The three major religions in South Korea are Protestantism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. (See previous article.) In the spring of 2015, NewsNJoy—a progressive Christian news website—brought together six prominent voices from these religions for a roundtable on a contentious question: reform.
Reformist insiders of the top three religions in Korea—Protestantism, Buddhism, Catholicism—gathered at the NewsNJoy office in Chungpa-dong, Yongsan-gu, on June 6th, 2015. The goal was to discuss solutions for each religion’s problems. The panelists for the Protestant Church were Rev. Bang In-sung, the Co-Director of the Christian Alliance for Church Reform, and Yang Heesong, the Director of Chungeoram ARMC. On the Buddhist side were Professor Woo Hee-jong, a Co-Director of The Lay Buddhist Association for Righteousness and Professor of Immunology at Seoul National University, and Kim Jong-gyu, Co-Representative of Buddhist Solidarity for Reform and attorney-at-law. Kim Geun-su, General Editor of Catholic Press and Chief Director of the Institute for the Theology of Liberation, and Father Hyun Woo-suk of the Uijeongbu Diocese participated as panelists for the Catholic side.
This roundtable is part of a series of articles concerning the state of Protestantism, Buddhism, and Catholicism. Our coverage has shown that the situation of our neighboring religions is not so different from the corruption seen in Protestantism. Most religious leaders indulge in wealth and power while ignoring the weak. A vocal minority are calling for reform from the inside — a return to the basics and more meditation on the lives of Jesus and the Buddha.
The panelists hadn’t met before but talked like old friends. The discussions focused on issues and solutions for their respective religions, and the role of religion in addressing the pain of the socially marginalized.
The leadership are prone to the lure of money, power, and sex… The laity are sidelined
First the participants examined the ways in which each religion had lost sight of its core beliefs. Most of the panelists pointed to the secularization of religious leaders. They spoke of how leaders behave like they’re above the laity and how vulnerable they seem to money, power, and sex.
Bang In-sung / Protestant — The Protestant Church is having a negative impact on Korean society. It’s fine to be interested in politics and social issues, but the Church has forgotten its prophetic voice. There’s a lot of political collusion. During campaign seasons, all a candidate (even a controversial one) has to do for the Church’s support is claim to be a Protestant. The Church has no interest in whether or not he or she brings Christian values to their politics. And this leads to religious conflict and social division. The Church is hegemonic and oblivious to justice, life, and peace.
Another problem is its coziness with the capitalist system. The Church’s wholesale imitation of the nation’s reckless focus on growth and neoliberalism has led to overlarge church buildings and overemphasis on offerings.
Yang Heesong / Protestant — This might apply to other religions as well, but the issues of money and sex particularly stand out in the Protestant Church. According to data released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, in 2006 the Catholic Church and Buddhist institutions each had an operating budget of 400 billion won. The Protestant Church, in comparison, spent about 3 trillion won. These are colossal figures. But appearances can be deceptive. The Protestant Church is 10 trillion won deep in debt with construction and private loans. Most of the offerings go straight to repaying bank loans. The Church in truth has no money. There’s a lot of capital circulating but it’s not being used where it’s needed.
On the problem of sex, the police reports released for the 2014 administrative inspections are telling. Looking at violent crimes statistics, the profession with the highest instance of sexual offenses was the religious clergy. The reports didn’t specify whether they were pastors, priests, or monks but I venture to say they were mostly pastors. In any case, the reports showed that religious leaders are especially prone to committing sexual offenses.
Another issue is the crisis of representation. Right now there is no single organization or person to who can represent the Protestant Church. The local presbyteries are failing in their responsibilities to oversee individual churches. As a result, a small number of megachurches have come to represent the rest of the church. But giving megachurches too much representative weight means that a problem with one church damages the reputation of the entire Protestant Church. We also lack a symbolic figure. There’s no one who inspires the society-wide respect of Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan or the Venerable Beopjeong.
Woo Hee-jong / Buddhist — Colluding with politics, the issues of money and sex… all this applies to the Jogye Order as well. The amount of depravity, corruption, and exploitation in our religious order is unspeakable. During campaign seasons, politicians tail our head monks around. The abbots introduce politicians at Buddhist services and the laity applaud. Illegal campaign funding is rampant. Monks use money to become head monks in their temples. A recent court hearing revealed that two head monks in an election campaign each paid out 5 million won to each of nine monks. Money is involved in all head monk elections.
