Nach Pusan: The Impact - Korean Churches

ÖRK-Vollversammlung in Pusan:  29.10. - 08.11.2013 > danach

KIM Dong-Sung
The Impact of the Future Work of the Churches in Korea –
Impulse, Results and Perspectives for the Asian Context.

KIM Dong-Sung ist Asia Secretary beim ÖRK, Genf

I have been asked by the organizers of this conference to present my reflection on the various aspects and meaning of the Busan assembly for the Korean churches. I would like to make my contribution by focusing on the three key words that have been given to me in the title of the program, “impulse”, “results” and “perspectives”. I would also like to incorporate some “implications” that I think will need further work and constructive follow up on the part of the WCC in the years to come. This would help to enhance the output of the assembly by strengthening the stimuli that can encourage the contribution of the churches in Asia to the ecumenical movement.

Let us begin by looking at the “impulse”, or motivation. I think the one word that might express the motivation of the Korean churches for hosting the 10th assembly of the WCC would be “enthusiasm”.

It is important for us to remember that this was not the first attempt by the Korean churches to host an assembly of the WCC. Already in 2002 an offer was submitted by the Korean Methodist Church to host the 9th assembly of the WCC. However, as we know already, the 9th assembly was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This second attempt was different from the first and was significant in expressing the enthusiasm of the Korean churches because the offer to host the assembly was submitted by all four member churches of the WCC. In addition, this was further supported by all the members of the NCCK, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Korea and the Korean Christian Federation in North Korea.

Many within the Korean churches seem to have reached a shared perception that it was now necessary and appropriate for the Korean churches to make a meaningful contribution to the ecumenical movement, and also to the world church. The Korean churches wanted to share with world Christianity their experiences of spirituality expressed in worship and prayer; the various ministries of social engagement; their passion for evangelism and mission. Much had been said about the Korean churches being one of the strongest churches in the South to transition from a missionary and aid receiving church to a missionary sending church that was able to provide financial assistance to other churches in other parts of the world. Therefore, the Korean churches felt that hosting an assembly of the WCC would provide the appropriate moment for such sharing and contribution.

By hosting and assembly of the WCC the Korean churches also wanted to highlight the long standing and continuing division of the Korean peninsula as an ecumenical agenda. The WCC and the ecumenical movement had been instrumental in supporting and accompanying the movements for justice, peace and democracy in Korea. The Korean churches wanted the 10th assembly to provide an opportunity for further strengthening and enhancing this ecumenical solidarity and accompaniment. The year 2013 was significant for Korea in terms of peace, life and justice. It was 60 years since the armistice was signed to put a temporary cease fire in place. Therefore the Korean churches hoped that hosting an assembly of the WCC would provide a potential source of renewing the Korean churches efforts towards building peace on the Korean peninsula, and eventually leading to the reunification of the two Koreas.

Another source of motivation for the Korean churches was the various “expectations” that they had for hosting an assembly of the WCC. One of these expectations was that world Christianity and Korean Christianity would experience a mutually beneficial encounter. Although the Korean churches are proud of their sending the second largest number of missionaries abroad, their interaction with the world church has been limited. This is because the experiences and encounter has mostly been indirectly through the missionary that they support financially. Although many Korean churches also support ministries that look after the spiritual and material needs of foreign migrant communities in Korea such encounters have also been limited in that they were based on relationship based on an asymmetrical imbalance of privilege and power. By hosting an assembly of the WCC the Korean churches would be able to welcome, encounter and engage a much broader spectrum of world Christianity. The possibility of engaging world Christianity in its own homeland was an exciting prospect for the Korean churches and many expectantly anticipated the various forms of encounter that would occur at the assembly.

A second expectation was that the Korean church would come to gain a broader understanding of Christianity and the diverse forms of expression of being church in the world today. Protestantism in Korea has a very limited perception of Christianity. It tends to border on a fundamentalist perspective and is very conservative. Many of the Protestant churches consider their own form of being church as being absolute and have very little room for tolerance of others. This reflects the extent to which the Korean churches have been, and remain selective in their “partnerships” and engagement with other churches abroad. Those who had strongly supported the offer to host the assembly of the WCC expected that the assembly would provide an opportunity for the Korean church to meet with representatives of other Christian churches from around the world and to learn directly through such an encounter about how they have been and continue to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel of life in Jesus Christ. Growing in the understanding of the diverse forms of Christian witness in the world today, and throughout the history of Christianity was expected to provide an opportunity for the average local Korean Christian to understand better what it meant to be a member in the universal Body of Christ.

