[Episcopal News Service – Seoul, South Korea] The Rev. Jeremiah Yang, former president of the Sungkonghoe University in Seoul and a theologian, on Oct. 2 here called the Christian church back to a theology of mission based on the “compassionate relationship with suffering people.”
Yang used the April 16, 2014 sinking of the MV Sewol ferry boat, which killed 304 passengers and crew, as an example for how he said the Christian church in South Korea had strayed from the gospel. The owner of the company that controlled the ferry boat was Yoo Byung-eun, who before his suspicious death in July 2014 also headed the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea and had spent time in prison for diverting church money to his many businesses and to his personal life.
Too much emphasis has been placed on a particularly Korean interpretation of the prosperity gospel, a theology that helped grow megachurches in South Korea, Yang said, but also was linked to the rapid industrialization of the country and its growing economy. The result has been a “collusion of a distorted Christian spirituality and greedy capitalism.”
National Christian leaders beyond Yoo’s church, Yang said, were unsympathetic to the grief of the family members of those killed in the disaster, with one saying the students, who were poor, should not have taken such an expensive trip.
Saying “we are not people who have solutions for all the problems” in the world and noting that after the ferry disaster “all the theological solutions that had been given to us were helpless,” Yang called for the church to renew its commitment to a ministry of presence with those who suffer. Empathy and the spirit of compassion grows out of that commitment, and they can transform individuals, the church, and the nation, he said.
“In the end, the mission-shaped church is the hope that the church and individual lives should be radically transformed by the commitment to God’s mission beyond church boundaries,” he said.
Yang’s presentation was part of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries’ Sept. 30-Oct. 5 international consultation here. He spoke at the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in downtown Seoul, the main venue for the gathering.
The text of Yang’s speech follows.
Mission Shaped Spirituality: The Spirituality of Compassion
① I am very happy to see all of you here in this time and in this county. Your sister church, the Anglican Church of Korea is now commemorating the 125 years’ history of mission in this country, where the scars of colonialism and cold war are still very much on peoples’ heart.
② Koreans have passed various hardships and sufferings. I believe that Koreans’ dream for peace and reconciliation has been tempered and schooled by the history full of ups and downs.
③ I really hope you could have an opportunity to meet Koreans’ earnest wishes for peace and reconciliation during your stay in this country.
① Today, I would like to speak about my theological and missionary reflection on spirituality.
② My reflection about spirituality will be related with the issue of mission-shaped spirituality. Many of you have already heard about the concept of mission-shaped church. It is an effort to restore the missionary nature of Church. It is also a recognition that our commitment into the Mission of God will reform and reshape our church. The concept of mission-shaped spirituality is a new approach to spirituality, which is emerging with the concept of the mission-shaped church.
③ My though on spirituality is not started from the history of theological thoughts or one of giant theologians.
④ As many of you still remember, on April 16 last year, we have experienced the tragic disaster of a ferry boat sinking.
⑤ The passenger boat called Sewol left Incheon port at 9:00 in the evening on the 15th of April last year, and was expected to arrive at Jeju island at noon next day.
⑥ 476 passengers including 33 crews, 104 civilians and the 325 students and 14 teachers of one high-school were on board. Those students and teachers were going toward Jeju Island for their school trip.
⑦ Next day morning 8:50, the ferry boat passing through a fast-flowing waterway among the islands in the Southwestern coast of Korea suddenly started to sink.
⑧ At 8:58 in the morning, the ferry boat’s distress signal was received by Korea Maritime Police.
⑨ From around 9:10 in the morning, Television News programs started to report about the disaster.
⑩ At 10:30, the ferry boat suddenly started to topple down toward left hand side.
⑪ Around 11:00 in the morning, the Sewol ferry is submerged under the surface of the water.
⑫ 174 passengers were saved by the very slow and disordered rescue operation. But 304 passengers including 250 high school students suddenly disappeared under the surface. For more than two hours until the boat was eventually sunken to the bottom of the sea, some passengers and students who were inside the sinking ferry had exchanged text messages with their parents, families or friends. The urgent and pressing situation inside of the sinking ferry was known to their intimate friends and families. Those who watched television screen could imagine what was happening inside of the sinking ferry boat. They know that their families, relatives and their beloved children inside the ferry were still arrive even at the moment the ferry was eventually sunken under water.