What’s behind all this is distorted teaching. Buddhism today emphasizes only enlightenment. Enlightenment is being mythologized and deified, with no thought given to how to live as part of humanity. There’s no consideration of where the concept of enlightenment should lead. Monks themselves are confused. They’re in leadership yet have no idea of what leadership means, or what nirvana means. Monks keep saying you need to be enlightened, but it’s them who are in need of enlightenment.
Kim Jong-gyu / Buddhist — The problem is that Buddhism has become monk-centered—regular Buddhists just do as monks say. At root is the religious doctrine itself and its sole emphasis on enlightenment. Today’s religious order tends to center on Zen practice, which says that enlightenment comes before all else. This has led to the idea that only monks, only people with shaven heads, can approach enlightenment. Ordinary Buddhists are being made to wait their turn. Everything revolves around monks. Regular Buddhists have been reduced to spectators.
Kim Geun-su / Catholic — I think the positive image of Catholicism is overblown. In public, street priests are improving the respectability of Catholicism, but internally it’s the bishops who hold power. The problem is that the whole agenda of the Catholic Church is about the clergy. Nine times out of ten, analyses of money and power in Catholicism focus on the clergy. I’m not saying that the problem lies with them. But good or bad, they’re always in the spotlight.
Regular parishioners are forever on the sidelines. Their spiritual maturity is lacking and in sharp contrast with the impressive and well-organized public perception of Catholicism. And because of inadequate religious education, criticism of the priests in power is hard to come by. All sorts of problems come down to the clergy yet we somehow expect them to provide the solutions too.
Hyun Woo-seok / Catholic — The Catholic Church tends to follow the popular trends and values of Korean society. During the 70s and 80s, Catholicism was somewhat swept up in the passion for democratization. People who actually did something — like the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (CPAJ) — were in the minority. But CPAJ’s activities gained support because Cardinal Kim Sou-hwan’s perspective lined up with that of the laity. When Korean society later stabilized and people instead pursued economic prosperity, Catholicism switched to a similar path.
In 2013, the Uijeongbu Diocese conducted a survey of its congregation. One question asked what the parishioner would do if a law contradicted the teachings of the church, and only 25.3% said they’d go with what the church taught. There’s a mismatch between what the church is teaching and how the laity is actually living. At this rate, no matter how much the Church teaches critical thinking and how much priests lead in reforms, it’s the laity that will be holding the church back.
Religions are imitating the shamelessness of Korean society
The Korean Church is said to have taken a conservative path. Conservation of truth is a good thing but here the word ‘conservative’ has a political connotation. Most of the coalitions and megachurches that claim to represent the Church align politically with the present administration and ruling party. But this behavior isn’t true of only the Protestant Church. The panelists discussed the conservatism of the Korean religions.
Bang In-sung / Protestant — The Protestants are at the most extreme, but the other religions seem similar. No religion can get past the “Pro-North/Leftist” frame of discourse. When “Pro-North” comes up in discussion, instead of moving past this kind of dichotomy and speaking out prophetically, all rationality goes out the window — with pastors and laypeople alike. Our citizens and religions have been sucked into the framework of people who are determined to keep the far-right in power. The Church is unable to move in the direction of reform and development.
Kim Geun-su / Catholic — There’s a saying among Catholics: Give just bishops the vote and the Saenuri Party gets eternal power. Give just the laity vote: same thing. (Laughs)
Hyun Woo-seok / Catholic — Korean society in general has become shameless, and our religions look no different. Today’s Korean society is tolerant of opinions that go against all common sense and ethics. It used to be that extreme right wingers had no place in public debate; now they’re completely shameless in all they say and do. Because they know there will be no consequences to face. They feel they can say whatever they want, however extreme. That’s how far society has gone.
As I said earlier, the Catholic Church tends to follow the trends of Korean society. Last year, after Pope Francis’s visit, a bishop had this to say in the Seoul Diocese Bulletin: “If a visit from the Pope was sufficient to change the church, it would have transformed a thousand times by now.” He was answering the question, “How come nothing has changed after the Pope’s visit?” And this was his answer. That even a visit by the Pope is no use. In the past, statements like this would have been kept private, but now anything goes. For me, this is a continuation of society’s shamelessness.
