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Hither and Yon

‘Blessed are the meek’? Documentary slams Korean megachurch pastors

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The growth of megachurches worldwide is a phenomenon in which thousands of individual churches or parishes each claim more than 2,000 members.
The Full Gospel Church in Yeoeuido is the world’s largest, with hundreds of thousands attending 10 or more services every Sunday. Nearly half the world’s 50 biggest Christian megachurches are in Korea when we define Christian, as do Koreans, as meaning Protestant or non-Catholic — though Catholics are most definitely Christians.
The rise of the megachurch in Korea is ironic indeed considering that early Christians, mainly Catholic missionaries and thousands of their adherents, had to suffer and die in their struggle to spread the word of God in the late Joseon Kingdom. These days, however, Korea’s Christian churches are wealthy and influential. In fact, they face an age-old problem, as the apostle Matthew wrote. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon,” one of the most famous lines from the Bible.
Clearly a number of Korean pastors, most famously the Rev. David Cho, founder of the Full Gospel Church, have had to wrestle with this paradox. How could they rationalize enriching themselves from church coffers and enterprises with the biblical injunction to serve God, not money?
A documentary, “Quo Vadis,” directed by Kim Jae-Hwan, who worked as a producer and director at MBC for five years, addresses this question in an exposé on the greed and hypocrisy seen in the rise of some of Seoul’s largest churches.
The name “Quo Vadis” is appropriate. It means, “Where are you going?” the question that the apostle Peter asked Jesus Christ after Christ had risen from the dead. Christ is said to have responded that he was going to Rome to be crucified again. In this documentary, which includes fictional as well as factual material, the Christ figure, played by Nam Myung-Ryul asks, “Quo Vadis, the Korean churches?”
The question, to which director Kim Jae-Hwan wants an answer from the real-life characters in the film, is, “Are you a real follower of Jesus?” The title evokes memories of the 1951 American film classic of the same name about the corruption of the Roman emperor Nero as he persecutes Christians. That’s a relevant image considering the corruption exposed in this documentary.
Director Kim, mingling fact with fiction, opens with an actor in the role of “Michael More.” The name is a play on Michael Moore, the famous American documentary filmmaker, and “Moriae Encomium,” “In Praise of Folly,” the heavily satirical work of Erasmus, published in 1511, that helped to inspire the “Protestant Reformation” against Catholicism.
More, played by Lee Jong-Yun, is seen chasing after pastors, asking questions about their transgressions. They range from pilfering church funds to exploiting young women, to passing control of their churches to their sons, to building huge edifices costing many hundreds of millions of dollars. The pastors tend to respond with outrage.
As a foreigner, I have always been impressed by the role of Christianity in Korea. Historically, Christians were at the forefront of uprisings against Japanese rule, and the dedication of Christians on a mass level to biblical teaching shows devotion not seen in many other countries.
This low-budget film, three or four years in the planning and production at a cost of about 300 million won, nearly $300,000, tells another story. Pastors, clothed in clerical garb, are also mere mortals.
Kim cites a poll showing that pastors in Korea have the “lowest credibility along with politicians,” proving he claims “that the Korean churches are distorting the gospel of Jesus.” Deepening the message, the actor, Nam Myung-Ryul, who plays the role of Jesus, also appears as a pastor filled with doubt about whether he should have built a megachurch, wondering if he truly “followed the road of Jesus.”
Kim compares Korea’s churches to those in the Middle Ages when church and state were intertwined and priests were “‘mediator between God and human being.” Martin Luther and other reformers, rebelling against the priests, disputed that role, he observes, but, “Korea Protestantism has taught that pastors are the servant of the Lord, and the only one who can judge the pastors is the Lord.”
The film has only to record a few sermons to reveal the lack of humility of real-life pastors in the face of revelations of misconduct. The film also links the corruption of the pastors to national leadership.
“The most humiliating event of Korean Christianity,” the director believes, was a prayer meeting at which President Chun Doo-Hwan, shortly after the brutal suppression of the Gwangju revolt in May 1980, “was blessed” by “cowardly pastors.” Jesus, played by Nam, appears to show “the humiliation of Jesus when they were praying for the commander.”
But how many Koreans will be able to see the film? Will multiplexes show it? “Koreans say the churches have more power than the president,” says Kim. Those who do get to see “Quo Vadis” will find a forceful reminder of the need for Korea’s Christian leaders to worship God, not mammon.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering the role of religion in Korea off and on for years. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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