⑬ It was like a gruesome torture for those who could not do anything. It was two hours of self-reproach and agony even for those who are outside of the ferry.
⑭ State systems for crisis control were absolutely paralyzed and helplessness. Parliament and politicians seemed to be busy in the calculation of political benefits.
⑮ In a few days, people began to realize that the disaster was already anticipated. All the inspection systems were not applied for the Sewol ferry boat and her owner and her company. The owner and the company of the ferry were deeply connected with political powers. Furthermore, the owner was a well-known Christian, and his shipping company was established by a Christian sect called the Evangelical Baptist Church, which is a group belonging to the Holy Spirit Movement called Guwonpa. Of course the owner of the company was a top leader of that religious sect. This Guwonpa is a revival or Holy Spirit movement taking a critical stance against the old pentecostal movement which had ruled Korean evangelical churches since 1960.
⑯ We were getting to realize that behind the disaster were all kinds of corruptions, briberies and cozy relationships between political and business powers and the religious group. Many theologians and sociologists in Korea have asserted that the teachings of Pentecostal Holy Spirit movement were deeply connected with the ideology of capitalism or with a greedy capitalist spirit. But the concern was not only a theoretical possibility. The Sewol ferry disaster showed us very clearly the fact that the revivalist movement group has been deeply connected with political and economic powers. It looked like to see a monster who had been grown up in the collusion of a distorted Christian spirituality and greedy capitalism.
⑰ We have seen the true face of, so called, one plus two gospel, salvation plus health and prosperity gospel. This one plus two gospel is exactly connected with the spirit of the industrialization or modernization of Korea. If the industrialization or modernization was a national project, the one plus two gospel was the spirituality for individuals who had to survive in the capitalist market economy system. Of course, it is true that the one plus two gospel have contributed for church growth in Korea. It is a theology by which many Korean mega churches have been made. But the one plus two gospel represents a spirituality which has ruled our way of life during the period of rapid industrialization. The ferry disaster disclosed the naked face of one plus two gospel and demanded us to reflect critically our way of life continued for more than half century. Is it right or not to continue the way of life we have kept in the hope that industrialization could solve all the problems of our life?
How did Korean Society and Churches Respond to the Disaster
① Very sadly, Korean society and churches were helplessness even in the process after the disaster. From the beginning, government tried to mislead the nature of the disaster. For them it was not an event but an accident, an exceptional case which could not give any impact on the normal process of society. Therefore, the questions about the behind or causes of the disaster were unnecessary and dangerous for them. Although the disaster could be a temporal issue of safety or security, it should not be the fundamental issue of human relationships, social structures and our way of life. Therefore, the continued cries of those victims’ families were sometimes described as an uncivilized barbarian behavior.
② Major Christian churches in this country were not only helpless but also very offensive against victims and their families. They did not do anything to prevent the suffering of Korean society. They did not lament and mourn with the victims’ families and friends. They had already lost the basic duty of a priestly community sent by God.
③ The Easter Sunday of the year was just 4 days after the disaster. Most of major churches in the city of Seoul have celebrated Easter and preached usual Easter sermons. Against this situation of major churches, a theologian criticized that Korean churches had already lost “the ability of mourning and reflection.” He wrote, “it is the amnesia of mourning, the loss of the ability to mourn. It is the result of Korean churches’ long standing fault which have emphasized only the glory of resurrection and turned away their faces from the suffering of cross.”
④ We know that there can be both inherited and cultivated abilities. We know that we can develop a particular ability through the repeated practices. If Christian churches have been in the repeated experiences of mourning, they would not be in silence and embarrassment. Very painfully, we have to confess that there was no church in the midst of the disaster. As time goes, many of mega church leaders had accompanied with those powerful peoples who blamed the victims’ families’ cry and resistance as barbarianism. The vice chair of the Christian Council of Korea, which is an ecumenical organization constituted of evangelical and conservative churches, said, “Why did such poor students go to Jeju island? There were many places which was neither expensive nor far away from their school.” The former chair of the National Church Council of Korea had preached that God sacrificed those students in order to save the county which was now sinking down. They are not only unsympathetic but also offensive to those victims and their families. In the situation where the whole nation felt sadness and empathy with the victims and their families, some of mega churches and their leaders had very actively supported the government to cover up the truth of the disaster. Furthermore, they did very aggressively criticized the victims and their families.
