The Korean Christian Phenomenon

In no major country has Christianity spread so rapidly as in Korea. As late as 1912, according to figures cited by the late Kenneth Scott Latourette, Protestants and Catholics in Korea totaled some 175,000 out of a population of around 15,000,000. That was after a remarkable Christian revival had swept across Korea at the turn of the century. The latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates there are 3 million Protestant Christians now in South Korea alone out of a population of about 33 million.

The growth of the Church has come despite great adversity, particularly war and political turmoil. And Korean Christianity is not the nominal variety: a solidly biblical perspective has been its dominant characteristic.

Therefore it seems appropriate that this is the country where a new record should be established, and history made. That such a mark has been set seems sure enough (see News, page 33). What other Christian event ever attracted more people to one place at one time?

Korea has had a very impressive yearly increase in gross national product for more than a decade. It has a favorable balance-of-payments account. Its people, especially those in leadership roles, are well educated, and many of them are Christians. Seoul has more large and active churches than any other comparably sized city in the world. One would hardly suppose that huge multitudes of Koreans would turn out for an evangelistic rally that concentrated on the presentation of the simple gospel message without a call for revolution, a synthesizing of Christ and Marx, or a socio-political harangue of the kind so common to church gatherings in our day. Perhaps this reinforces the point that presenting the saving Gospel of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is still the valid mission of the Church.

Latourette, distinguished professor of missions and Oriental history at Yale and the unchallenged dean of church historians during the latter part of his life, seemed somewhat at a loss to explain the Korean Christian phenomenon. He did suggest the importance of the fact that religiously Korea presented a partial vacuum. “None of the other religions had much hold,” he wrote.

In the new and fluid society Christianity had an opportunity such as offered itself in peoples of primitive or near-primitive cultures. In the uncertainties of the day many Koreans welcomed it with the sense of security which it gave in a world where the inherited structures were crumbling and the hereditary beliefs about the universe were undermined [Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: The Twentieth Century Outside Europe].
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Perhaps when one starts from scratch, the Christian faith has a much greater appeal than it does in situations where false ideologies must first be undone. This suggests that in areas where Christianity is meeting great resistance, perhaps breaking down intellectual prejudices is a major evangelistic challenge. To the extent that this is done, the receptivity to the Gospel may not be unlike that in Korea.

A Man Worth Examining

Here and there through history are men who believed that “talk is cheap” and who set about to pay the full price of liberty for themselves and others. In the rear guard of these stands a little-known Congregational clergyman of the nineteenth century named Asa Mahan, who literally believed that all men are created equal.

A group of scholars met recently at Asbury College to discuss Mahan, the philosophy that underlay his great revolution of social reform, and what it can mean for us today. Mahan was the first president of Oberlin College—a position he took after leaving the trusteeship of Lane Theological Seminary because of its policy of excluding blacks. He assumed the new career on the condition that the school would henceforth be interracial.

The conference highlighted some of the distinctives maintained by Mahan and others of the school of Common Sense Realism—“The Scottish Philosophy.” That ideology, which permeated American thought from the time of the American Revolution until the rise of modern pragmatism, assigns ultimate metaphysical priority to “common-sense” ideas and the rationality and moral intuitiveness of man. As Mahan perceived it, the philosophy also included touches of Arminian theology, revivalism, and religious and social perfectionism.

With this combination of ideals Mahan established Oberlin, which became the first college to give women degrees on the same terms as men, the first college to grant a theological degree to a woman, and the center of abolitionism during the 1830s and -40s. For Mahan, faith and the work at hand were synonymous.

Mahan was a prolific author and left a great deal of writing worthy of study by Christians who seek to relate their faith to societal problems. Inquiries such as the one sponsored by Asbury should be encouraged.

No Memo For Brezhnev

On the eve of Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to the United States, still no substantial effort had been made to express concern over the repression of Christians in the Soviet Union. The Kremlin theoretically guarantees freedom of religion but in fact denies it to many Christians. Some languish in prison for their beliefs. Many others are inhibited in the practice of their faith and discriminated against in education and employment. Yet precious little has been done in the free world to mobilize responsible opinion in their behalf. Our indifference has been downright appalling.

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American diplomats have been able to put the plight of Jews on their agenda for discussion with Soviet leaders—and, indeed, Soviet Jews have been granted some concessions—largely because American Jews have made the matter a major issue. Christians have not. Until we do, we deprive our government of the leverage it needs to demand redress.