A third expectation was that the Korean churches would come to gain a more healthy understanding of ecumenism and the WCC. As some present in this conference may already know, the Korean church, particularly the Presbyterian churches in Korea have the painful historical experience of schism because of the WCC. The Presbyterian Church, Hapdong and the Presbyterian Church, Tonghap parted company in 1959. Although there were many other reasons for this split, the most significant point of contention that was put forward the strongest was membership in the WCC, and the accusation that the WCC was a pro-Communist organization. The accusation of the WCC as a pro-Communist organization was a combination of two factors. One was the membership of churches from Communist countries in the WCC. The second was the contextual reality of the Cold War and the ideological shadow that it cast over the Korean peninsula. The anti-Communist ideological rhetoric that dominated South Korean society during this particular point in time provided the necessary justification for labelling the WCC as pro-Communist and demanding the withdrawal of membership as a way of preserving the purity of Christian faith. There was a certain degree of optimistic expectation that by hosting a WCC assembly and providing an opportunity for first-hand experience of ecumenism and the WCC some of these mistaken assumptions and distorted images would be corrected. Indeed, one of the positive results of having hosted the 10th assembly of the WCC has been the recognition among a broader spectrum of Korean Christians on the mutual spiritual depth and shared liturgical richness of the ecumenical movement.

Now that the assembly has been hosted, and that quite well measuring the responses of those who were at Busan, we must turn to assessing its results. One thing that deserves note is the energy that the Korean churches brought to hosting the assembly. The energetic enthusiasm that the Korean churches displayed throughout the assembly was one of the strengths that enabled many to experience an enjoyable assembly. The Korean churches took up the task of providing hospitality to assembly participants with vigorous dynamism and devotion.

One of the notable results of the assembly was the enhanced participation of the local Christians at the assembly. The Busan assembly brought together nearly 3000 volunteers from all over Korea. Many of these individuals had never been to an ecumenical gathering before, and they had no previous exposure to a WCC event. Nevertheless, the Korean churches displayed their wonderful gift of hospitality and welcomed the assembly participants with enthusiasm. This hospitality would not have been possible without the volunteers. Even more important, many of the volunteers were young theological students and youth who came from local congregations. This positive result of exposure and experience for these young persons will, no doubt, contribute to broadening the ecumenical perspective of the Korean church in the years to come.

Another result of the assembly that continues in this vein is the strong participation of young people from Korea. About 20 Korean young theologians participated in the GETI (Global Ecumenical Theological Institute) program of WCC. More importantly, there were more than 100 young theologians who attended the KETI (Korean Ecumenical Theological Institute) program that was organized by the Korea Host Committee in conjunction with the Ecumenical Training Center of the NCCK. Along with the volunteers, the ecumenical exposure and positive experience of the assembly that these young theologians gained in Busan will definitely serve as a future foundation for strengthening local ecumenism among congregations. Given that nearly 90 percent of seminarians graduate and enter ministry in local congregations the significant number of young theologians who experienced the Busan assembly can provide a strong stimulus for bringing ecumenism into the local congregation.

A third result is the participation of churches and individuals who had traditionally been labelled “non-ecumenical”. The preparations for the assembly and participation among the Korean churches incorporated not only the member churches of the NCCK but the so-called evangelical and conservative churches as well. In this regard, we can assess one of the result of the assembly as having achieved at least one of its expectations, broadening the understanding of the ecumenical movement and the WCC.

Another important result to note is that the Busan assembly provided the opportunity for the Korean churches to bring the importance of building peace on the Korean peninsula and working toward reunification as an important task for the ecumenical movement. The peace train, with over 130 participants from numerous countries around the world, was a difficult challenge. Many were pessimistic about its potential. And yet, in spite of overwhelming obstacles the devotion and hard work of dedicated individuals not only made the peace train a logistical success but also contributed to building bonds and friendships that can eventually yield positive results for life, justice and peace in the world. In addition, the final report from Ecumenical Conversation 17, The Korean Peninsula: Towards an Ecumenical Accompaniment for Building Justice and Peace and the statement on the Korean peninsula were also key outcomes of the assembly. One of the significant inputs that the assembly participants experienced with regard to the issues of justice and peace on the Korean peninsula was the weekend program, both in Seoul and in Busan. The Seoul visit allowed the participants to see the visible reality of division by visiting the area around the demilitarized zone. However, the various visits in Busan also allowed the participants to experience the extent to which division influences the everyday lives of Korean people. In addition, the experience of those who visited Jeju Island and the site of the protests against the new naval base at Gangjeong village showed how the division of the Korean peninsula continues to exacerbate regional geo-political tensions. All of these experiences contributed to the final draft of the statement on the Korean peninsula. It is expected that the new central committee when it meets in July of this year will be able to put forward a clear mandate for the Council with regard to promoting peace and providing solidarity to the Korean churches for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Now let us turn to the meaning of these results and their implications for the Korean churches, as well as the challenges that remain.

