the next pope might actually be able to speak Korean.

Short of a Korean cardinal being chosen, this would be the biggest way to galvanize Catholics in Korea, where the faith has a strong but often quiet following. It could also bode well for religious tolerance, since Korea, with its healthy mix of Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and followers of traditional other faiths, traditional beliefs, or no religion, is in many ways a model of religious tolerance.

Yes, you heard me right. Despite the fact that as recently as the 19th century Catholics were being martyred for their faith, Korea in its post-War period has shown a high degree of religious tolerance, especially for a country with such religious plurality. The major faiths are all recognized in the list of official holidays, the government tries hard not to favor one religion over another, and most important, people of all religions liberally interact socially with people of other faiths, including a high degree of interfaith marriages.

How true is this even in a constitutionally religiously tolerant nation like the US, where anti-Semitism still rears its ugly head and anti-Muslim sentiment is at an all-time high? Ireland has a mix of Catholics and Protestants, and they are killing each other for it. The same is true in the similarly religiously plural former Yugoslavia, where the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats are essentially the same ethnic group but divided by religion (being Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Roman Catholic, respectively).

I am not saying Korea is problem-free. Some fundamentalist groups are beginning to use employ some divisive discourse, and every now and then you get a group of Protestants chopping down the changsŭng that are traditionally found at the entrance to villages but also, in modern times, in parks, universities, buildings, etc. It's a delicate balance, yes, but things are still pretty good here overall.


  1. Well, I didn't say things were perfect, and I also did express regret over some divisive discourse lately, but in the whole scheme of things, this place is far more religiously tolerant than most places of similar or even less religious diversity.

    Most Koreans routinely have close friends of a variety of religions, interfaith marriage is highly common here, neighborhoods and regions are not divided by religion, etc.

    This is NOT true for a great many other countries.

    By the way, I did answer the following on one of the links you sent:

    Despite rejecting a lot of what i learned in church growing up, i definitely still consider myself a Christian.

    That said, I get very annoyed when I see the efforts of the street or door-to-door evangelists. I want to say to them, "if you're really interested in saving people, think how many people you will reach if you quietly go out and help the poor, the sick, the oppressed."

    Lots of church groups I know are doing that. I have volunteered at a church that just simply gives free medical care -- no evangelism -- on its grounds.

    In response to our other conversation, I don't think the "Are you Christian?" question is any more offensive or indicative of an evil or close-minded intent than asking "Are you married?" It's part of the landscape as Koreans try to figure out what kind of person you, as someone who grew up in America, are.

    And by the way, I have been asked by Buddhists if I am Christian or if I go to church.

  2. Is this THE kexpat Kushibo....back from a multi-year absence?

    -Jeff in Pusan

  3. Christians have to reach people in many different ways. Some can be reached through charity and medical help. Others can be reached through school system, which was very effective in Korea. However, there are some who can only be reached through door-to-door ministry or street evangelism.

    At the height of English revival, street evangelism was common way to reach people. Baptist denomination in America become the largest mainly through door-to-door evangelism. It is very effective way of telling others about Christianity.

    Korean Christians are aggressive messengers but tolerant practicers. After all, Koreans do not believe in killing others as in England.

    One thing to add, you wrote about religious fighting in Ireland. The fact you do not know is that most Catholics were Irish while the protestants were the British. Their "religious fighting" is not based on religion at all. Rather, the reason for discord was "national" or "racial hatred". Nothing to do with religion at all.

    I personally consider Catholicism to be a sect. Its saint worship and lack of Bible teaching leads to strange doctrines. Korean pope, which will not happen anyway due to racism of Europeans, will only spread non-Biblical teaching in Korea. I am against it.

  4. I dont want to publish anonymous but I dont want to get an ID. Sorry. Anyway, I doubt the pope will speak Korean. But maybe he will eat kimche. That is worth a front page on the Korean times.

  5. Kushibo,

    I agree with your Catholic perspective: the "divisive" discourse we see in the Protestant Bible is the true sin in our post-modern age.

    INCLUSIVENESS is the new enlightened virtue.

    Separativeness is SIN.

    That is why Catholicism and the quality of the new Pope is so important: Roman Catholicism gradually promotes the global "inclusiveness" inherent in the motherly nature of the Virgin Mary".