Who Should Perform Marriages?

There have always been “marrying parsons” of dubious integrity. The phenomenon has recently come to light again in connection with the growth of mail-order ordination mills, and in some states there have been court cases.

So what? Do the services of mail-order “ministers” make it possible for couples to be married who should not have been and otherwise would not have been? Hardly, since civil officials have long performed weddings with no questions asked that can’t be answered, “I do.”

We believe it is not the state’s business to distinguish legal from illegal ordinations. That is a religious matter. Professing Christians are deeply divided over it: witness the difficulties of merging denominations claiming the “historic episcopacy” with those that don’t. Instead, states should repeal laws that automatically grant the right to perform marriages to clergy as a class.

We propose that the states issue licenses to perform marriages much as they issue permits to operate cars. The applicant would have to meet certain age and competence requirements (including knowledge of the pertinent civil laws and the penalties for violating them) and pay a fee to obtain a license. The license would require renewal every year or so. Temporary licenses for nonresidents who were registered in their home states could be issued by mail.

This procedure would eliminate one of the last vestiges of the days of legally “established” churches. It would keep the state from deciding who is a “true” minister while still allowing it to stop gross incompetents from performing marriages. It would, of course, allow traditional ministers to continue marrying. And it would remove the restrictions that now deny to members of many genuine but non-clerical religious groups, Christian and non-Christian, old and new, the privilege of having co-religionists preside at their weddings.

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Parting With Partisanship

On May 29 Los Angeles, America’s third-largest city, elected city councilman Thomas Bradley mayor. Bradley is a Negro in a city in which only about 15 per cent of the electorate is black. While his unsuccessful opponent, the incumbent mayor, was making charges of bloc voting by Negroes in a thinly disguised effort to get bloc votes of other racial groups in his behalf, Bradley appealed to the voters to choose their mayor on the basis of his personal qualifications, not his race. And the Angelenos evidently followed his advice, for racial loyalties could not have produced Bradley’s victory.

One day later, presidential elections were held in the Republic of Ireland. There a Protestant of English antecedents, Erskine Childers, defeated Catholic Tom O’Higgins, the candidate of the governing coalition. The population of the Irish republic is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, and animosity toward the English runs understandably high after centuries of subjugation by England and in the midst of a continuing controversy with the United Kingdom over the six counties that constitute British northern Ireland.

It is only natural for voters to feel an affinity for members of their own racial, national, or religious community. But it is heartwarming in a pluralistic democracy when people demonstrate their belief that they can be properly represented by someone outside their own ethnic or religious group.

A bloc vote gives tremendous leverage in the political process, and it is always a great temptation to politicians to try to get one bloc or another solidly behind them. But apparently voters in two widely separated communities, Los Angeles and Ireland—which have certainly not been free of intergroup tensions—proved capable of voting for a candidate for what he is as a man, not as a member of some special group. We congratulate the new mayor and president and urge voters elsewhere to emulate the example set by the Angelenos and the Irish.

The Blessings Of Forgetfulness

A good memory is an enviable possession. It’s very useful to be able to recall facts when you need them. We all wish at times that our mental reservoirs were larger, that we could store up more knowledge and retrieve it at a moment’s notice.

But we should also be thankful that we can forget. Sometimes it is beneficial to our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to avoid thinking about certain past experiences. Guilt over wrong-doing is perhaps the most obvious kind of memory worth avoiding, if the sin is forgiven and any needed restitution has been made. There are also inevitable confrontations in life that in the interests of good health should be forgotten as soon as possible. For instance, all of us get criticized, sometimes unjustly. We can let criticism seethe and fester in our minds and take a disproportionately large place in our thinking. Or we can try to sift the criticism objectively, take steps to correct any real faults it reveals, and then forget it!

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Purposeful forgetfulness helps one deal with temptations, whether they stem from materialism, lust, or power. The Christian can through conscious effort crowd temptations out of his mind in the way prescribed by Paul to the Philippians (4:8): “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (RSV), “whatever is excellent and admirable—fill all your thoughts with these things” (NEB). “Fix your minds” on them, as Phillips put it. If we do, God will extend us the gift of forgetfulness to take care of the others.

This in no way justifies non-involvement, or a head-in-the-sand attitude. Evil needs to be dealt with, not simply forgotten. But in our minds we should make sure that good overcomes the evil, for that is the way history is going to come out.

New Emphasis Afoot

Johnny Cash has switched from selling Amoco’s gas to promoting conservation of that gas. And BP, Sunoco, and Mobil, too, now seem to gear advertising to solutions for the energy crisis. As more gas stations curtail service and impose ten-gallon limits, we all will become aware of just how serious the problem threatens to become. Limiting speed and cultivating other economical driving habits is only a partial solution.

While we can hardly expect a major reduction in automobile usage, short-distance driving might be curtailed. (This might also result in a reduction in accidents, since many happen close to home.) A few years ago bike-riding was touted as a non-polluting method of getting about. Now it is seen to have another big plus: the fuel it doesn’t consume. The bike is a good bet for those little trips that don’t involve much cargo—to the post office or bakery or library, perhaps, or, for a sizable number of people, to the job. Interest in bikes is increasing, so much so that some states and communities are willing to finance bike paths, and developers are including paths in plans for new communities. For longer distances, good stewardship prompts us to try for public transportation.

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Another good possibility for short-distance travel is the human foot, an appendage many of us have forgotten. Unfortunately, some suburban communities built during the past few decades do not have sidewalks.

If you are among the many who walk only from the front door to the car door, try becoming a pedaler and a pedestrian. You may well find that besides the benefits to personal and environmental health, foot power offers you more opportunities to “consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars,” and the rest of God’s good earth.

Soldier, Athlete, Farmer

The Viet Nam war has done much to tarnish the image of the soldier in our society: the highly-publicized commercialization of sports has made the figure of the dedicated and disciplined athlete a less inspiring ideal than it may have been in the past; the continuing rise in food prices, though undoubtedly not primarily the fault of the farmer, has reduced his popularity among the general public. Paul, in writing to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:4–6), evokes these three callings to illustrate important characteristics of the consistent Christian life. Because soldiers, athletes, and farmers may be less honored in our day than in his, perhaps we would do well to reflect on the qualities Paul finds in them.

The soldier, as Paul sees him, is characterized by an intense and single-minded loyalty to his commander. This sentiment may be hard to recapture today, when the mechanism of drafting or recruitment, training, and even command has become highly impersonal. But in Paul’s day soldiers were often recruited and trained by the commander of the unit in which they would then serve for many years. Historians of ancient warfare remind us of the often decisive importance of morale in ancient battles; a deep personal loyalty to and confidence in one’s commander were certainly tremendous aids to victory—provided the commander was worthy of that confidence.

The athlete, like the soldier, had to be characterized by a certain single-mindedness of purpose. But whereas the rules of warfare were not well developed in antiquity, those of athletic competition were. In athletics, it was not permissible to use any means one chose to gain one’s end: it was necessary not only to compete, but to compete within a certain frame of reference. One characteristic of athletic rules is an apparent arbitrariness: the rules may have an underlying purpose, e.g., to develop certain skills and reflexes, but often their chief function seems to be only to provide for an orderly competition—different rules might appear to work equally well. Nevertheless, for a particular game, there must be particular rules. And the very existence of “rules of the game” is an indication of the fact that it is just a game, and that there is something more important to the players than winning it. A general who wins a war by irregular means is seldom criticized by his grateful nation, but an athlete who transgresses the rules is disqualified. From this simile the Christian can learn that while he is to imitate the soldier in single-minded commitment to his Lord, he is not to adopt the military maxim: victory at any price. There is no one standard, of course, but there must be a discernible pattern. If the pattern is drastically violated, then the “game” is no longer Christian discipleship but something else.

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Like the athlete, the farmer must abide by rules, but rules of a different sort. He must plan his labors in the light of certain realities that are imbedded in the nature of the created order. The athlete might imagine creating a different game, with different principles, but the farmer’s work is governed by the realities of life as it is. If he wants to harvest, he must plant at the right time and in the right way.

By these illustrations, then, Paul urges his readers to recognize three important elements of mature discipleship: intense personal commitment to Christ, a willingness to “play by the rules,” i.e., to conform oneself to a certain pattern for Christian living, and the realization that acceptable patterns for Christian living and the sometimes difficult disciplines they impose are not merely arbitrary decrees but are rooted in the order of creation, and correspond to realities within man and his environment.

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