Recently, I visited the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea. This is the last frontier of the Cold War, and the zone is anything but demilitarized. The tension is palpable.
South Korean guards stand to attention facing the north, their roving eyes hidden behind dark shades and their fists clenched in the tae-kwon-do position of military preparedness. On the other side of the dividing line stands a solitary North Korean soldier, in full military regalia, peering at us through his binoculars.
We were told that that is what he does all day, but that there were other eyes, human and electronic, that were following our every move. We were instructed by our guide not to wave at them, raise our arms or point any fingers as these were hostile gestures. They could provoke hostilities and trigger the next world war!
There is a comic, even farcical, aspect to militarization wherever it happens. Young men and women, barely out of school, strut around in robotic fashion with an air of self-importance and speaking their own arcane jargon. Like government bureaucrats, only with guns instead of forms (but filling in forms is a large part of army life).
The Indo-Pakistan border must be like this, I thought. North Korea, India, Pakistan – governments that cannot feed their own populations but rich enough to build nuclear stockpiles and massive standing armies. Is the United States any better? Perhaps my United States readers should answer that. Military expenditure far exceeds Obama’s health reform costs, but one hears hardly a squeak about this from any of the political parties and their followers.
Armies, we are told, bring out the best and the worst in human beings. No doubt this is true to some extent. The worst would be sadism, brainwashing and blind obedience. The best: courage, self-sacrifice and discipline. But what about the courage of someone like Father Michael Lapsley, a white South African and a member of my tour group, who lost both his hands opening a parcel bomb directed at him because of his anti-apartheid activity?
Lapsley is the founder-director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, where he helps others damaged by the trauma of war and terrorism learn to forgive and work for reconciliation in violent societies. Why are Father Lapsley and scores of others like him around the world not held up as examples of courage to schoolchildren? Why are their stories not depicted in films?
Lapsley and I were in Seoul for an international conference on peace and reconciliation, co-hosted by a British university and the first “megachurch” In Korea, Young Nak Presbyterian Church. The latter was founded in 1945 by Rev. Kyung-Chik Han who fled the North after Soviet troops replaced the Japanese at the end of World War II.
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The conference was partly in honor of Rev. Han, whose 10th death anniversary fell this year. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable man, widely recognized as the greatest Christian leader that Korea has produced. He began the church with 27 of his fellow refugees. The church now has over 50,000 members and over 600 sister churches all over the world. It has an extensive education program, from primary levels to tertiary, and has a passionate commitment to serve the people and churches of North Korea.
Han’s mission was holistic, and he seems to have remained a humble, simple man despite his fame and the vast sums of money that flowed through his hands. He was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1992 for his tireless efforts in organizing regular shipments of food to starving millions in the North.
I was surprised to find a chapel in the demilitarized zone. I was not surprised to learn that it had been built by Young Nak church and that, every day, groups of South Korean Christians gather there to pray for the unification of the peninsula.
I too pray for the collapse of the brutal regime in the north, and for the release of all prisoners of faith and conscience. But, while I respect the passion of many South Korean Christians for political unification, I am unable to share it. Unification is something North Koreans, too, will one day need to decide for themselves.
What I find curious is the lack of any similar passion for the unity of the church in South Korea. Perhaps this reflects the individualistic gospel they inherited from American missionaries. But the visible unity of his church was surely a passion for Christ, and Christians who cannot work together have no witness to bear in a divided world.
It seems that ethnic unity has displaced Christian unity in the consciousness of most Korean Christians. Not surprisingly, they export their divisions and rivalries to the rest of the world, just like their British and American forebears did (and some still do).
One of my translators at the conference was a young Korean woman, armed with two university degrees, who is a marketing agent for a well-known multinational tobacco company. She told me she was in the job because they paid well and had a good management program. For all her education, she was unreflective about her work.
She didn’t ask herself, “Who bears the cost of what I do or the skills that I am acquiring?” I wondered how different she and other university graduates like her in the South were from the North Korean soldier I saw peering at me through his binoculars. She, at least, can change her job. He doesn’t have that choice.
Vinoth Ramachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.