[Viewpoint]The power of religionLee Chul-seung, an opposition leader in the 1970s, said, “Religion plays the role of providing fresh water to society, while politics is in charge of laying sewers.” Religion pours clean water into the dry mouths of souls tired from the secular world. Water gets contaminated by desire and conflicts as it passes through the internal organs. It is the role of politics to make sure dirty water in our society is treated and discharged properly.
When Korea was under dictatorship, laying sewers was a difficult problem for Korean clergymen. They could not sit idle, taking care of their job of supplying fresh water when they could hear the agonized screams of those arrested on the streets and tortured. Catholic priests and Protestant ministers rolled up their trousers and ran into the sewers. The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice and the National Council of Churches in Korea actively participated in helping social movements, mostly around Myeongdong Catholic Cathedral and Christian halls.
The Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice left a strong impression on the people during an incident in January 1987, when Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student, drowned while being tortured by the police. The priests’ association was informed about the incident in May of the same year, and exposed how the public prosecutor’s office and police had concealed the fact that they tortured the victim. The prosecution reinvestigated the case and revealed that five police officers were involved in the torture. Resistance against the dictatorship of the military-backed Fifth Republic grew stronger due to the activities of the priests, ultimately leading to the June 10 Democratization Movement. Why did the informant decide to contact the priests at that time? What made him to put his faith in the priests?
Clergymen are strong because they have nothing to lose. They do not own land, an apartment or a high public post. Priests and monks do not even have their own families. Buddhist monks do not eat meat. Even though they do not have anything to lose, they make the body left to them lighter through self-denial. There are pastors who enjoy a comfortable life, corrupt monks and priests involved in sexual molestation. However, clergymen historically used to overcome the barriers of the secular world with light body and a strong mind. Many Catholic and Protestant missionaries have been martyred, and more than a few monks have burned themselves to death in protest against oppression and violence.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the Vietnamese president in the early 1960s, was a Catholic. He continued the Buddhism-suppression policy of the French colonial government, and the Buddhists resisted against it. In June 1963, Buddhist monks and nuns were staging a rally in the center of Saigon City. An elderly monk got out of a car and sat down on the street. It was Thich Quang Duc. Another monk poured gasoline over his head. The elderly monk lit the match himself. His entire body was engulfed in flames, but he did not scream or move the slightest. He just sat there, eventually slowly falling to one side. People around the world were shocked and moved by the monk’s self-sacrifice when they saw the AP photo. Christians did not give in even when they were fed to lions in Rome, and Catholic missionaries sacrificed their lives under the swords of soldiers during the reign of Daewongun, King Gojong’s father. However, the self-immolation by Buddhist monks is an even more extreme form of protest because they burn themselves voluntarily.
Man gains strength when armed with religion. The world watches when priests make a move because they are strong.
There are no such martyrs these days. However, people are getting tense wondering why the clergymen have come out to the streets, about the nature of the slogans they shout and to what degree the world will be shaken. When the religious community shouts out a chant, the hearts of the people, from the president to the homeless, start to pound. This is why group action by clergymen should be discreet and must be made after deep consideration.
In the history of mankind, it was when the people in the secular world were severely repressed that the clergymen came out into the streets. Korea became a democratic country after the Democratization Movement in 1987. Anyone can get together and shout as long as they abide by the law. The presidents Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak are all democratic presidents who were elected through legitimate elections. Religious activities are allowed within the bounds of a democratic nation. No one can demand a president elected by the people to step down. What does beef have to do with human rights? If there is religious bias in the government, it should be protested and resolved according to the law.
The City Hall Plaza in 2008 is not the Myeongdong Cathedral of the 1970s and 1980s. The police, the press and Korean democracy are being beaten up right before us. Now, there is nothing that can justify the involvement of clergymen in sewer construction. Why don’t Buddhist monks, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests all go back to their job of taking care of the waterworks?
That is where the truly needy and troubled souls are.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency