Leaps of Faith
by Peter Beck
Weekly Chosun and Korea Herald, Koreaphile Column
Published 2 September 2007

When I learned that 23 Korean missionaries had been abducted in Afghanistan, I told my wife, "Looks like another group of crazy Korean Christians." It struck me as the height of recklessness and foolishness to take a group of inexperienced Christian relief workers into the heart of Taliban country. My wife responded by informing me that the leader of the group, Rev. Bae Hyeong-kyu, who would soon be the first executed, was a relative. Now that this tragedy has been resolved with the release of the last 19 hostages, I have been forced to confront my own attitudes about God and Christianity in Korea.

As son-in-law #3, even though I am very close to son-in-law #4 (my family slept on his family's floor when we moved to Korea three years ago and we would move nearby), I had not met his younger brother, Rev. Bae. I did know that like my wife's family, he and his family are devout Christians. In fact, I am one of the only non-religious people in my wife's entire extended family. When word came that he had been killed and I was interviewed by America's most influential radio network, National Public Radio, I felt like I had been rather cold and detached. Indeed, a close friend who heard the interview would later inform me that my lack of religiousness came through the interview loud and clear. However, after spending that evening with my brother-in-law and learning about what amazing humanitarian work his brother had done in Africa and the risks taken and sacrifices made by Western missionaries to bring Christianity to Korea, the next interview I did for CNN was much more sympathetic. To my regret, I would receive dozens of messages about the NPR interview, but none about the CNN interview.

As fate would have it, we spent our very last evening in Korea with Rev. Bae's parents and siblings. I was impressed with how their deep faith was guiding them through unfathomable grief. Rev. Bae's mother told me, "Our son is with God now. My concern is for the families who are waiting for their loved ones to return." I have genuine respect for those who have been able to make the leap of faith that I have not been able to take. I also have great admiration for the good deeds done by Christian missionaries. For example, some of Korea's leading schools and hospitals would not exist but for the sacrifices and devotion of people with names like Underwood, Linton and Scranton. Despite knowing this history, I would not fully appreciate the Christian commitment to helping others until I visited the Nanji-do Dump in 1989 with several of my students. The only people I could see trying to help Korea's poorest were Christian aid-workers. I witnessed this more recently at the Chinese border with North Korea. Only two types of people are willing to risk their lives to help North Koreans trying to flee the North: brokers working for money and missionaries working for God. At some point, we must each decide how much risk we are willing to take to help others. Those of strong faith tend to be more risk-taking than those of us with little faith.

Despite all of these admirable qualities, I must take issue with some aspects of Christianity and the way it is practiced in Korea. For most Christians, along with this desire to help others comes an equally strong zeal to share their faith in God with their fellow man. Unfortunately, in Korea, the tendency to proselytize can be overwhelming. Even though I have only lived in Korea for six years, I have been asked if I believe in God or if I would like to go to church by Koreans far more than I have ever been asked by Americans. I find it particularly offensive to be yelled at about Heaven and Hell when I am on the subway trying to read the newspaper. If one of these bible-thumpers lingers in my car too long, I have learned to ask, "By any chance, are you from North Korea?" Even though I invariably receive a negative reply, I follow by asking, "Then why do you keep talking about The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il?" It occurred to me all too recently that the voice used in subway sermons was shockingly similar to the voice used in official North Korean broadcasts. Several years ago, one of these Korean hellfire and brimstone types became so notorious in Washington, DC that the Washington Post did a story about him.

I also have great difficulty with the notion that the Christian God is the only God. I am comfortable with the notion of Heaven and Hell, but the idea that followers of Buddha, Mohammed, Vishnu or whomever are destined to go to Hell--along with all non-believers--is unacceptable to me. A former Catholic nun-turned religious historian, Karen Armstrong, came up with a term to describe herself which I find most appealing-a freelance monotheist. To me, the only difference between a religion and a cult is the amount of time that has elapsed since the belief system came into being. Why should Jews view Christians any differently than the vast majority of Christians view Moonies or Scientologists? Mormons find themselves somewhere in between: It has been almost 200 years since Joseph Smith discovered the Book of Mormon. America's religious tolerance is being put to the test by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon. Public opinion polls show that his religion is having little impact on his candidacy, while in Korea, such a person would be unelectable. Regardless of one's religious views, all American politicians must conclude their speeches by saying, "God bless America!" Invariably, this leads me to wonder, why not have God bless the entire world? I am also deeply troubled by the conflicts in the world that are fueled by religious differences, be it Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland or Sunnis vs. Shiites in Iraq.

Several weeks ago, I found myself flying over Japan right in the middle of Typhoon Man-yi. As we made our descent to land in Fukuoka, the turbulence became rougher than anything I had ever experienced. When women began to scream, the flight attendant announced that the turbulence would not affect the landing, but moments later, just as we were about to land, the pilot aborted the landing and we were back up in the sky. After circling for what seemed like an eternity as the pilot decided whether to head for another airport or try to land again, he opted for a second try. As we made our approach, I was on edge as visions of a crash danced through my head. But instead of having a conversation with God, I debated whether I should call my wife and daughter to tell them that I loved them, ultimately deciding not to call for fear of disrupting communications with the control tower. After an extremely bumpy landing, a round of applause broke out through the cabin. I realized that I was not ready to have a conversation with God.

Perhaps someday I will be ready to take the leap of faith, but until then, please don't ask me to attend your church-my wife is too busy trying to get me to attend hers! __________________________ Peter M. Beck
Executive Director
U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
1025 F Street, NW, Suite 800
Washington, DC 20004-1409 USA
Tel: 202-378-9579
Fax: 202-378-9407
Cell: 202-870-2641
E-mail: hrnk_org@hotmail.com
Web: www.hrnk.org

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"A Brewing Revolution?", Oct. 20,2007

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