One of the first visible results that we can identify is that the hosting of the 10th assembly of the WCC has stirred the waters within Korea with regard to inter-church relations. For a long time it seemed as if the Korean churches had finally come to a point where they could at least co-exist peacefully, if not work for visible unity. However, the tensions and conflicts that arose during the preparations process for the assembly within the so-called ecumenical churches, as well as the strong voices of opposition from the so-called evangelical churches clearly showed that this was merely an illusion.

Why was such an illusion possible? In my view, this was possible because of the potential for the Korean churches to construct two parallel structures, one ecumenical and one evangelical, symbolized through the institutional structures of the NCCK (National Council of Churches in Korea) and the CCK (Christian Council of Korea). These parallel structures allowed each to have their own circles of influence and continue their own affairs without really interacting with the other. This institutionalization of relationships soon took on an exclusive characteristic where one disregarded the other and openly criticized and discredited the opponent. Even when there were occasions for the two institutions to cooperate, such cooperation was brought about either through the charismatic leadership displayed by one or two key persons, or by the political solution of dividing up roles, responsibilities, and putting everyone’s name in the list of “hosts”. Therefore, when the Korea Host Committee for the 10th assembly was being formed, and the initial efforts to make an inclusive group that drew from both the ecumenical and evangelical circles were made, the still waters were disturbed and waves created. Added to these were such complications as the clash of personalities between key influential figures in the Korean church, individual rivalries between persons and denominations, and the social-political dynamics which continued to cast an ideological shadow over the churches. The complicated mixture that resulted sometimes makes me wonder how on earth the Korean churches finally did manage to pull themselves together and actually host the assembly.

This having been said, I believe that the Korean churches have crossed “the bridge of no return”. I say this because all the distasteful, disgraceful, petty, un-Christian and greedy motivations of individuals, denominations and institutions have been laid bare before the world. Even before this period there had been calls for renewal, for a generational change and for theological and relational maturity within the Korean church. To a large extent they had been ignored. However, the deeply shameful behaviour that was displayed by many during the period of hosting the assembly has now made it absolutely clear that things cannot continue as they are. There cannot be a return to “normalcy” as it had been presumed prior to 2009. The institutional structures that have held the ecumenical movement in Korea captive must now either transform themselves or they will eventually dwindle and become insignificant, both to the local churches in Korea, but also in Korean society. The challenge is how to mobilize and link such calls for transformation as well as smaller movements for renewal and bring some sort of coherence and constructive synergy. One of the positive influences of the assembly, in my view, that can contribute is that the Korean churches have seen that diversity and difference do not necessarily mean division or difficulties. They have seen that dialogue and mutuality can be possible even for those who may hold extremely different views on issues. My prayer is that this culture of dialogue, discussion ad deepening of mutual understanding can eventually lead to cooperation among the different groups, and that this can eventually lead to a surge which will bring back the dynamics of ecumenism as a movement within the Korean churches.

Related to this is the second result which I want to refer to again as a positive sign for the future. This is the breadth of exposure that the Korean church has had to the ecumenical movement and the WCC during the Busan assembly. As I said, there were nearly 3,000 volunteers and more than 150 young theological students who experienced the assembly. In addition, there were 500 Madang participants from various networks, NGOs, movements and organizations. There were also nearly 9,000 people from local congregations all across Korea who came to Busan as day visitors to participate in the plenaries, the worship, the Bible studies and Madang. These people ranged from leaders of Presbyteries to pastors in local congregations, to the average church member. It is interesting to note that this group also had a vast range in terms of age so that not only the old but many of the younger generation came. Although it is difficult to make a qualitative judgement on their participation, I think it would still be safe to say that having seen a large ecumenical gathering in the form of a WCC assembly has at least provided an opportunity for exposure and first-hand experience. We have now gained more than 10,000 people who can speak from direct involvement and first-hand experience about ecumenism and the WCC.