⑤ For me, the ferry disaster looks like a kind of theological disaster. In such a tragic situation, we could not speak like the former chair of KNCC. Such an expression that God sacrificed those victims with a particular aim could be a theological statement on the theodicy of God. But I am sure it was another violence against those victims’ families who cry even now for the truth of the disaster, because it forces them not to search for the truth of the disaster but to accept the situation as an unavoidable destiny.
⑥ The disaster made a situation in which all the theological explanations about God’s existence and power become useless. It seemed to be an experience of the absence of God. It reminded me of the Jesus disciples’ experience of the empty tomb. How can we talk about God in such a situation of absence?
⑦ In the midst of disaster, what we could do was only the effort to feel together with those victims and their families. We just cried with them. Although they were not our families and friends, we could gradually get to recognize that my own individual life has been deeply connected with them in the lives, sufferings and struggles of those victims and their families. We just listened to their cries and cried with them. Except that, there was nothing we could do.
⑧ Although we did not give up our thinking about God, we could not speak on God who exists over or outside the disaster situation. What shook us and awakened us was just the cries of the victims’ families and friends. Their cry looked like God’s invitation for us to the deeper and wider relationships with others and with God.
⑨ Jesus himself went to the cross. On the cross, Jesus himself became the absence of God and the absence of God’s power. Furthermore, he became the people’s cry itself in his last words. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Here, we see the real depth of his mercy and his compassion to cry and feel together with peoples.
⑩ However, he was not locked in the tomb. He went among peoples. The story of Jesus who in the end became the cry of people, now became their own stories.
⑪ They had live and shared the memory of Jesus Christ on the cross. According to this example of Jesus, what we can do, in the face of the hardships and sufferings of peoples, is not to give a good explanation about God’s existence and power, but to listen to their voices and to feel together with them. If we can really feel together with them, we can share the story of Jesus Christ who himself became the cry of the weak and the victim.
More reflections on lament, mourning and memory
① I believe that we become a real human being in the relationship of listening and telling. If a person can be a real human being through the communication with others, we can understand that the suffering people’s cry is not only the strong desire to communicate with others about their suffering, but also a struggle to be a real human being.
② God in the Bible is very sensitive to the cry of suffering people. Listening to the cry, God feels their desires to communicate and to be a real human being. When nobody tries to listen to them, God listens, feels together with them and responds to them.
③ The oldest form of the Israeli confession of faith, which is written in the Book of Deuteronomy, shows us the image of the most merciful God. Let me read the verses, “26:6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 26:7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 26:8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders”
④ This is God who are listening and responding to the cry of Israelis, and God who emphatically feels together with those suffering Israeli people.
In the Bible, the words like mercy and compassion are the terms to describe God’s attribute of listening to the cry of suffering people and feeling together with them. The words were originated with the Hebrew word “rahum”(רָחַם). Biblical scholars explain that the Hebrew word “rahum” is a form developed from the noun form “rehem” which means “womb or uterus”. They think that the abstract words like mercy and compassion had been developed from the physical image of female womb.
⑤ Through the womb, mother and the baby inside her womb feel everything together. Phyllis Trible wrote, “The womb protects and nourishes but does not possess and control. It yields its treasure in order that wholeness and well-being may happen. Truly, it is the way of compassion.” As mother feels together with baby, merciful and compassionate God feels together with the suffering and crying people, and protect them, and nourish them.
⑥ Jesus also listened to the cry of suffering people and responded to them. When Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar of Jericho, cried out “have mercy on me”, while nobody wants to listen to him, but Jesus listened to him. When Jesus heard the cry of the father whose son was possessed by evil spirit, while most of peoples around didn’t want to listen to him, but Jesus listened and responded to the cry. When Jesus met ten lepers asking his mercy, he responded in the same way. Jesus was one who can most sensitively listen to and feel the cry of suffering peoples.
⑦ The epistle to Romans shows us the Holy Spirit who is lamenting and groaning with us and with all the creatures. In Roman 8; 26, the Holy Spirit is described like this, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Holy Spirit is God who is listening, feeling and groaning with the suffering people and all the creatures. Creatures have not words to express, the sigh or groaning is only language to express their suffering. Those who are in the suffering and hardship are also groaning and crying, particularly in the situation that communication is stopped and the words are not enough to express their suffering. In that situation, the Holy Spirit is God who become their voices and prayers.