Woo Hee-jong / Buddhist — Today’s Korean society knows no shame. Both Lee Myung-bak’s and Park Geun-hye’s governments have strengthened the chaebol and exploited the poor. By and large, it’s the same with the Jogye Order. Take the Dongguk University situation. The highest leadership of the Jogye Order is trampling on the democratic process and brazenly installing their own choice of president. A religious organization needs to have something different about it, but instead we’re just following trends like any other part of society.
Yang Heesong / Protestant — I agree that the society is shameless. A term that expresses this well is “snobocracy”, as coined by Professor Kim Hong-jung in his work Sociology of the Heart. After the economic crisis in the Korean society, survival has become the ultimate concern. Open expression of materialistic desires, if for the sake of survival, is socially tolerated. That’s the temper of our society and rather than oppose it religion has jumped on the bandwagon.
Is the role of religion different to that of civil society?
“The Sewol Ferry disaster distinguished the true religious people from the false.” Those are the words of one bereaved relative. The aftermath of the tragedy saw many religious people comforting families and helping practically. But these religious people had their own dilemma to ponder: the role of religious people versus the role of civic activists.
Woo Hee-jong / Buddhist — There’s one thing that frustrates me whenever I think about religion and Korean society. I felt it again when I saw how religious people responded to the Sewol Ferry disaster. The activism of religious people is not so different to that of civil society organizations. The process of healing is certainly important, but don’t religions have others messages to offer? Beyond offering comfort in sadness, grief, and anguish, there was insufficient connection to the transcendent.
Yang Heesong / Protestant — If the role of religious leaders is not simply to mobilize people to be civil activists, then we’re in need of a new method. And I think this is where spirituality comes in. General people view spirituality as being within the realm of religion. But the spiritual dimension can’t be limited to praying in cloistered rooms. It has to be expanded from the individual, to the community, to society. That’s how religion reclaims its proper role. But the Protestant Church doesn’t have the internal motivation or capacity. I don’t see any clear direction or trend.
Kim Geun-su / Catholic – In terms of social issues, religious insiders usually suggest two roles for themselves. One is to offer the transcendent faith that civil organizations cannot. Korean society is more democratic now but corruption has become part of daily life and spirituality is being offered as the only way of escape. But spiritual discussions are for specialists, not general people. Another role for religious leaders would be to stand alongside civil society organizations and cry out for justice. I see the strengthening of justice in our society as the more urgent matter. Standing with the weak is critical.
Bang In-sung / Protestant — When we speak about spirituality there’s a tendency to see it as separate from everyday life. But a proper teaching of spirituality has to include daily habits.
Only, it’s worth considering what Professor Woo Hee-jong said about how religious leaders should present a vision of the transcendent. Is standing alongside the socially marginalized through thick and thin enough? Last year a 40-day fast was held at Gwanghwamun in response to the Sewol Ferry disaster. As a religious person I didn’t know what to say on behalf of the grieving families. My words were no different from what the regular civil society organizations were saying. There may have been methodological differences to our prayers and worship services. But besides comforting the families and offering new visions, we had no prophetic message for the far-right politicians to take notice of.
I know what we should have said. We should have spoken about the biblical concept of Jubilee. If we’re going to prevent further disasters like this, the social and economic structures have to be fundamentally reorganized in the spirit of Jubilee. But this is too abstract for people who are suffering right now. And I couldn’t find anything to bridge the gap.
Woo Hee-jong / Buddhist — Does a religious person’s social participation have to be different from that of civil society organizations? I don’t think so. If there had to be any difference, it would only be in the religious motivations behind actions. All humans of course share a level of empathy for others and care about suffering. But believers find their ultimate motivation in the commands and requests of God. The problem is that religious social activists lack this kind of theological grounding. Theology is becoming less and less significant to them, and it’s getting harder to distinguish them from other civic activists.
