[Viewpoint] A very sad Christmas indeedJesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary in a manger surrounded by shepherds and was baptized by John the Baptist. When Jesus was older, he went to the desert for 40 days to fast and fight off various temptations from Satan. Then at around 30 years of age, he went on a mission to spread the words of God and the Gospel, preaching for and healing the poor and underprivileged. He was arrested upon entering Jerusalem, tortured and crucified. “The King of the Jews” spent his life on the hard desert among the poor instead of among the rich in the comfort of a palace.
The election season is nearing, and strangely there is bustling movement among religious leaders. A revered Buddhist leader is busy serving as a mentor to a promising political candidate, and a group of pastors have launched a political party. But they are not acting in the spirit of Jesus, who would hardly be happy with their actions. When a crowd of followers wanted to erect him as their king, Jesus instead left them, saying “What did you go into the desert to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matthew 11).
Jesus drew a clear line between the desert and the palace and similarly divided religion and politics. When he was taken to Pontius Pilate at the Sanhedrin, a Jewish judicial body, he was put on the witness stand and publicly mocked. When the governor asked him “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18).
During the days of the oppressive Roman Empire, Jesus kept his distance from the Zealots, rebel forces fighting for freedom. When the Zealots asked Jesus whether it was right to pay an imperial tax to Julius Caesar, Jesus bluntly told them “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
But history shows that Christian establishments have not always followed this advice. For instance, the Catholic Church in medieval times helped to bring about the Dark Ages in Europe. Nowhere in history has there been a happy marriage between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Jesus’ stern teachings from the desert remain simply words of worship that are not practically implemented, though there are some important exceptions.
I can still remember the valiant words of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan from his message on Christmas Eve in 1971 after Park Chung Hee declared a state of emergency and rewrote the Constitution so he could rule for a third term. The cardinal reprimanded the government for falling prey to the temptation of dictatorship and remained an outspoken defender of democracy during the turbulent military regimes. His words and actions had more power than a multitude of Christian political parties.
But recently, our churches, which should serve as a beacon of comfort amid a society brimming with disagreement, anger and distrust, have instead stood at the forefront in the axis of conflict from the beginning of the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration. Both the president and the Christian establishment are at fault, but neither appears remorseful. The scandals at some of the churches have been appalling. Pastors at major churches have been sued for embezzlement, assault and other misdeeds.
The people who should be kneeling and praying for the country and salvation have abused their liberty to join politics. There is a Christian political party in Germany, but its members are tax-paying common believers. None of the pastors who receive wages from the state engage in political activities while maintaining their religious titles.
In Korea, though, the Christian community has often come under fire for factionalism, and the main Presbyterian factions have endlessly alternated between times of cooperation and serious discord.
The spirit of reformation, which is at the root of Protestant beliefs, demands rigid restraint and sacrifice from churches and pastors, not political activities. Religious leaders should not use their robes and titles to gain political power.
Christianity must serve the king of the desert instead of governmental offices. Religious leaders involved in politics will not gain anything beyond aggravated skepticism about the churches. Especially as Christmas approaches, they must recall the teachings of Christ.
*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C. and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.
by Lee Woo-keun