Though not commanding the attention of the news cycle, tensions between North and South Korea continue to simmer. Since the nation’s division at the end of the Second World War and the subsequent war between the North and the South—proxies respectively for communist USSR and capitalist US—in the 1950s, tensions have intensified and lessened periodically.
Korea, consequently, is a divided peninsula that has experienced more than its fair share of suffering. The brinksmanship of North Korean premiere Kim Jung Un provides a glimpse of one possible future for the peninsula: the continued economic and political isolation that has caused immense suffering for its citizens.
On the other hand, according to theologian Syngman Rhee, the gospel of Jesus Christ could be a significant catalyst for reconciliation. Speaking to Duke University’s Faith and Leadership, Rhee remarked, “There is a particular need for reconciliation between North and South Korea by the teaching and the love of Christ.” In other words, Rhee envisions the Korean church as central to the process of re-uniting the modern enemies of North and South.
According to Rhee reconciliation will necessarily involve South Koreans re-envisioning Christianity as something inherently opposed to communism. It will also require a shift in Northern thinking away from the notion of Christianity as “the religion of our enemies.” More than that, it will require the fortification of the weakened Christian community in North Korea. There are fewer than five hundred Christians and only two officially recognized congregations in the country.
While recognizing the decline of American mainline denominations, Rhee contends that, at its foundation, American Christianity is stronger than it first appears. The American church is, implies Rhee, learning to live in a new context where society no longer lends her its aid: “we all experience decline, both in membership and in influence, as society has become more secularized and churches have failed to make Christianity relevant to the younger generation.”
It’s difficult to measure the intent of Rhee’s remark, “we all experience decline.” Is he being flippant? Is he simply making an observation? It’s hard to know. However, Rhee’s use of “decline” ought to be modified by the adjective “precipitous.” What we’re witnessing is nothing less than the implosion of the mainline churches. There’s little consolation in noting that others are experiencing the same thing or will fifty years from now (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention). As Rhee later notes, “I think mainline denominations were so involved in bearing the fruits of our faith that they neglected nurturing the roots of our faith—basic things like the importance of Scripture, devotion and worship, and so on.”
In reflecting on prospects for reconciliation, Rhee argues it will be important for South Koreans Christianity as something not inherently opposed to communism. He remarks, “Christianity was not created to fight against something. It is life-giving and can be a catalyst to create a new history in any kind of society, capitalist or communist.” In a sense this is true, Christianity came into existence at the initiative of a God who in Christ entered a rebellious world and by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension established a new community, a kingdom beachhead in the midst of traitors. It isn’t simply another system or a movement established to counteract communism. Quite the contrary. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that communism has typically been more hostile to Christianity than Christianity to communism.
Given that the world is in rebellion and tainted by sin, it’s really not accurate to say that Christianity doesn’t exist to fight against anything. This rebellion, this sin, is the enemy against which the Christian faith strives. Christianity aims its sights slightly higher than communism, which is simply a particular expression (or symptom) of the fall, of sin and rebellion itself, and rather aims to defeat the cause behind communism.
Certainly in the two generations that have passed since the partition of the peninsula, it is possible that Christianity in South Korea has come to identify itself more with being against communism than for Christ. To the extent that this is true, it is both sad and wrong. It is always a temptation to identify one’s faith in Christ with something less than the gospel of the kingdom itself, one to which we American Christians have periodically succumbed.
Can Christianity and communism coexist? The answer has to be a qualified, “yes.” Just as Christianity coexisted with the Roman Emperor cult in the early church, Christianity can coexist with communism. As it does so, Christians will be working to subvert it. The two outlooks are at odds, but in the end Christianity is able to exist and even flourish as a minority belief in an atheistic or panentheistic system.
A more insidious interpretation is that Christianity and communism are somehow compatible. Rhee never clearly states that, although comment, “A growing number of Christians in South Korea insist that we — Christians — can no longer be enslaved by the belief that Christianity equals anti-communism,” seems to indicate an openness to the notion. This is problematic since the foundation of Marx’s philosophy is materialist—that is, it assumes only the existence of matter and ignores anything beyond matter (i.e., spirit or God). Christianity places values on the material as well. Yet, that value is derived from the notion that all that is has come from the hand of God. At the level of presupposition, therefore, the two are incompatible.
Rhee clearly believes that South Koreans needs a change of heart with respect to communism. He also contends that North Koreans need to reject the belief that Christianity is, “the religion of [our] enemies.” Surely this is a change of attitude that can happen only by the grace of God.
Christianity, according to Rhee, is poised to play a pivotal role in the work of reconciliation in the Korean peninsula. It is difficult to know how this will actually play out, but we can be hopeful that the witness of the church can provide a framework for the difficult work of reconciliation.