    While stealthily de-emphasizing Christ's claim that "Many are called, but few are chosen" ... and " I came not to bring peace, but a sword".

    Roman Catholicism's greatest future contribution will be its ability to gradually bring people's faith away from the traditional Jesus.

    It's my dream Catholicism may accompish its goal of annihilating Christianity as we know it completely -- and substitute it with a mystical humanism we find in Mary veneration.

    It'll be one big love-fest, don't you think?

  6. "How true is this even in a constitutionally religiously tolerant nation like the US, where anti-Semitism still rears its ugly head and anti-Muslim sentiment is at an all-time high?"

    Inaccurate and ivalid comparison. In the US, anti-Semitism is hardly a major issue. Whatever anti Semitism exists is kept extremely quiet as opposed to "rearing its ugly head". Anti-Muslim sentiment is not a form of religious discrimination but a political assessment of violent Moslem fundamentalist extremism. And most Americans draw a clear line between Arab terror and religion.

    You write that in Korea "some fundamentalist groups are beginning to use employ some divisive discourse". In fact, this is not a beginning but a continuation of a trend of Christian religious intolerence in Korea. Unfortunately Korea cannot yet be compared to the US in terms of religious toleration.

  7. Anti-Semitism is hardly a major issue unless you're Jewish. And I think your assessment of anti-Muslim sentiment sounds a little too convenient, especially considering that anti-Muslim sentiment did not start with 9/11.

  8. One thing that has not come up in the comments is the history of vandalism by Protestants at temples. Of course it's been mainly by radicals, not the average Chulsu, but the lists I've seen of occurrences have been pretty surprising! is a good place to start reading about this. I sadly think it's evident for more than mild intolerance of religious difference, though gladly interreligious murder doesn't figure into the lists.

  9. Actually, I was in email contact Mr. Tedesco about this (around the late 1990s?). If I remember correctly, he had taken serious offense at something similar I had written about that time.

    But this list is not a list of "the history of vandalism" (and of course, you don't say it is, but someone could get that impression if they read your comment but didn't see the link).

    Some of these are not vandalism at all but free speech issues (although some are very misguided). The first example is an alleged former monk who erects a banner condemning Buddhism at his own religious gatherings. Religious intolerance this most certainly is, but vandalism? Of what?

    The next one involves a woman claiming at a Christian rally to be the daugher of a famous Zen master.

    The next example is even more self-serving. The Buddhists didn't want the Pope to come to Korea on the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Church in Korea! What the...?! If the tables were turned, I imagine someone such as Mr. Tedesco would be outraged that the Catholic Church would be meddling in Buddhist affairs about whether they should honor such a momentous occasion in their faith's history.

    I'll print it out in its entirety: Ignoring the pleas of Buddhist leaders, the Roman Catholic Church invites Pope John Paul II to visit South Korea to celebrate the bicentennial of the church in Korea. This event happens to fall during the annual national Buddha's Birthday holiday celebrations.  Because it is the first ever visit of a Roman pontiff to South Korea, and because the Vatican announces that 93 Koreans and 10 French missionary martyrs will be beatified as saints during the visit, the visit becomes a major national event. It is the first time that a canonization ceremony is held outside of Rome and the largest number ever canonized at one time. This ceremony gives Korea the fourth largest number of Catholic saints in the world.  When the Pope tours the country, in the days immediately preceding and during Buddha's Birthday, there are immense traffic jams which diminish attendance at Buddhist events in several key cities. Buddhist leaders protest the timing of the event as "disrespectful" and "in bad taste" because the Korean and Roman Catholic Churches schedule the mass beatification ceremonies to take place during Buddha's Birthday celebrations, a day sacred to Buddhists and a national holiday.

    This is, for the most part, a list of incidents involving religious intolerance. And such religious intolerance is very serious, and many of these incidents (I remember the one involving the military officer) led to outcry on all sides. When you have some 30 million people of faith living in a country, you are likely going to have some incidents. For a glimpse into such attitudes, look at the "anonymous" person who decided to come onto my blog and mock my religious views (the earlier comments on this thread).

    But that doesn't bely what I have been suggesting, where for the most part, there is genuine tolerance on the part of the vast, vast, vast majority of individuals in Korea. Not just tolerance, but that person's religion playing almost zero part in how his friends, co-workers, classmates, neighbors, etc., of a different religion view him/her and vice-versa. Almost like a religious nonchalance.