The challenge, then, is how to continue building on the experience of the local congregations? One of the continuing critiques of the ecumenical institutions was their dislocation in terms of their connectivity to the local church. When I speak to leaders in the churches, especially the local but also the national level, they often remark about the seeming distant nature of the ecumenical agendas set by the institutions. The local congregations recognize that these agendas are important and that the church must contribute to building peace and justice so that the fullness of life may be enjoyed by all God’s creation. However, they question whether the seeming infatuation with power displayed by the institutions and some of their leaders can really lead to such justice and peace. In addition, many of the local congregations are facing a much more tangible and seemingly urgent challenge of maintaining their congregations in the midst of a world where Christianity is a minority, either in terms of demographics, traditional culture or religious context. The difficult task of engaging the local congregations and working with them to develop ecumenical congregational resources that can be easily used needs more thinking and discussion. Given the strong individual character of local congregations, and also noting that in some cases one local church has more resources than a denomination, how to develop such material and broaden its use and integration in the lives of the congregations is not a simple matter. Nevertheless, in order for the ecumenical movement to be liberated from institutional debauchery it is absolutely necessary to empower the local congregations as the agents for dynamic transformation. A movement from below, from the institutional margins of the ecumenical movement itself is needed. Therefore, equipping the local congregations with the necessary tools for interpreting the contexts and strengthening engagement with the world from an ecumenical perspective and with an ecumenical spirit is an important task that needs to be wrestled with.

In a slightly different manner, the challenge for theological students can be addressed in a much more straight forward and strategic manner. The different denominations and the theological institutions can begin by designing and implementing various educational courses and programs on ecumenism. However, given that 90 percent of seminary graduates still desire to enter traditional forms of ministry in the local congregations the seminaries and denominations need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of ministry. This present reality also poses a significant question of how theological education can be incorporated into a more holistic and comprehensive process of building congregations with an ecumenical spirituality and ethos.

A more difficult challenge, or rather a more complicated one for the Korean churches, is in shaping their work towards promoting peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula. South Korean society continues to be deeply divided along ideological lines and the political perspectives of individuals is strong. These tensions also exist within the churches. Assembly participants experienced some of that tension during the last day of the assembly. Nearly Korean will say that reunification is important and must be achieved. However, if you ask one hundred people how this should be done, the chances are that you will receive more than 60 different answers. Therefore, the complicated and difficult task is how to bring about some degree of coherence and cooperation? How can the process of building peace and working toward reunification contribute to strengthening the unity of the Korean churches rather than sowing division? What processes of building peace and reconciliation needs to happen within South Korea, and what is the role of the churches? Can they play this role? These are challenging questions to which there is no easy answer. Yet, the assembly has clearly shown that the ecumenical movement, and particularly the member churches of the WCC, remain committed to the task of building peace and promoting reunification of the two Koreas. Therefore, establishing a process by which a fresh, creative and constructive ecumenical accompaniment process can be achieved is a significant task that remains after Busan. The WCC, as a global ecumenical institutions, will also need to think deeply and strategically about its role within this process.

For the churches in Asia, this was the second assembly to be held on the Asian continent. The theme for the assembly was chosen to reflect the Asian reality and the challenges they face for justice, peace and life. The original formation of the theme that was suggested by the churches in Asia was “Living together in God’s justice and peace”. This formation expressed the strongest reality that the churches in Asia face, the context of religious plurality. For most of the churches in Asia they face the daily challenge of struggling for life, justice and peace as a minority. And so, living together is a constant challenge. Living together in just and peaceful relationships is a reality that many cannot enjoy. The Asian churches agreed, therefore, that the context of Asia required an emphasis on the gifts of justice, peace and life as originating from the divine, requiring us to learn to live together in God’s justice and peace.

The Busan assembly’s decision to call the fellowship of churches in WCC to join together in a pilgrimage of justice and peace has many potential benefits for churches in Asia. For one thing, the dynamic and fluid concept of pilgrimage can provide more space for negotiating how we live together as God’s people. In addition, the forward movement captured by the concept of pilgrimage invites us to work together in building a vision for new relationships, new frameworks of engagement and new expectations for our common future. The pilgrimage also provides the potential for capturing the Asian cosmology that views the relationship between nature and humanity as being mutually dependent and inter-related. In this sense, the future work of the WCC expressed through the common pilgrimage of justice and peace can provide the appropriate opportunity for the churches in Asia to draw from their contextual realities, their deep religious spirituality and their vast cultural heritages and make a significant content contribution to the WCC and the ecumenical movement.

The Busan assembly was indeed a watershed moment for the Korean churches, and also for the churches in Asia. It has provided an opportunity for these churches to express in various forms the significance of the shift of the center of gravity for world Christianity from the global North to the global South. We must remember, though, that the Asian churches already possess a long history of contributing to the ecumenical movement. Asia has always given her best to the ecumenical movement. The successful hosting of the WCC 10th assembly by the Korean churches has provided another moment in history where such excellence was shared with the world. Now the world is waiting expectantly for the enthusiasm displayed during the hosting of the assembly to engage and energize the ecumenical movement in the years that follow.

Mit freundlicher Erlaubnis des Verfassers.




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