⑧ When people experience a critical moment that the hardship of their life overwhelms all the possibilities of hope, they cry to heaven saying “have mercy on me.” On the borderline between the abyss of self-destruction and the hope of a new life, they cry for someone who can listen to their suffering and struggle. Our God is most sensitively responding to the cry.
⑨ From the ferry boat disaster, we are now learning that the lamenting, crying and weeping with the weak or victims have a great power to make them move toward hope from desperation.
⑩ Furthermore, I think, crying and feeling together with the victims and their families and friends seemed to have very important meanings for all. It was a process in which all of us did our best to remember the disaster. It is a process in which we all of us are making a common memory on the disaster. The stories of victims and their families were met with our own stories. All the stories have developed into a common story or memory. In the common story, the new meanings of life have been revealed for all the peoples who are related with the disaster. As we cry and feel together with victims and their families, we participate in the process of making a common memory. I believe this new and common memory about the disaster can be realized through the radical transformation of our way of life. Even in this moment, to remember the ferry disaster is with our decision to transform the old way of our life. When we understand compassion in the sense of crying and feeling together, the movement started from compassion is moving toward memory making and eventually to the transformation of our life and society. Therefore, the compassionate relationship with suffering peoples is the starting point of the process of transformation. The compassionate relationship with others is just a spirituality crying and feeling together with the weak and the victim.
Spirituality is the human nature which takes after God
① Let us move to mission. How to restore the missionary nature of church? We know this is a very urgent and important question.
② One of responses to this question is the concept of mission shaped church.
③ The mission shaped church comes from a critical reflection on a conventional attitude on mission, so called church shaped mission. It is a suggestion that we have to let our mission experiences make the new shape of church, in the same way as the first Christian churches had emerged from the missionary experiences in the changed circumstance.
④ In the end, the mission shaped church is a hope that church and individual life should be radically transformed by the commitment into God’s mission beyond church boundary.
⑤ I have tried to explain the process of the transformation. It is a process started from the compassionate relationship with the weak and the victim. First of all, as we follow the merciful and compassionate God, we have to live with the spirituality which we can crying and feeling together with those who are in the hardship of their life.
⑥ Mission shaped church support the mission from the margin, not the mission toward the margin. We are not peoples who have solutions for all the problems taking place in the margin. In the Sewol ferry disaster, all the theological solutions which have been given to us were helpless. There was no way to meet and share together with the victims’ family in the given theological solutions. The only way to be with them was to cry and feel together with them. I believe this spirituality of compassion could make possible that we are transformed by the experience of mission.
⑦ Finally, I would like to share what we have experienced a couple of weeks ago in this cathedral.
⑧ On the 19th of September, on exactly same day that Japan’s parliament has passed 11 security bills that will allow the country’s Self-Defense Forces to fight alongside its allies even if Japan is not under attack, at Seoul plaza, we had a memorial service with the remains of 115 Koreans who were drafted by force during the Japanese occupation and died in the north end of Japan. Their remains have been excavated by the voluntary workers of both Korea and Japan. By the initiative of the civic groups of both countries, those remains eventually returned to Korea. There are still the remains of 3000 Koreans who are waiting to return to their home in Korea.
⑨ The memorial service was celebrated in the very ecumenical setting. All the religious groups from Korea and mainly Buddhists from Japan have participated in the celebration.
⑩ All the participants including a dancer and two vocalists did their best to hear the cries of those Koreans who had died in Japanese coal mines.
⑪ The most impressive and moving speech was delivered by a Japanese Buddhist priest. He told us in a very calm voice, “The prime minister and parliament of Japan is now going to give guns to the hands of Japanese peoples. But what the young peoples in both Korea and Japan have to take in their hand is a spade to excavate the remains of the victims sacrificed by the state violence. The Japanese priest who have participated in the excavation project for more than twenty years told us, the excavation and the final travel of 115 Koreans from the northern end of Japan to Seoul Korea was a journey to hear the silenced cries of those victims.
⑫ I felt that I had met a true priest, who could hear the voices silenced by state violence, who could really cry together with those Koreans who had died in Japanese coal mines. I am sure that I saw a good example of mission shaped spirituality. It was just the spirituality of compassion.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 12, 2015 at 10:50 a.m. EDT to add the text of the keynote address as provided by the presenter.