    The incidents of vandalism are even more serious than the banners and the accusastions. This is why radical religious groups worry me, especially since some seem emboldened by the recent tactics of the religious right in the USA and how they have risen politically.

    The attack on the Buddhist Broadcasting System would seem to me likely to have been the work of zealots of a different faith. The same with the chopping down of some of the "totem" poles at universities and other major places.

    But I caution that the fact something was vandalized--even the fact that it was vandalized with "red crucifixes" (does he mean crosses, since a crucifix would be harder to paint)--does not automatically mean an actual Protestant or Catholic culprit was involved.

    The Chogye order themselves appear to be sometimes involved in a vicious tug-of-war for power that has erupted into serious violence, and its not outside the realm of possibility that some of the vandalism occurred against one faction at the hands of another, even if it was made to look like someone else did it.

    Even in the States, if I remember correctly, some of the infamous church burnings during the Clinton administration turned out to have been committed members of the burned-down church themselves.

    While I think the state of affairs is pretty good overall, there are some worrisome things on the horizon that must be avoided or attacked head-on.

    What this means is that there are problems, and the fringe is becoming more emboldened. This is a troubling sign, as I mentioned long before, and the various religious groups must keep an eye out for such things. And unlike some of the religious right in America, they need to recall why religious freedom and separation of religion and state is to be embraced, and respect that.

  10. The violence between the Buddhist factions was so shocking (it eventually involved the siege of Chogyesa Temple) that it ended up on national news in the US, where I was on vacation at the time.

    Some police got seriously injured (although a few of them was due to their own stupidity).

  11. Well, I heartily agree with you that the whining about the Pope coming was just pathetic; . And I also recall reading some reports of that violence between different monastic groups and being amused and horrified. But there was still a lot of vandalism included on that list... and while it cannot be proved that it was Christians doing it, I have a hard time believing that Buddhist monks would put red crosses on a Buddhist temple. I also strongly doubt that Catholics were involved in the majority of those cases. Most Korean Catholics I know are far less fundamentalist than te Protestants I've known. (Though that's very subjective and of course any human group can produce nutcases. One guy in my hometown burned down churches of all kinds of denominations because, well, he thought it was cool and fun, that's all.)

    But in any case, I'd like to ask one more question: are you speaking of Seoul specifically? Because I can say from experience that here in Jeonbuk, I see some religious nonchalance, but I also see a lot of religious chauvanism. Cabbies asking people what their religion is, and then pushing conversion in the short space of a cab ride. Students in classrooms explaining that they only make friends with people who go to the same church as them. An endless stream of door-to-door evangelists and people on the street handing out religious pamplets and even just approaching people and warning them to accept Jesus. A ridiculous profusion of local churches well beyond the needs of a small local population, which I suspect can only exist in such profusion because of imagined (or clergy-manufactured) doctrinal differences that serve even to divide churches of the same denomination from one another.

    Perhaps this is characteristic of the countryside... I don't dismiss the possibility, since some people I know who've spent time in the States claim this is the Korean bible-belt. It sounds plausible enough, since Jeonbuk is also historically poorer, and poorer groups tend toward religion more forcefully. But then again, I've also heard stories about religious nepotism in the government. These could, of course, be urban legends on the level of fan death, but the people I hear them from are usually canny enough to filter the bullsh*t.

    I'd be interested to see what you make of (a) the possibility of regional difference in Jeonbuk, and (b) your take on the claims of religious nepotism in the government. I'm not saying I buy the latter, but I've heard it enough times from intelligent people that while I don't fully accept it at face value, neither can I dismiss it outright without at least some suggestive evidence to the contrary.

    I also agree that, whatever one's sense of religious tolerance, there is at least a rarity of religious-motivated violence. This is very important and good. I also acknowledge that my own cultural difference may make me perceive intolerance where in fact, there is a difference in what is culturally acceptable forms of evangelical discussion. Because I'm telling you, man, here in Jeonju, back in Iksan, some of those people are full-on, hardcore, semi-professional proselytizers, and such extreme examples may stick out, but the classroom also serves as a cross-section of people and I saw a lot of pretty extreme religiosity and exclusionism there.


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