Kim Geun-su / Catholic – Can religion give an answer to suffering? Is it capable? The South American theologians who encountered even greater social issues say that religion is not about providing answers. Religion keeps trying to give answers and comfort the suffering, but this stems from a belief that religion has the answers. We do not have the answers. We’re observers. The answers lie with the suffering people themselves. Korea’s religions really need to ponder this point. Religious people tend to interpret all life’s dilemmas through a religious lens. Whether it’s at a labor strike or after the Sewol Ferry disaster, the series of events are translated into religious language too quickly. We shouldn’t answer for sufferers when it’s the sufferers who have the answers.
Reform starts with change in the mindset of the laity
Only a minority of religious people worry about their religion’s social functions and core identity. The majority aren’t interested at all. How can they be moved? Is that even possible? As advocates for reform, each panelist was asked in what ways their religions should be transformed.
Woo Hee-jong / Buddhist — Today’s Korean society is basically operating on a neoliberal paradigm. Society as a whole is encouraging the pursuit of desire, and it’s only natural that the religious people calling for reflection and restrictions on it are in the minority. It’s important we don’t misunderstand the concept of non-possession as the total rejection of capital. Buddhism teaches that capital should not be above humanity, that humans must be masters over their capital and desires. We also can’t expect things to change overnight. The world doesn’t change that easily. Nor do humans.
Kim Jong-gyu / Buddhist — In Buddhism there’s a concept of Fourfold Community. The Buddha gathered both the monks and the laity and called them one. That’s the meaning. But in Korean Buddhism this concept is no more than a façade. The monks, especially the male monks, took ownership of the enlightenment, the money, and, with it, the power. The laity have been pushed out to the margins.
To put Fourfold Community into practice, the laity will have to watch and monitor the monks. And this has happened before — in Taiwan. Monk corruption used to be a serious problem for them. There was a real sense of crisis, that Taiwanese Buddhism itself might crumble. So the laity took the initiative. For instance, restaurant owners with meat on the menu would shoo out monks, saying, “Don’t come here with your head shaved. Come back when your hair grows out!” And today, Taiwanese Buddhism is respected by everyone. Korean Buddhism can change too. The laity should stop just submitting to monks. They need to be self-aware, as agents of reform.
Hyun Woo-seok / Catholic — Catholics just need to do what Pope Francis is saying. I’d be happy with just that. But for that to happen the Pope would have to live another hundred years. (Laughs)
Kim Geun-su / Catholic — Pope Francis’s reforms make it seem like there’s hope for mainline Catholicism, but it’s all just an illusion. Lots of people are just spectators, they’re not responding to the Pope’s reforms. At this rate, when the Pope steps down the Catholic Church will be back to its pre-reform ways in no time. But that doesn’t mean we just watch from the sidelines. Even as mainstream Catholicism calcifies into extreme conservatism, the laity needs to be awake so that the process of reform does not stop. That’s why education of the laity is so important. The answer is not with the majority. It’s at the fringes. This obviously won’t happen overnight though.
Yang Heesong / Protestant — When I consider the chances of reform for the Protestant Church, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just get out of the system and go our separate ways. Structural change seems a waste of energy. For now, though, the structure needs sustained pressure. Issues like financial transparency, gender equality, and other change agendas need consistent highlighting if we’re going to raise awareness. The role of the media is also important. As we saw a few years back in the movement in some parts of the Protestant Church to dissolve The Christian Council of Korea, consistent media coverage does somehow effect change. We need a space for public discourse on alternative solutions. We can’t just leave the issues in the hands of existing structures.
Bang In-sung / Protestant — I’ve been in the church reform movement for over ten years now. And my conclusion after all this time is that even God can’t reform the church. (Laughs) Still, church reform remains the never-ending task of the pastor.
In Protestantism we need a small church movement that values life and peace. It’s not good that megachurches have come to represent the entire Korean church. It’s a law of nature that dinosaurs go extinct. The church needs fundamental changes. In that sense, church reform is in the hands of the laity. But for this change to happen, paradoxically, the role of the minister is critical. Ministers must teach the scripture correctly and train the laity in democratic principles.
The issue of money is also important. Neoliberalism and capitalism are sweeping the world and promoting greed. It’s deluded to categorize this issue as one of personal ethics, as is forcing our congregations to live simply. Religion needs insight that answers the questions of economic structure. Should the Koreas eventually unite we’ll need an alternative economic system that goes beyond the extreme socialism of the North and the extreme pariah capitalism of the South. Religion must play its part.
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